Club Hotel, Surry Hills: A favourite with confidence tricksters and other shady characters

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The former Club Hotel, corner of Albion and Commonwealth Streets, Surry Hills. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


JOHN Ahern was enjoying a few after-work drinks in the upstairs parlour of Surry Hill’s Club Hotel, singing and socialising, before his brutal death in 1893.

Barman, Tom Moss, who later became publican, explained at the inquest into the 29-year-old blacksmith’s death how Ahern was with a group of men when he heard a dispute over payment for drinks. The argument spilled onto the street outside.

Ahern, from Glebe, was standing with his hands in his pockets, when a man came to him with a stone in each hand. He was struck in the head with one of the stones, and died the following day at the Sydney Hospital.

John Kendrick, a 24-year-old cook, was later charged with Ahern’s manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years behind bars.

The Club Hotel is a little quieter these days. It’s no longer licensed as a pub, and is a handsomely restored heritage building adapted for office use. It’s a far cry from its rowdy five decades as a working class pub, frequented by confidence tricksters and other shady characters. It was often raided by police for Sunday trading, fights, and the occasional robbery.

Located at the corner of Albion and Commonwealth Streets, a five minute walk from busy Central Railway Station, the pub was popular with Sydney’s working class, and scuffles and fights were nothing unusual before it shut shop in 1923.

Originally built by Henry Lee, the pub was first licensed as the Comet in September 1874 on what was then Albion and Macquarie Street South.

Lee became licensee and remained as host for two years before he went on to establish the long-gone Railway Pier Hotel, in Pier Street, Darling Harbour in 1877. He was host there for over 10 years.

After Lee’s departure from the Comet, Ambrose Blakeney became host.

Blakeney remained at the Surry Hills pub for over 10 years.

The pub’s name was changed from the Comet to the Club Hotel before Christmas 1892 by licensee, Laura Creamer. An experience hotelier, Creamer had been involved in Sydney pubs for over a decade when she took over the license from Michael Maher in December 1892. She had plenty of experience handling the tough, hard drinking men who frequented the pubs of Sydney’s inner-suburbs.

Creamer managed her father’s pub, the Grosvenor at Ultimo during the early 1880s, and eventually went on to host the Australian Eleven at Redfern, and later, Sydney’s iconic, Creswick Club Hotel in Bent Street, before taking control of the Comet Hotel in 1892.

Creamer was the licensee when the brawl that killed one of her customers erupted outside her pub in 1893. She was also at the helm when 34-year-old Tom Walsh wandered into her bar calling for drinks with a dud cheque.

Walsh paid for his and a companion’s drinks with a cheque, which afterwards ‘bounced’ or was dishonoured. He had been on a bender for weeks after he was given £1400 by his father, but was unaware he had exhausted the gift. He was fined 20 shillings when Creamer reported him the police. The strange twist to this the story though is that shortly after his arrest his father died, leaving him a £15,000 inheritance.

Walsh could have well-afforded to buy his drinks – in fact the entire pub and its contents.

Shortly after the infamous brawl and subsequent death of one of her young customer in April 1893, Creamer, a widow, married the pub’s barman, Tom Moss. In turn Moss became licensee of the Club Hotel.

The pub’s reputation for attracting shady character is reflected in the story of poor old Bill Byers. Bill’s dreams of making his fortune on the Western Australian goldfields received a set-back in the spring of 1894. Bill, an elderly labourer from Bourke, made his way to Sydney on his way to Coolgardie, drawing his lifesavings of £55. He made the mistake though of being persuaded into dropping into the Club Hotel for a few refreshments before boarding his train at Central Railway Station for his long journey to Western Australia. The Scrutineer newspaper reported on September 5 1894: 

Three ‘spielers’ and well-known members of the ‘confidence trick’ class happened to strike up against Byers in George-street and an acquaintance resulted. Byers, according to the statement he made to the detectives, was then decoyed to the Club House Hotel, Albion-street, where they indulged in the old confidence trick, and the old man was fleeced of nil his money.

Evan the publican became a victim of crime at the Club Hotel. Michael Clune was ‘fleeced’ of his money in one incident, when in October 1919, licensee he reported to the police that he had been robbed of £130. He left the pub for about an hour one evening and when he returned he found that the door of his bedroom had been forced and the money taken from a dressing table drawer.

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Another view of the former Club Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Clune had only been at the helm of the Club Hotel for less than four months. Originally from Tumut, he nearly never became host of the Surry Hills pub after the police inspector from his home town made the long journey to Sydney to testify against his application for the license.

Inspector Duprez objected to Clune getting the transfer, telling the court that he had in 1917, been tried at Wagga, for stealing sheep.

Although Clune was found not guilty of the theft, after it was proved that the sheep were his property, Inspector Duprez told the court he believed there was no doubt about his guilt. He said the case was dropped by the Crown Prosecutor as he was of the opinion Clune was “somewhat deficient mentally”.

The Inspector said he agreed with those assumptions and for those reasons he had travelled from Wagga to Sydney to prevent him from receiving a license as he believed he was not a fit person.

Clune, in his evidence, told how the mayor of Wagga and numerous business people gave evidence on his behalf at the trial. The sheep, he said was his property, and after the case the police returned him the skin. Strangely Inspect Duprez had nothing to do with the trial, and Clune said nothing had ever been alleged against his sanity.

The Bench held rejected the Wagga police officer’s testimony and granted Clune his license. Clune had a short stay at the Surry Hills pub though, and the license was transferred to Bill Tulley by end of the year.

By the following year Tully must have thought he had been sold a lemon. In August 1920 he was forced to front the NSW Licensing Reduction Board to show cause why the licence of the Club Hotel should not be cancelled.

Tully’s pub was one of 48 hotels in the Sydney electorate that lost their licenses as the result of the sitting of the Licenses Reduction Board and a strong campaign to reduce the number of pubs across the state.

Tully, who had a lease until February 1925, and paid £4 10s a week rent to the building’s owner, Ada Griffiths, must have felt cheated. He had paid £300 in cash for the lease, and the pub was doing a roaring trade at the time.

The bar takings averaged £74 a week, and he had 14 permanent lodgers, and also provided meals. His lodgers included six old age pensioners, whom he accommodated with lodgings at five shillings a week each.

After almost 50 years of trading, the Club Hotel closed for business in December 1923. As a result of the forced closure, Tully was compensated £590 by the NSW Government, while the owner of the pub, Griffiths was granted £1,440 in remuneration.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2018

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Categories: NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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1 reply

  1. Thanks Mick for this great article – and account of many colourful characters. I just found this page/blog and it’s wealth of information about the history of Pubs in Sydney, NSW and Australia.

    I’ve been looking for information about Henry Lee for several years. You mention him in this article – (not one of the more colourful though!). I’m directly descended from his sister Alice. He was the eldest in the Lee family and came to Australia with his parents as a 13 year old on the Formosa in 1839. He had a younger brother Thomas and his parents went on to have several more children in Sydney – several of whom were publicans too! Henry and his wife didn’t have children but I gather he was well regarded by the wider family. I had found he had started life as a builder and later became a publican. He lived in Randwick on 9 acres (a property he had owned since 1857) – which was subdivided after his death in 1902.

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