Gus Wangenheim, a man about town
By MICK ROBERTS ©
JUST around the corner from Maccabean Hall, built in 1923 to commemorate Jewish men and women who served in the Great War, and where the Sydney Jewish Museum is housed at Darlinghurst, trades the Green Park Hotel.
Like Maccabean Hall, the Green Park Hotel has a link to Sydney’s Jewish history, along with the harbour city’s early bohemian community.
The Green Park Hotel, established in 1879, was bought by one of Sydney’s wealthiest Jewish families, Gus and Betsey Wangenheim in 1881.
The Wangenheim family would later replace the two story brick pub with the magnificent, heritage listed hotel, with its splendid long bar, currently sitting at the corner of Liverpool and Victoria Streets in Darlinghurst in 1893.
The history of the Green Park Hotel begins in the early days of white settlement, when a 28-year-old Gustave Wangenheim arrived in Sydney Town, from Germany, in 1853.
Gus, as he was known, was one of Sydney’s most colourful characters, a cartoonist, painter, comedian and publican. He opened his first pub, the Post Office Hotel in York Street, Sydney in 1854.
In 1855 he married a fellow Jew, 21-year-old Elizabeth Simmons, daughter of James Simmons, a successful trader and brother of the proprietor of the Jerusalem Warehouse, now the site of David Jones department store.
Gus was also the foundation president of the NSW German Club, established in 1858, which hosted monthly balls at their premises in Pitt Street, Sydney. The Club was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as combining the social with the intellectual, and supplied “convivial pleasures and rational edification in a wholesome promiscuous form”.
A much-loved bohemian, who’s “humour was irresistible”, Gus could “reproduce characteristics with a happy exaggeration that few other artists could effect”. His artworks were a feature of his pubs, often drawn directly onto the walls. Besides an artist and comedian, he was also a splendid fencer and boxer, and spoke fluently several languages.
Just five years into his hospitality business, the Jewish publican suffered a major set-back after he was declared insolvent. He disappeared from Sydney social life in 1858, taking his wife Elizabeth and newly born child north to a Port Curtis, near today’s Gladstone in Queensland. Gus’s inability to maintain a healthy cash flow in business was a constant battle throughout his life, and he was declared insolvent at least four or five times.
After his departure from Sydney, another Jewish businessman, Saul Lyons offered a reward to “anyone who will prosecute to conviction” Gus “or the party or parties who took the passage for him, and assisted in his escape”.
The advertisement stated that he had “absconded from his creditors… in assumed name, with his wife and child, in the Maid of Judah”. Gus eventually made good his creditors, and returned to Sydney during the 1860s, where he took the reins of the Café de Paris, in King Street, and continued his “amusing repertoire of musical comicalities” at the Prince of Wales Opera House.
While the Wangenheims ran the Café de Paris, it was said to be “a picturesque resort of Bohemians, where the Duke of Edinburgh dined more than once while in Sydney”.
Gus and Betsey entered a new business venture in the 1870s, when they built Wangenheim’s Hotel, near the junction of Castlereagh-street with King-street. The hotel became an artistic landmark, with Wangenheims’ customers – the “bohemians and prominent members of all the artistic professions” – following their charismatic publican to his new business venture.
In a series of history articles published in the Truth during 1912, the author, “Old Chum”, revealed it was Betsey who was the brains behind the business of the Wangenheims’ business success.
The remaining interesting item in Castlereagh-street, north of King-street, was a public house, opened in 1875 by Gus Wangenheim, who had previously kept a hotel in King-street. In the Castlereagh-street house, the walls and tables in the bar, every available inch, were decored with character sketches by Gus, who was not half a bad artist. About the year 1881 the house passed to Richmond Thatcher, a clever Bohemian of much literary talent, but neither Dick Thatcher nor Gus Wangenheim was made of the stuff that successful publicans are composed of. The Bohemian strain in the character of each, good fellows though they were, was against the accumulation of large bank balances. Mr Wangenheim, however, was not entirely dependent on his exertions as a hotel-keeper; his wife – who, I believe, is still living – being the daughter of a very wealthy citizeness. Richmond Thatcher could do much better with his pen than with a beer engine.
Wangenheim’s Hotel later became known as the Bulletin Hotel and in 1885 the Burlington. It was demolished sometime before 1905.
A year before Gus’ death, the Wangenheims invested in a brick corner pub with a 90 feet frontage to Liverpool Street and 30 feet facing Victoria Streets, in Darlinghurst. Established in 1879, the slate roofed Green Park Hotel, with bar, cellar, two parlours, hall, five bedrooms and kitchen, had been trading for less than three years, when the Wangenheims added to their growing property portfolio in March 1881. The Green Park Hotel provided £3 14s a week in rent for the Wangenheims.
The death of the flamboyant publican at the age of 57 in 1882 came on the heels of the demise of another of Sydney’s bohemian identities, the well-known poet, Henry Kendall. Gus’ death reportedly left a void in the social life of Sydney that “can never be filled up”. The Queenslander reported on Saturday August 12 1882:
Following close upon the demise of Kendall was the sudden taking off of poor Gus Wangenheim. Gus was one of the identities of Sydney life. Not to have known this genial German was to argue yourself unknown. He was a genuine artist, though his range of accomplishments was not by any means restricted to the pencil. Art, however, was his forte. As his thoroughly genial and withal kindly disposition invariably led him to look upon the humorous side of everything, his genius naturally affected caricature, and as a caricaturist Wangenheim can scarcely be said to have had a superior… When he was hotel-keeping the walls of his hostelry were literally covered with caricatures of politicians, actors, and other celebrities, and these curious sketches were the admiration and the delight of the host of frequenters of his popular “pub” in Castlereagh-Street; but the vandals who succeeded Gus knew not their worth, and remorselessly rubbed them out – only awakening to a sense of their value when the gifted caricaturist himself was rubbed out. Gus was a competent musical and dramatic critic in addition to his qualities as an artist. Miss Emma Wangenheim, who is, I believe, pretty well known in Queensland, was his daughter, and doubtless inherited such lyrical gifts as nature may have endowed her with from her paternal relative. Perhaps, though, after all, Gus Wangenheim will be longest remembered for his social qualities – his homely, easy, unaffected conversational powers being the delight of all his companions. There was just the faintest approach to egotism in Gus Wangenheim. Egotism, perhaps, is too offensive a word to use. Gus’ self-appreciation, as it may be more fitly termed, may be said to have resembled the quality of egotism much in the same way as the mist resembles the rain.” So far from its being objectionable it really constituted one of the charms of his conversation, and was thus, in its way, as pardonable and as tolerable as was the egotism of Bousseau. Now that he is gone, all who knew him feel that a void has been created in the social life of Sydney, which at any rate, as far as the present generation is concerned, can never be filled up.
The Sydney Evening News reported the artistic publican’s death on August 4 1882:
Death of Mr. Gus Wangenheim.
People who frequent the town at night were yesterday startled by a report that Mr. Wangenheim, popularly called Gus Wangenheim, the well-known caricaturist, had “dropped down dead.” The rumour was not credited at first, as one of a similar character, that turned out to, be a canard, had been circulated before. Unfortunately, however, it is only too true; for the clever, genial, loveable, “man about town,” died suddenly at his residence, Pendennis, Lower William-street, Woolloomooloo, last evening, shortly after 5. Gas, may be said to have “passed away” rather than died. He was out at Waverley with his wife in the afternoon, and on their return, had a cup of cocoa, after which he went on the balcony, where he sat down and smoked a cigar. That finished, he took a book and commenced to read. Mrs. Wangenheim noticed that he put it down shortly afterwards, and thinking he slept told one of the children not to make a noise and ‘wake pa’. A few moments afterwards noticing that his head was very much to one side she looked closely at him, and to her horror found that he was dead. His head then was cold, the eyes were glassy and he must have died almost instantaneously. His hands were folded, and there was not the slightest trace of suffering on the face. The deceased man had been before the public for some years as a hotel-keeper and a sketcher and caricaturist of considerable power and facility. Though not so good at likenesses as Lascelles or Clint, Gus’ humour was irresistible, and he could reproduce characteristics with a happy exaggeration that few other artists could effect. The best collections of his drawings are on the walls of the Bulletin Hotel, which he kept for several years. Unfortunately the vandal landlord in possession at present papered over a whole room full. Besides being an artist, Wangenheim possessed a marked ability in other ways. He was a splendid fencer and boxer, and spoke several languages with fluency but he will, doubtless, be longest remembered for his genial ways and loveable nature and disuation. Of late he gave up all other business to look after the princely estate – chiefly town property— of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Simmons. Though forced at times to assert the rights of landlady against tenants, he never made an enemy; and it is said that on the few occasions when he was “in possession,” the folks levied on never had such a time of it in their lives. As a raconteur, who could illustrate his stories with lightning like rapidity, Gus had no superior and few equals. Mr. Wangenheim was a native of Germany, and about 50 years of age.
After Elizabeth’s wealthy mother died at the age of 98 in 1891, she decided to redevelop the Darlinghurst property.
The police had objected to the renewal of the license of the Green Park Hotel in July 1891. The pub was repeatedly falling foul of the law for Sunday trading, and allowing gambling on the premises. The pub was dilapidated and the court ruled it was unsuitable to trade as a pub.
Elizabeth, who was now aged 58, applied for a conditional publican’s license for a new pub for the site in October 1891.
The police opposed the application on the ground that there were at present more than sufficient pubs in the neighbourhood, there being four hotels within 250 yards of the proposed site.
The police argued that owing the number of hotels, in order to make a living publicans were resorting to Sunday trading and selling liquor at prohibited hours. Inspector Bremner said that since the Green Park Hotel had closed in June 1891, there had been a marked improvement in the neighbourhood. Interestingly the United Licensed Victuallers’ Association also opposed the application.
In support of the application, the court heard that the existing pubs in the area were of an inferior character, and that a first class hotel, such as Elizabeth’s was urgently. The existing hotels were merely drinking shops, Elizabeth’s lawyers argued.
The wealthy widow was granted a condition license for her proposed £2000 hotel after her legal team explained how it would bring a superior quality business to Darlinghurst. Elizabeth was granted confirmation of the conditional license after the completion of the hotel on June 29 1893. She remained as licensee for a year, before handing the reins over to Fred Moorehouse in 1893.
Several licensees were at the helm of the Green Park Hotel over the next 32 years during Elizabeth Wangenheim’s ownership. In 1921 professional boxer, Sid Godfrey became host of the Green Park Hotel. He won the Australian featherweight title fight in 1917, and earned £20,000 prize money during his boxing career. Out of 109 professional fights he won 79 (41 by knockout) and drew 12.
Godfrey had a short stay at the Green Park Hotel, and went on to host the Bald Faced Stag, Leichhardt, the Carrington at Petersham, and the Horse and Jockey at Homebush. He retired from business in 1957 and lived at Bronte. He died in 1965.
Betsey or Elizabeth Wangenheim died on August 8 1925, at the age of 91 and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood Cemetery. The Blue Mountain Echo reported on Friday August 14 1925:
MRS. ELIZABETH WANGENHEIM.
On Saturday last there passed away an old and respected resident of Katoomba in the person of Mrs Elizabeth Wangenheim, of ‘Thorley,’ Lurline Street, at the ripe age of 90. The late Mrs. Wangenheim was a daughter of the late Mr. James Simmons, who was the first importer of general goods to Australia. He chartered a special fleet of ships for this purpose, and his enterprise was rewarded handsomely. Later Mr. Simmons went into the hotel business, and also dabbled greatly in land speculation. The present site of David Jones’ huge emporium at one time was occupied by the famous ‘Jerusalem Store’ of Mr. Simmons. In 1855 the late Mrs. Wangenheim married Mr. Gustavus Wangenhiem, who also was an hotel licensee. Subsequent, to his death, she continued in the hotel business, and displayed great business acumen. She retired from active business nearly half a century ago, and during the latter days of her life resided in her palatial home at Katoomba. The deceased lady left one son (Mr. Joseph Wangenheim), and three daughters, (Mrs. J. F. Gavin, now in America; Mrs. Fred Morris, Elizabeth Bay; and Mrs. J. R. Stewart, Tahmoor, near Picton). She also was the mother of the late Emma Wangenheim (Mrs. J. A. Carroll) well known in operatic circles, and the grandmother of Mrs. Cliff Hardaker. She was interred in the Jewish section of Rookwood Cemetery on Sunday last, the last rites being performed by Rev. M. Einfield.
At her death Elizabeth was considered to be the wealthiest woman in Sydney, with a probate of £164,376. Her son Joseph Moritz Wangenheim inherited the Green Park Hotel, which was to be held in trust after his death for the benefit of his children. However, it seems Joseph followed in his father’s foot steps, and not his mothers. The hotel was mortgaged to Tooth and Company during the late 1920s, and by 1930 the family had lost the freehold of the Green Park Hotel to the brewery giant.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2017.