WHILE Sydney has plenty of colourful pub stories, there’s one watering hole that traded at the corner of King and George Streets in the CBD for over 80 years that’s hard to pass for notoriety.
In fact, the corner pub was so hard to pass it became one of Sydney’s most popular.
Known in its final years as ‘Belfields’, the pub was associated with Sydney’s more colourful characters, including disgraced NSW politician and horse racing identity, Theodore “TC” Trautwein, who bought the inner-city pub in 1916.
From its opening in 1868, the pub had a close association with billiards, attracting champions from around the country and overseas to its tables.
From its reputation of being the favoured hotel of Sydney’s wealthy, Belfields grew into one of Sydney’s shadier ‘establishments’ in the decades before its closure, and was mentioned in two separate Royal Commissions, firstly in 1932 for illegal poker machines, and again in 1952 for sly-grog selling.
The pub began trading as the ‘Hotel de France’ in 1868, becoming the Royal Exchange in 1878, and finally Belfield’s in 1936. However, it was known by Belfield’s for many years before 1936.
Remarkably, despite sitting on one of Sydney busiest intersections, the corner section of the pub building, overshadowed by threatening glass and metal skyscrapers, survives, although it hasn’t sold a beer for more than half a century.
Today the pub once known as Belfields sells mobile phones.
Frenchman, Alphonse Courvoiser was granted the first license for the quaint two storey cement rendered brick pub. Courvoiser, a well-known Sydney chef, began his career working at the Café Restaurant Francais on George Street, located within the City Wine Vaults, opposite Jamison Street in the early 1850s.
In 1859, at the age of 34, Courvoiser took control of the business, providing one shilling luncheons, which included “a glass of good English ale”, as well as supplying dinners, which could be “sent out if required”. Could this have been Sydney’s first home delivery food service?
The following year, Monsieur Courvoiser was successful in gaining a license for a pub at Macquarie Place, under the sign of Customs House Hotel, where he relocated his now famous luncheon rooms.
The French restaurateur became the first host of the building that currently sits on the south-east corner of George and Kings Street in 1868.
Courvoiser, 43, applied for a publican’s license for a recently completed two storey building in what was then one of the busiest intersections in Sydney. It was Sydney’s omnibus terminal, and was a bustling business centre, with another two pubs trading on opposite corners.
The corner where Courvoiser opened his pub has a fascinating history, and long before it opened, it was the home of William Hutchison.
Pressure for commercial and retail space in the area forced Hutchison to move house in 1835, and he built shops and a warehouse on the site. He leased one of the shops and the warehouse to ironmonger, Henry Woolley.
Woolley was a well-known figure in the city. He used to ride a small pony that was said to be “altogether out of proportion to his own bulk”. “Having lost one leg, he needed the small animal to mount easily, and his wooden peg would be inserted in a leather socket, which served as a stirrup.”
Woolley retired in 1856, selling the business to a long time employee, and in 1859 the business was bought by Richard H. Gordon, trading as “Ashdown and Company”, wholesale and furnishing ironmongers.
Ashdown and Company called tenders for the demolition of their existing premises in March 1863 and in June the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the site was, “without exception, the best business site in the city”.
The Herald reported that architect Harold Brees’ plans showed “a corner shop and two extensive shops in George Street” and “three handsome shops in King Street”. A warehouse for heavy goods extended under the shops, with show rooms on the floor above, approached by stairs from George Street.
A fatal accident occurred during the demolition of the original building, when a labourer, George Thomson was removing a portion of the old wall. Thomson fell from a height of about 12 feet on to his head and fractured his skull during July 1863. He died later the same day, leaving a wife and two children.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in January 1864 that the building was progressing rapidly and that the elevation was “bold and striking” with the “lofty arched windows” giving “a rather novel effect.”
In March 1864 the Herald reported that the design had been “freely criticised on account of its singularity”, although the elevation was “attractive as well as striking”. The architect S. C. Brees, the newspaper reported, had avoided the stereotyped pattern adopted in most of Sydney’s buildings of the time. Brees himself described the style of the building as being “Domestic Antique – partaking of the Italian but without any Gothic”.
The building was less than three years old when a suspicious fire destroyed the landmark. The Melbourne reported on Monday December 24 1866:
Sydney, 22nd December.
A fire broke out last night, about midnight, in a block of buildings situated at the corner of King-street and George-street, opposite the City Bank. It extended to the following buildings, which, with the stocks they contained, were entirely destroyed, namely : — Mr Robert Neimke’s, the tobacconist ; Zucamie’s furniture warehouse, facing the Joint Stock Bank in George-street ; Hyman Goulston’s, the clothier ; Abraham Marks’, the clothier ; C. and J. Abraham’s toy shop and fancy bazaar ; and Abraham’s, the hatter, in King-street. It would appear that the fire, upon breaking out, travelled round the back of the premises occupied by Messrs Ashdown and Co., ironmongers (the corner building), and without doing any material damage to their establishment, but seized upon the rear of the buildings immediately adjoining, which were quickly consumed. Mr Wm. Long’s wine store, in George-street, adjoining Neimke’s was injured. Nothing has yet been discovered as to the origin of the fire,- which spread so rapidly and burnt so fiercely that within an hour after its commencement the buildings mentioned were in ruins, and the fire extinguished. The loss is estimated at £25,000. The buildings are understood to be fully insured.
The finger was pointed at the tobacconist, Robert Neimke, who was at the time in financial trouble. He was also being tried for insolvency. Eight of the jurors in the Coroner’s inquest into the blaze were in favour of returning a verdict of arson against Neimke, the other four maintaining that there was not sufficient evidence to warrant committing him. As there seemed to be no possibility of the jurors agreeing, the Coroner released them from further attendance and gave an open verdict.
The building was rebuilt to the same unique plans as the original structure and Alphonse Courvoisier was granted a license under the sign of the ‘Hotel de France’ in July 1868. The building consisted of a café and restaurant, billiard rooms, private dining apartments and a number of upstairs’ bedrooms.
Courvoisier had only opened his new pub for less than three months when fire again threatened the building. This time tragedy was averted when in September the pub’s chimney caught alight, but was extinguished before the arrival of fire brigade.
The hotel became home to the Sydney Chess Club, and was the preferred place of recreation for magistrates, and the elite. It also had what it advertised as the colony’s largest billiard room, with four “first-class tables”.
During September 1869 a grand billiard match for £100 was played at “the Parisian Billiard Saloon”, operated by a Mr S. McKenna’s at Courvoiser’s Hotel de France, between four of the best players in the colonies. This would be a precursor to the hotel becoming a favourite with Sydney’s billiard players and would eventually lead to Australia’s amateur champion becoming the pub’s licensee. More on that later.
The Hotel de France also became the preferred residence of vice royalty, and the wealthy when visiting Sydney during the 1860s, and 70s. The president of the supreme court of Noumea, New Caledonia, and Chief Justice, M. Pouzolz was staying at Courvoisier’s hotel in June 1873 when he was found dead in his room. A funeral cortege started from the Hotel de France and was lead by a guard of honour made up of NSW mounted police, before his body was taken to Balmain cemetery for burial.
Courvoisier courted controversy in 1874 when he gave shelter to six exiled French Communards in 1874. The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March 28 to May 28 1871. Following the defeat of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the Second French Empire swiftly collapsed. As a result many of the Communards were exiled to New Caledonia.
Courvoisier is believed to have travelled to New Caledonia to assist bringing the exiles back to Australia. In April 1874 six leading Communists who were in exile in New Caledonia arrived in Sydney by the steamship Kembla, and were given accommodation and shelter at Courvoisier’s Hotel de Hotel.
Courvoisier died at his hotel suddenly on May 5 1875 at the age of 50. The Freeman’s Journal reported that he was “perfectly well and appeared to be in good spirits” the night before his “unexpected death”. He was buried at Rookwood.
Just a month after the French publican’s death, his widow, Madame Louise Courvoisier suffered another tragic loss. Her nephew, 10-year-old Ernest Grasset died as result of drinking carbolic acid.
The boy, an orphan, had been staying at a Balmain boarding school, but had returned to the pub to recuperate after suffering a “general debility”. He was prescribed medicine by a doctor, which was placed on a sideboard in the his room.
The Coroner’s court heard that during the evening, Madame Courvoisier’s sister, Ellen Marie, accidentally fed the boy a spoonful of acid, instead of the prescribed medicine.
Intriguingly though, the Coroner’s court also heard that the boy was entitled to property left to him in his late uncle, publican Courvoisier’s will.
The jurors returned a verdict that the boy “died from the effects of an overdose of carbolic acid carelessly and inadvertently administered to him”.
After Alphonse Courvoisier’s death in 1875, a number of publicans took control of the Hotel de France, until experienced hotelier Charles Kelsey gained the license in 1877.
Kelsey, who was 48 when he gained the license of the Hotel de France, had a wealth of experience when it came to hosting pubs. He pulled his first beer as a publican at the age of 26 in 1855 when he was granted the license of ‘The Hand and Heart’, at the corner of Liverpool and Dixon Streets in Sydney. He would become one of Sydney’s most recognised publicans.
Through the 1860s he hosted the Queensland Hotel at the corner of Erskine and Kent Streets in Sydney, later, in 1871, taking the license of the White Horse Hotel in George Street, about where the Strand Arcade is located today. The Sydney Evening News reported on September 26 1877 that Kelsey had taken the license of the Hotel de France, making a few changes, and giving the pub a new sign.
Royal Exchange Hotel.
The extensive premises popularly known as Courvoisser’s Cafe, at the corner of King and George streets have, within the last few days, been transformed into a first-class hotel. The premises were lately purchased by the enterprising boniface, Mr Charles Kelsey, who for many years proprietor of the White Horse Tavern. The improvements comprise the erection of several new rooms, and a thorough renovation of the entire premises. What was clothier’s shops, at the corner, have been converted into a commodious hotel bar fitted up in a most imposing manner. On the ground floor there is a spacious ladies’ dining room, which is furnished in a homelike manner. Adjoining are retiring-rooms for families, fitted up with lavatories, mirrors, &c. The entrance to these rooms are by the King-street gateway.
During the 1870s, Kelsey was on the executive of the Licensed Victuallers Association, the forerunner of the NSW Hotels Association. He was elected vice president of the Association in 1878, while hosting the Royal Exchange. He had a short stay at the corner of King and George Streets, and through the 1880s he hosted the Garden Palace Hotel, also in George Street, and the Caledonian Hotel, in King Street, where he died at the age of 58 in 1888.
Duncan McPherson was one of the longest serving publicans at the Royal Exchange Hotel. He was licensee for 15 years, going about his business without much notoriety, except in 1889 when he landed in hot water with the authorities when caught diluting Wolfe Schnapps with soda water and a cheaper brand of gin, and selling it to his customers. He was fined £5, with £2, 9 shillings and six pence court costs.
Another publican, who had the Royal Exchange for slightly longer than McPherson, was John B. Belfield. Belfield’s fame as Australia’s amateur billiard champion would lead to the pub eventually being named in his honour – but that was a few years away yet.
Jack, as Belfield was known by his customers and friends would host the pub from 1904, through the Great War, until 1919 – for almost 15 years.
The reputation of the Royal Exchange Hotel’s billiard saloon was no doubt a factor in Belfield’s decision to take the license of the George Street pub in 1904.
Originally a tailor from Singleton, 80km northwest of Newcastle, Belfield, at the age of 31 beat the Australian billiard champion, Frederick Weiss in an exhibition match in 1898. He quickly excelled in the sport, and won the State amateur championship in 1902, 1903, 1907, and became Australian champion in 1908, defeating Victorian, Arthur H. Tricks.
Belfield married Susan Ballard at the age of 35, and they became hosts of the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, at the corner of Pitt and Bathurst Streets Sydney in 1902.
As a publican he was an entertaining host. He was said to have had a “lovable and adorable disposition” and had a “reservoir of wit and humour that was as surprising as it was acceptable”.
He was a very versatile character and, apart from his grand billiard powers, he was an elocutionist of some ability and, following the footsteps of his dear old dad, Mr Frank Belfield, one of Australia’s old school of leading actors, he appeared before the footlights on many occasions in the West, mostly. Here in Sydney his impersonation of the character of Daniel White, In ‘Milky White’, in the old School of Arts some years back, will not readily be forgotten as a masterpiece of finished acting. His services were always available in the cause of charity, and in this connection he did much in the town of Singleton, where he was in business with his brothers many years back. As a pen and pencil artist he frequently delighted his friends with lightning sketches that would have done justice to a Lindsay or an Eyre. When equipped with his little cue and in the magic square, he was invincibly and a showman of equal celebrity of the only John Roberts.
While host of the Royal Exchange, Belfield lost his wife who died from a brain haemorrhage in 1909. In his late 40s, Belfield’s health was failing, although he was said to have enjoyed giving exhibitions of his skills with the cue.
“…The other week, after one of the afternoon sessions had finished in the hour, his cueing gave the impression that he would soon come back with practice. All the old power of cue was there in single-shot play. Touch and familiarity with throw-off were the lacking essentials. Still, he was as graceful as ever at the table, and filled the eye with his… physique and stance.”
BELFIELD’S FISHING ROD. When the late Jack Belfield, amateur ex-champion of Australia, was playing in very fine form, he was asked to play an exhibition game in Singleton for a local charity, and, as was his custom, he readily agreed. He boarded a morning train and placed his cue, in a tin case, in tho rack overheard. At Newcastle an aged couple entered the carriage and sat opposite tho gonial John. Catching sight of the long tin case in the rack, tho old lady became rather inquisitive is to what it was, and, after much whispering between them, the old chap was heard to remark, ‘Very well, I’ll ask him when we are getting out.’ So at Singleton they, too, were leaving the train, and the veteran, turning to Belfield. said: ‘Excuse me, my boy; but my wife is anxious to know what yon have in that long tin case, of yours?’ Belfield was taken on the hop, and so, in a casual manner he replied: ‘Oh, it’s only a fishing rod,’ and ‘then the parties separated. In the evening a crowded house greeted Belfield, who appeared to be in good humour, so much so, that early in the game ho rattled up in his characteristic, dashing style, a lovely break, and earned a storm of applause. When the applause had subsided an arm was thrust through the crowd and a well-browned hand touched Belfield’s shoulder, and, on looking round, he saw the old chap’s beaming face peering through the crowd, the latter blurting out: ‘I say, my boy, you’re catching some damn fine fish with that there rod of yours to-night’. Belfield was amused, and acknowledged the well-intended tribute, at the same time stating that the hoped to bag some more before he finished — and he did.
– Sunday Times, 11 October 1925.
Jack Belfield died at his pub at the age of 51 on September 8 1918. The Sydney Sportsman reported his death on September 14:
That the deceased gentleman was held in the highest esteem was evidenced in the very large gathering at the grave-side on Tuesday morning, representatives of all clubs and sporting bodies being present. Handsome wreaths were sent from all parts of the State and Commonwealth, and, covered with these the grave looked a beautiful garden beyond picture. Well, the game is o’er, ‘Jack’ Belfield has finished his break and in doing so, he played every stroke with characteristic fairness, honesty and cleanliness. He lived as he died, an honest, upright, unselfish and most lovable man. His adorable presence will be sadly missed by his relatives and his many friends, but not more so than by his affectionate and very sorrowing old chum whose deep grief it is to have to pen these lines chronicling his decease. May his soul rest in peace.
Jack and his wife Susan had no children. The publican died interstate, leaving an estate of almost £34,000, of which was chiefly realty, and which went to his brother, Francis Belfield, a Sydney estate agent.
While Belfield was host of the Royal Exchange, the freehold of the pub was bought by one of Sydney’s most colourful characters, horse racing identity, the cigar puffing, Theodore Charles Trautwein.
Trautwein bought the central city property, comprising land and premises known as Belfield’s Hotel, corner George and King Street, and shops nine to 93 King Street, adjoining, in conjunction with Hardie and Gorman Pty Ltd, Raine and Horne, and D. Price, from the family of William Hutchison – the man who originally lived in a large home on the corner – for £112,500 in 1916.
Officially he was the licensee of the Royal Exchange for two years, from 1919 to 1921, however the Trautweins lived upstairs of the pub for many years and had in-house licensed managers.
Trautwein was once characterised in the Truth newspaper as “the hardy, hard-fighting, Croesus of modern finance, emperor of the old pony and provincial racetracks, the hotelier who boasted more fingers in the beer barrel than any other individual in Sydney”. He was to remain a prominent figure on Sydney racetracks for almost 70 years.
Trautwein was 25 years of age, and on the eve of marrying Kathleen Kane in April 1895 when he received the license of his first pub – the Imperial Hotel at Clifton, on the NSW South Coast. He had already established himself as a successful horse racer, backing them to win spectacular amounts, in the 1890s.
Trautwein stayed at the coal miners’ pub at Clifton for less than 12 months before opening another at Wilberforce, and later the Volunteer Hotel at St Marys. He went on to become a hotel broker, having interests in dozens of Sydney pubs, including the Club House Hotel, Peak Hill, the Commercial Hotel, Angledool, the Royal Hotel, Walgett, the Royal Hotel, Riverstone; the Oceanic Hotel, Coogee, the Coogee Bay Hotel, and Tattersalls Hotel, Penrith, as well as the Gosford Racing Club, Richmond Jockey Club, Menangle Park Racing Club and Woodville Stud Farm.
In the early hours of January 19 1903, Trautwein, when hosting the Royal Hotel at Auburn, in Sydney’s west, was awakened by a loud noise from the bar, and taking a revolver with him, went to investigate.
In the bar he found Constable Samuel Long suffering a severe gunshot wound to his head. He died a short time later, unable to identify his attacker.
A lengthy investigation eventually revealed that the Constable had been shot whilst trying to apprehend two offenders, 32-year-old Digby Grand and 26-year-old Henry Jones, whom he had caught after they had broken into the hotel.
After the shooting, Jones and Grand had escaped by horse and sulky. Both the men were hanged on July 7 1903 in Long Bay Jail.
One of Trautwein’s biggest horse racing successes came when his imported horse Quinologist won The Metropolitan at Randwick in 1916 – the same year he bought the Royal Exchange. Trautwein’s wife, Kathleen persuaded him to buy what was known as the Belfields Hotel after she declared it to be on one of Sydney’s busiest corners.
Kathleen had a collection of diamond rings, valued at more than £20,000. The hostess often wore diamond rings on every finger. When it was known she was serving in the bar at Belfields, crowds would flock round her to see her diamond rings. She was reported to have had a constant bodyguard while she was working in the bar.
The family later revealed that a “money pool”, which at times totalled £34,000 was kept in a safe at the Belfields Hotel. Trautwein said it wasn’t unusual for him to carry £1,000 in notes in his pocket, and that sometimes he carried as much as £12,000.
The flamouyant publican stood for the NSW Upper House in 1933 as an independent. After his appointment to parliamant he became entangled in an infamous 10 year battle with the Tax Department for tax evasion and he was eventually jailed.
The case of Trautwein became one of the most celebrated bankruptcy suits ever heard in Australia. He was declared a bankrupt on the application of the Taxation Department, which claimed that he owed the huge sum of £324,000 in taxes and tax penalties. He spent time behind bars for contempt of court for “studied evasion and prevarication”. In 1950 at the age of 81, Trautwein was granted a discharge from a 10-year-old bankruptcy.
Although he was declared bankrupt, the Trautwein family retained ownership of many Sydney properties, with his wife, Kathleen and later their son, William owning their many Sydney pubs.
The family monarch died in 1951 at the age of 68 from heart disease. At the time of her death she owned two racehorses, Lord Crag and Try Again, besides the Belfield Hotel. She also ran a stud farm at Prospect for 14 years.
One more controversy would haunt the old publican before his death in 1955. The 1952 Royal Commission into the NSW liquor industry was told how Trautwein supplied 20 dozen bottles of beer from his Belfield Hotel to the Celebrity Night Club in York Street, of which he was chairman of directors.
Four years after he lost his wife, Kathleen, Trautwein died at the Belfields Hotel on August 7 1955 at the age of 86. The family sold the Belfield Hotel to Chocolate maker, Darrell Lea in 1957, ending almost 90 years of pub history from the busy inner-city corner.
Belfields closed for business on July 6 1957 and its license was sold to Arthur Laundy (Snr), enabling the hotelier to open his second Sydney pub, and pave the way for the beginings of another famous hotel family dynasty.
Laundy transferred the license of the Belfield Hotel to Bass Hill, in Sydney’s South West, opening the family’s second pub. The license was transferred to the Twin Willows Hotel on the Hume Highway, Bass Hill on December 14 1964. Although it looks very different today, the Twin Willows is still the headquarters of the Laundy Enterprise.
The Laundy family have been in the hotel industry for three generations. Arthur (Snr) and Veronica Laundy started the business in 1945 with the Sackville Hotel, Rozelle. In 1969 tragedy struck – Arthur (Snr) died when the light plane he was piloting went down near Wellington. He, along with three staff members, was killed.
Darrell Lea continued selling chocolates and other confectionaries from what would become its flagship store at the corner of King and George Streets Sydney for 55 years before the company folded and closed in 2012. The old pub became a convenience store before it was purchased by Telstra as a mobile phone store.
Hotel de France
Alphonse Courvoisier, 1868 – 1875
Louise Courvoisier, 1875 – 1876
Edourd Coutonly, 1876 – 1876
George Fraser, 1876 – 1877
Charles Kelsey, 1877 – 1878
Royal Exchange Hotel
Charles Kelsey, 1878 – 1879
Edward Perkins, 1879 – 1884
John D. Young, 1884-1886
Duncan McPherson, 1886-1901
John McCluskey, 1901-1904
John B. Belfield, 1904-1919
Francis O’Grady, 1919-1919
Theodore C Trautwein, 1919-1921
Francis O’Grady, 1921-1935
Cecil J Newsome, 1935 – 1941
Albert L Browne, 1941 – 1943
Chas E Farrell, 1943 – 1943
Harry R. Brice, 1943 – 1957
Hotel closed July 6 1957