By MICK ROBERTS ©
JUST why Italian immigrant and Alexandria publican, Benjamin Lafiura prematurely ended his life in such an agonising method will probably never be known. Like the small two storey corner pub where he ended his 48 years by swallowing a large dose of hydrochloric acid, he has largely been forgotten – confined to the pages of history.
Ben Lafiura became licensee of the Stepney Hotel in Sydney’s working class southern suburbs at the corner of Phillip and Henderson Streets Alexandria in 1889. Where Phillip Street met Henderson Street, is now closed to traffic.
The Stepney Hotel was one of several watering holes trading along Henderson Road, established to cater for the hard drinking men working at the nearby Eveleigh Railway Yards.
Lafiura was the fifth successive publican in a long line of hosts of the Stepney, which closed in 1938 and had its license transferred to nearby Erskineville to allow the current Swanson Hotel to open. But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves.
The hotel was named after Stepney, a district in London’s East End that interestingly has a similar working class history as Alexandria.
Just when Lafiura arrived in Sydney from Italy is unsure, but we know he was a second steward on the 266 tone ship Burthern, plying between Cooktown, Queensland and Sydney in 1875. He married widower Bridget Tobin in 1876. Ben’s new wife Bridget lost her first husband David Tobin, who was a sea captain of the ship ‘William Ackers’ which sank in New Zealand the same year.
Ben was 25 years of age when he gained the license of his first pub in 1881. With his step daughter Kate and wife Bridget they went on to host the Dublin Hotel in Regent Street Redfern. He later took the reins of the Packhorse Hotel in Campbell Street Haymarket, before becoming publican of the Stepney Hotel at Alexandria.
Bridget Lafiura was fined 20 shillings and 21 shillings professional costs after assaulting her daughter’s fiancée in 1894. The hostess of the Stepney Hotel objected to the engagement of her daughter, Kate to William Moloney, and a tense situation came to head on Campderdown Road. The two lovers had ‘eloped’, when Bridget, and another man, Timothy Connolly pursued the pair in a trap. Moloney drew a revolver and warned Connolly to keep his distance. “Give it to him, Tim”, Bridget screamed, resulting in Moloney coming-out second best and with two black eyes. The Sydney Evening News reported on May 24 1894:
A chase and its consequences
That the course of true love never runs smooth has come to be regarded almost as a truism; and if additional confirmatory testimony were required in respect to the adage, it was provided by an assault case heard in the charge division of the Glebe Police Court on Wednesday afternoon by Mr Delohery, SM. The parties concerned were William Moloney and Timothy Connolly, both young men of respectable appearance, and Elizabeth Lafiura. Moloney, who appeared with both his eyes bearing visible marks of discoloration, charged the other parties with assaulting him. Evidence of the arrest of the two accused at the Stepney Hotel, Henderson-road, Alexandria, was given by Plain-clothes Constables Sutherland and Wilson. Connolly made no reply to the charge, but Mrs. Lafiura remarked, “People are entitled to protect themselves from a loaded revolver”. Mrs Lafiura, the police stated, bore an excellent character and Connolly was a hard-working young fellow. The prosecutor was then called, and stated that he was a clerk in the office of the Board of Water Supply and Sewerage. He had met Mrs Lafiura previously, but not Connolly before Saturday last. On the afternoon of that day he was walking along Camperdown-road in company with Mrs Lafiura’s daughter, whom he had known for some two and a half years, and to whom he was engaged to be married. The girl said something to him, and he turned round and saw Mrs Lafiura and Connolly drive up in a trap. The latter jumped out of the vehicle, and made a rush at him (witness). He (Moloney) thereupon drew a revolver and warned him to keep off. Mrs Lafiura, who was seated in the cart, called out to Connolly, “Go for him”. At this juncture witness started to run. Connolly followed, and coming up with him (witness), sprang upon him, knocked him down, and thumped him heavily about the face and head with his fists, a pair of black eyes being the outcome of the battering. He had had no chance to defend himself as the first blow almost stunned him. When he was knocked down he had the revolver in his hand. Connolly took the weapon from him. The latter had to be dragged off witness. While he was on the ground Connolly kicked him several times, Mrs Lafiura calling out “Give it to him, Tim”. Prior to this, Mrs Lafiura had threatened to shoot him (Moloney), and said that if it cost £20 to get a man to waylay him she would have it done. After the assault both accused followed witness, and Mrs Lafiura threw a couple of half bricks at him. There had been a disagreement between witness and Mrs Lafiura over her daughter keeping company with him. She objected to the engagement and cautioned him not to speak to her daughter. Connolly did not assault him before he drew the revolver. It was loaded in all the chambers. He did not snap the trigger at Connolly when the latter first came up. Not knowing what Connolly intended doing led him to draw it. He carried the weapon owing to his having been threatened by Mrs Lafiura. He expected to be attacked when accused drove up, as Miss Lafiura, who was with him, called out, “Here they come”. Witness had met the girl, and had also written to her, without her mother’s consent… Terence McArdle, a carter, gave evidence that he took prosecutor into his yard after the assault. While he was there Mrs Lafiura came up and called out to witness, “Don’t crush him”. She also flung a couple of half bricks at Moloney and tore up his hat. After a number of other witnesses had been examined, evidence for the defence was entered upon. Elizabeth Lafiura, residing with her husband at the Stepney Hotel, Henderson-road, Alexandria, deposed that her daughter, aged 17, had become secretly engaged to Moloney, and on the matter coming to her ears she had emphatically objected to the engagement, as she considered the proposed union undesirable. On Saturday afternoon her daughter fled from home. On learning of her flight witness, accompanied by Connolly, started in pursuit in a sulky. In Camperdown-road they overtook Maloney and her daughter, who started to run on observing that they were being pursued. Before witness could get down from the trap Connolly and Maloney were engaged in a scuffle, her daughter in the meantime continuing her flight. She called out to Connolly to let prosecutor up. The former exclaimed that he would have been shot had the revolver pointed at him gone off. In cross-examination by Mr. Wallace the witness admitted that she might have threatened to shoot Maloney and get him a “hiding”. Timothy Connolly, the other accused, also gave evidence, and stated that when they overtook the fugitives Mrs Lafiura desired him to speak to her daughter, who was running away, and ask her to return home. Moloney was on the foot path, and witness told him “he ought to be ashamed to induce a girl to run away from her mother”. The former immediately drew a revolver, pointed it at witness, and snapped the trigger. He (Connolly) then rushed at him, knocked him down and wrenched the weapon from his grasp. Did not kick Moloney while latter was on the ground, and had no intention of assaulting him. His Worship held that the case had been proved against both accused, and fined Connolly 40 shillings and costs, with 21 shillings professional costs, or two months; and Mrs Lafiura 20 shillings and costs, together with 21 shillings professional costs, or two months. At the conclusion of the case Mr Levien, who appeared for the defence, suggested that the girl might be prevailed upon to return to her home. Mr Wallace, who was for the prosecution, pointed out that his side were only anxious that she should adopt that course, but of course they were unable to compel her to do so. He thought his Worship’s advice might weigh with her. Mr Delohery ordered the girl to be called for the purpose of seeking to induce her to go back to her parents, but she did hot answer to her name.
Despite the disapproval of her mother, Kate married William Moloney later that year. They had two sons together, before they divorced in 1900.
Less than three years after her daughter eloped, the hostess of the Stepney, besides losing her Kate, also lost her husband when he committed suicide in the hotel. The Sydney Evening News reported on Tuesday October 26 1897:
Benjamin Lafiura, licensee of the Stepney Hotel, Alexandria, died last night from muriatic acid poisoning. He is stated to have taken a large dose of the poison at about 9 o’clock in the evening. Although measures were taken to counter-act the effects of the acid Lafiura died at 11 o’clock after two hours of great agony. He had been licensee of the hotel for several years, and was well known in the district. The circumstances were reported to the City Coroner, who will hold an inquest.
Despite the many gangs – known as The Push – frequenting pubs around Redfern, Alexandria and Waterloo during the 1890s, Bridget, as evidenced by the confrontation with her daughter’s lover – was more than capable of handling the heavy-drinking clientele frequenting her pub. She continued behind the bar after her husband’s death. The Sydney Evening News reported on Friday 28 January 1898:
LOITERING ON THE FOOT WAY.
YOUNG MAN SENT TO GAOL.
A young man named William Smith was charged at the Redfern Police Court yesterday with loitering on the footpath near the Stepney Hotel, Alexandria, about 8 p.m. on Sunday last. Constable Robinson said that the defendant and about a dozen others of the “Push” were gathered near the hotel, and were demanding drink. They were making use of filthy language, and witness was sent for. When he arrived on the scene he ordered them to disperse, and all except defendant went away. He (defendant) remained, and defied anyone to shift him. The constable, he said, was not in uniform, and therefore could do nothing, and concluded his remarks by telling witness to “do his best”. Defendant went into the witness box and made a statement to the effect that he saw the constable in the hotel drinking with other men, but when asked it he had any witnesses to corroborate the assertion, he said, “Yes, but they were in good Government billets, and he did not care to bring them.” Defendant was fined 20s, in default, levy and distress. Smith said he had no goods to levy upon, and he was then ordered to be imprisoned for seven days.
The Stepney Hotel had been a Tooth and Company tied house since 1888, when Bridget’s late husband had entered into a mortgage agreement with the brewery. That decision was to cause Bridget’s undoing, and she would eventually be declared insolvent. Tooth and Company began legal action against Bridget in 1899 for breaching the tied house agreement, which required her and anyone she sold the pub, to sell only its brews. Tooths won the case, and foreclosed on Bridget in 1901. In consequence, Tooths took possession of the freehold of the Stepney Hotel.
Bridget retired to Surry Hills and died in 1919 at the age of 73 years.
Over the following years little changed at the Stepney. Many licensees had their names above the door over the following years. In 1928, one of the Stepney Hotel’s longest serving publicans came along.
William James Duncan was a Sydney fish-monger before he took the license of the Stepney in 1928. He would remain as host until his death and the subsequent closure and partial demolition of the historic little pub.
Duncan was at the pub for less than five years when he entered his syndicate, “The Beery Fox” in the state lottery, winning £300 – lot of money for those times. When the media called his pub – way before privacy regulations – to inform him of his prize, he simply was reported to have said: “Thank you”, and hung-up the receiver.
Duncan, a keen sailor, was 54 years of age when he took the Stepney license with his wife Alice. He was born at Botany, at a part now known as the NSW Gun Club. After marriage Duncan carried on his fish agency business in the Sydney city markets, before acquiring the Stepney Hotel, where he remained until the time of his death. He was a keen sailor and skipper of 18-footers on Sydney Harbour. He won three Australian championships — at Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. He also won many notable State and other championships in various boats. Duncan was said to have had “a most genial disposition and enjoyed the warm-hearted friendship of all with he came in contact. He was a man who never forgot a friend, and if he could do a good turn it was done in the quietest way imaginable.”
He was also said to have enjoyed splendid health during his life, and his death on Armistice Day after a seizure was an unexpected shock to hi many friend and family. He left his wife, Alice and two daughters and a son at his death.
After his death a temporary licensee was placed at the Stepney while the final steps were arranged to have the license transferred to a grand art-deco pub under construction at Erskineville.
Tooth and Company called for tenders to partly demolish the Stepney Hotel in June 1939, and its license was transferred to the corner of Park and Swanson Streets Erskineville on July 5 1939 enabling the Kurrajong Hotel to open. The Kurrajong hotel continues to trade at Erskineville. Its name was changed to the Swanson Hotel in 2014.
Today, on Henderson Street, a small two-storey section of the Stepney Hotel building remains, between Phillips Street and Mitchell Road – a reminder of much thirstier times.
Stepney Hotel Licensees
1878 – 1881: Thomas Walsh
1881 – 1884: John Corcoran
1884 – 1885: Jeremiah O’Connell
1885 – 1889: Abraham L. Brierey
1889 – 1897: Benjamin Lafiura
1897 – 1899: Bridget Elizabeth Lafiura
1899 – 1900: Samuel Parkes
1900 – 1901: Robert Mansfield
1901 – 1901: Samuel Parkes
1901 – 1906: Terence P. Spillane
1906 – 1907: Bessie Toner
1907 – 1910: Michael Kennedy
1910 – 1913: John Spora
1913 – 1917: Albert Edward Smith
1917 – 1918: Eileen Neilsen
1918 – 1918: Thomas J. Hargreaves
1918 – 1926: John Joseph Shanny
1926 – 1927: Martin Denis Shanny
1927: Peter Thomas Manning
1927: Peter T. Lynch
1927 – 1928: William Loo Long
1928 – 1938: William James Duncan
1938 – 1939: Bernard R. O’Keeffe
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2017