The pub that never opened: The Athletic Club Hotel, Surry Hills

athletic Club Hotel Surry Hills
The pub that never sold a beer… The hope-to-be Athletic Club Hotel, Surry Hill. Picture: Mick Roberts


A STONE’S throw down the hill, in the narrow laneways off the thriving entertainment strip of Crown Street, where weekend crowds pack Surry Hills’ venues like ‘The Clock’, and ‘White Horse’, can be found the “pub that never opened”.

Although the purpose built Sydney pub, complete with bar and cellar, never legally served a drop of alcohol, its predecessor kept plenty of Surry Hills’ customers well-lubricated for almost 60 years, before – what was thought to be – its temporary closure in 1921.

The two-storey brick pub, with balcony, had on the ground floor, a public bar, four rooms, kitchen, laundry, and pantry, while upstairs there were eight bedrooms and a bathroom. It closed on June 30 1921, was demolished, rebuilt as a three-storey hotel, but would never sell a drop of beer again. This is the story of the Athletic Club Hotel, at the corner of Arthur and Alexander Streets.

Today it sits as residential apartments. But let’s start from the beginning.

The original pub at the corner Arthur and Alexander Streets, the Pembroke Castle Hotel was established in 1865 by Tom Phelps.

Phelps was born about 1836 in Pembrokeshire, Wales, and married Mary Cummins in Sydney in 1857. He was a plasterer by trade, and contributed to the early building boom in Surry Hills. By 1867, he owned five properties in the area, including the Pembroke Castle Hotel.

Phelps more than likely built the Pembroke Castle Hotel himself, and named it after the most famous fortress in his home county of Wales. Prior to his death, at the age of 44 in 1880, he also ran a small fleet of horse-drawn omnibuses in Sydney.

After the death of his widow, Mary in 1883, the family sold the pub for £1,750 in 1887 to a Mr Bryant, and the name was changed from the Pembroke Castle to the Athletic Club Hotel. 

Surry Hill’s booming property market, seen the pub sold again a year later to a Mr A. Friedman for £2,600. At this time the pub was described as being a brick, cement rendered building on stone foundation, with front balconies, bar, three parlours, seven bedrooms, storeroom, kitchen and washhouse. The pub was connected to the city’s gas and water and was connected with sewer.

Major renovations were undertaken at the hotel in June 1892 after publican Jim Kelly lost his license. The police said that some of the rooms were small and unfurnished, the ceilings were very old, and the place was not fit to be a hotel. Kelly re-opened the pub the following month, spending a whopping £600 on renovations, and was given six months to trade from temporary premises.

Kelly died in mysterious circumstances the following year when he was washed overboard and drowned while on a sea voyage to Melbourne. His wife took over as publican.

Besides quenching the thirsts of the Surry Hills’ community, the Athletic Club Hotel was also a popular venue for the sport of quoits during the 1880s and 90s. Quoit handicaps, on pitches close to the pub, were regularly promoted by the hosts.

By the 1890s the pub was gaining a reputation as a rowdy venue, with a number of the licensees fronting magistrates for Sunday trading, and breaches of the liquor act, including selling to under age drinkers.

The unusual circumstances that lead to the rebuilding of the Athletic Club Hotel, and subsequently not re-opening, unfolded in 1921.

The pub at the time was owned by George and Victoria Allen, who had grand plans for their little corner pub. They closed it on June 30 1921, demolished it, and in February 1922, engaged builders and architects to rebuild.

The new three-storey Athletic Club Hotel was completed in August 1922, and just three months later, to the horror of the Allens, the NSW Government announced that their pub was one of 46 licensed venues to be cancelled in the Sydney electorate.

As a result the Allens received compensation of £2,750, while the licensee, Fred Bennett received remuneration from the NSW Government of £1,150.

The contents of the pub, which had never tapped a beer keg, was sold at auction in January 1924. The pub never opened again.

Today Surry Hills’  “pub that never opened” is a residential apartment.


Pembroke Castle Hotel

 July 1865 – 1866: Thomas Phelps

1866 – 1869: John Luland

1869- 1874: Robert C. Munroe

1874 – 1876: Emma Munroe

1876 – 1877: George Ridgway

1877 – 1878: William R. Shepherd

1878 – 1879: Thomas Henry Richardson

1879 – 1880: Charles Alfred Morris

1880 – 1882: Catherine Hill

1882 – Robert Earnshaw

1884 – 1885: Charles Creswick

1885 – 1886: Elizabeth Haddon

1886: Rosena McGregor

 Name Changed to Athletic Club Hotel

1886 – 1887: James O’Donnell

1887 – 1888: John P. Phelps

1888 – 1889: John Lynch

1889 – 1892: John Phelps

1892 – 1893: James Kelly

1893 – 1894: William Carey

1894 – 1895: Ellen Kelly

1895 – 1902: John Cotter

1902 – 1906: Mary Sullivan

1906 – 1907: Owen O’Callaghan

1907 – 1908: Joseph Maslen

1908 – 1908: Phillip Basstian

1908 – 1909: John Seldon

1909 – 1909: Michael O’Brien

1909 – 1911: George Stevens

1911 – 1912: Frank Foster

1912 – 1913: Alfred J Maher

1913 – 1914: Michael J. Hinchey

1914 – 1920: Fanny Gallagher

1920 – 1922: William J. Doyle

1922 – 1923: Frederick W. A. Bennett


First published 2017. Updated 2022.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022


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Categories: NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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