Cosmopolitan Hotel, Erskineville, and NSW’s first ‘unmarried’ woman publican

The Cosmopolitan Hotel, located on the south-west corner of  Charles and Albert Streets, Erskineville, 1949 when Dorothy ‘Moya’ Hartigan (inset) was licensee. Pictures: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University, and the Sydney Sun October 2, 1946

Moya made history as NSW’s first ‘single’ female publican


BORN into a family of devout Irish Catholics, Dorothy Moya Hartigan could have easily spent her life in a convent, instead of a pub.

Known to all as Moya, the daughter of pioneering publicans would make history in the state of NSW by becoming the first unmarried woman to be granted a license to host a hotel.

Prior to 1946 unmarried women were unable to gain a license for a pub in the state. Although there were plenty of women running pubs at the time, they were either widows or their husband’s had deserted them and they were granted special permission.

Single women, who chose not to marry, were prevented by law from gaining a publican’s license in NSW prior to 1946.

Moya made history that year by becoming the first “unmarried” female hotelier.

Born in West Wyalong in 1905, Moya’s parents, Denis and Mary Hartigan established the single-storey timber Imperial Hotel in that town in 1894.

Moya’s father, Denis was a native of Limerick, Ireland. He arrived in Australia at a young age, and followed various occupations, including gold mining in both NSW and Western Australia.

Known widely as ‘Dinny’, Moya’s father built the Imperial Hotel at West Wyalong, with his brother-in-law, Michael Goggin gaining the pub’s first license in December 1894. Goggin had previously hosted the pub at nearby Captain’s Flat, and went on to host a number of watering holes in the district.

Dinny had previously been a publican in the gold mining towns of Parkes before taking the reins of the West Wyalong pub in February 1895.

hartigans imperial hotel west wyalong 1912
Hartigan’s Imperial Hotel, West Wyalong, 1912. Picture: Supplied.

Moya would never know her father, who died of a stomach haemorrhage a few months before her birth in 1905. She was the youngest of four siblings, a brother and two sisters. Her two sisters had become nuns (although one later left the convent to marry), and her family were strict followers of the Roman Catholic faith.

Moya could have followed the path of her sisters, but instead chose an innkeeper’s apron, over a nun’s habit.

After the death of Denis Hartigan, his widow, pregnant with Moya, took control of the West Wyalong pub. Later Moya’s brother, Tom would run the business, until the Imperial was reduced to ashes in a huge fire in 1920. The Wyalong Advocate reported on May 21:

Hartigan’s Imperial Hotel, situated in the heart of West Wyalong, and one of the landmarks of the early days of the [gold] field is no more… The building, which was of weatherboard, contained about 21 rooms. Portion of it was erected shortly after the outbreak of the field, and it has been added to at various periods…

The Hartigans owned several properties in West Wyalong, and the pub was insured for over £1200, enabling the family to relocate to Sydney and take the license of an inner-west Sydney pub in the suburb of Erskineville.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel, at the south-west corner of Albert and Chalres Streets, was owned by Tooheys Brewery, and had been trading from at least 1880, when Tom Hartigan gained the head lease in 1923. Tom received the license transfer from Henry Hathorn in February 1923.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel, located on the south-west corner of  Charles and Albert Streets, Erskineville, when the Hartigans were at the helm in August 1930. Photo: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

Moya’s brother, Tom, and cousin had held the license of the pub – in ear-shot of the inner-west rail line – at various times during the 1920s, however, there’s little doubt who was running the business.

A month after the Hartigans moved into the Erskineville pub, they got a taste of city life. One of their employees, Ivy Smith was awakened from her sleep at 2.15am when a torch was flashed in her face, and a “gruff voice bade her keep quiet”.

Far from obeying the instruction, she screamed at the top of her voice, and the man ran from her room and dashed down the stair “three at a time”.

The robber was reported to have gained entrance to the pub through the grille leading to the cellar and into to the bar. Before he visited the employee’s room, the thief stole a watch and money worth £8 from Tom’s room.

Tom remained host of the Cosmopolitan Hotel until 1937. He died in Sydney in 1956.

Moya’s mother, Mary, died at the Erskineville pub in 1939 at the age of 73.

Meanwhile a change in NSW legislation in 1946 allowed single women for the first time, who had never married, apply for a publican’s license. The Sydney Sun reported on Wednesday October 2 1946:

She’s Tacked Miss On To Mine Host

First single woman to be granted a hotel licence in NSW — Miss Dorothy Moya Hartigan, Cosmopolitan Hotel, Erskineville — has never tasted liquor.

Miss Hartigan made history today when her application under the new Liquor Act to have the licence of her cousin, John Thomas Goggin transferred to her was granted by Mr. Wells in the Licensing Court. (Single women were previously ineligible for licences.)

Miss Hartigan, who is known to all her customers and throughout the district as Moya, is aged 38. She is an attractive brunette.

“The family has been in the hotel business for years,” she said.

“My mother had a hotel at West Wyalong for 30 years, and this one for 22 years.

“Everybody round here has known me since I was a little girl.

“Since my mother died eight years ago the licence has been in the name of my cousin, but I thought I would make application under the new amendment because it would be more advantageous for business reasons.

Moya continued as host at the Cosmopolitan Hotel until her retirement in 1954. The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday, August 14, 1954:

Retiring Licensee in tears

Mr. Cecil Coughtrey presenting a silver tea set to Miss Hartigan on her retirement.

A hotel licensee cried yesterday on retiring from the trade.

But the licensee was a woman — Miss Dorothy Moya Hartigan. Miss Hartigan was the first single woman to get a publican’s licence in New South Wales. She had been in the hotel business for 32 years.

Miss Hartigan took over the licence of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Charles Street, Erskineville, from her mother eight years ago. To the Cosmopolitan’s customers she was ‘Moya’.

When the ‘time gents, please’ moment approached last evening, she treated “the boys” to drinks. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

Bert Hardman, a customer of the hotel for 40 years, said Moya had been crying for more than a week because she was leaving.

Two hundred customers subscribed to give Moya a silver tea service as a farewell present. Miss Hartigan said she would take the gift, and her white cat, wherever she went.

‘Like angels’

‘The boys’ had behaved like angels under her rule at the hotel because they knew she would not stand ‘any nonsense’, she added. She believed single women could run hotels better than most men.

A smile from a woman licensee was much more persuasive than ‘the bellowing roar’ of a male publican at closing time. She explained: “I just gave the customers the stern eye and they ate out of my hand”.

There had never been any disturbance at the hotel since the Hartigans moved in, she added. And she had never drunk anything stronger than lemonade.

Miss Hartigan said she did not know what she would do in future. But she thought her fingers would be itching for the grip of a beer pump after having poured put— well, a few million beers.

The licence of the hotel will continue for six months and the hotel will then close.

The license of the historic pub was transferred to the southern Sydney suburb of Banksia, eventually enabling the Banksia Hotel to open for business in 1955.

Dorothy Moya Hartigan, the state’s first unmarried woman publican, died in Sydney at the age of 63 in 1968.

The Cosmopolitan at the corner of Charles and Albert Streets, Erskineville – the first pub in NSW, if not Australia, where an unmarried woman legally held a publican’s licensee – is today a private residence.

Cosmopolitan Hotel Erskineville NSW 1949 ANU
The Cosmopolitan Hotel when Moya Hartigan was licensee in 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
cosmopolitan hotel erskineville former google
The former Cosmopolitan Hotel, now a private residence in Erskineville. Picture: Google Streetview.

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Categories: NSW hotels, Publicans, Sydney hotels

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2 replies

  1. A short distance away on the nearby corner of John Street, Tom Hartigan had an SP bookmaking business and owned a few houses in Erskineville. At the end of World War Two, one year later my dad, Steve Langley a returned 6th Division soldier, used his deferred military pay to buy number 11 John Street for 200 quid )pounds) for our family, Dad, Mum, me age 6 and baby sister Beverley age 3.

  2. Love this story of an entrepreneurial woman … Except … . Miss Hartigan was certainly NOT the first single woman licensee in NSW… for all the newspapers made much of it…. possibly this honour goes to Sarah Bird in 1797… 🙂 … and then ofcourse there was the infamous Polly Smith, who ran a pub (perhaps with extras?) in the 1860s in central Sydney… … I love the history of female publicans because there were so many who slipped under the radar… and others who were unjustly denied a licence… and then all those women who were ACTUALLY running the pub even though their husband had the licence… etc etc etc…

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