In the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylon: Imperial Hotel, Milson’s Point

imperial hotel north sydney fairfax collection C1932

Imperial Hotel, North Sydney, C1932. Picture: Fairfax Collection.

alfred st milsons point google

The site of the former Imperial Hotel, Milsons Point. Picture: Google Streetview.

By MICK ROBERTS ©

THE Imperial Hotel at Milson’s Point started life as the Cornish Arms when John Whitford was granted a license in April 1844.

Thirty-five-year old Dind, his wife, Eliza, 34, and their 12-year-old son, William Jnr, moved into the Cornish Arms as hosts in 1848. Dind would later go-on to host another landmark hotel further up the hill at Milson’s Point. Read about Dind’s other hotel HERE.

It was quite a journey to get to Sydney’s North Shore in those days. Only one small ferry-steamer ran at irregular intervals, but licensed watermen – ‘aqua-Uber men’ of the day – tussled for hire, doing a busy trade, from the Queen’s wharf at Circular Quay.

The Cornish Arms was a two minute walk from the Milson’s Point jetty, and besides a popular resort for Sydneysiders visiting the largely undeveloped beauty of the North Shore, the pub was the favoured drinking hole for the ‘watermen’. Many kept their boats in a large yard behind the pub.

A couple of years after gaining the license of the inn, Dind changed the pub’s name from the Cornish Arms to the Lily of St Leonards Hotel.

There’s some mystery behind the pub’s sign. There’s little doubt though that it was named after the book, The Lily of St Leonards, a story set in Edinburgh Scotland in 1737, which also went to the stage. The book told the story of young Effie Deans, a flower collector, who falls pregnant in an extramarital relationship.

Dind’s love of the stage and literature no doubt influenced his decision to rename his pub. Although, there seems to be more to the pub’s unusual name. It’s likely it could also be racially motivated, named after an Aboriginal woman from the “Lavender Bay tribe”.

The Australian Town and Country Journal reported on January 15 1898 that the name of the pub “seems, indeed, to embody a piece of the humour of the early days, for in Mr Dind’s time the painted sign of the hotel was an aboriginal woman. The notion of painting the Lily of St. Leonard’s was not a work of supererogation.”

The sign, featuring a picture of an Aboriginal girl flanked by two lilies, sat outside a white painted brick and stone cottage, containing a bar, 12 bedrooms, a billiard room, kitchen and washhouse. The land had a 100 feet frontage to Milson’s Point Road on the east (Alfred Street), 112 feet to the south to Western Wharf Road, 126 feet to Walter Street (Paul Street) to the north, and to the west by the property of North Shore Ferry Company.

The Queanbeyan Age, on October 26 1871, gave the somewhat politically incorrect description of the Lily of St Leonards. I’ve toned it down a little, as it was a little racially inappropriate:

North Shore visitors landing at Milson’s Point are aware that the first house of refreshment that solicits their patronage is The Lily of St. Leonards. As till recently neither picture nor portrait graced the signboard, everybody was at liberty to guess what or to whom the Lily of St Leonards applied. A new landlord, however, has very soon put an end to all guessing on the subject by exhibiting on a bran new board ‘The Lily of St Leonards’ as large as life, in the form of a black gin…. as black as Erebus. There is nothing lilaceous about the lady, save and except what appears in the colour of a formidable set of ivories that might excite the envy of a shark…”

The Lily of St Leonards continued trading under that name until about 1910 when its sign was changed to the Imperial Hotel.

The State Government resumed the Imperial Hotel in 1946 for harbour-front recreational land, and the then owners of the hotel, the Waterhouse family, transferred its license to Chatswood, enabling the Charles Hotel to open there in 1959. The Waterhouse family, now better known for their horse racing connections, had purchased the Lily of St Leonards in the early 1880s. 

No longer operating as a pub, the former Imperial Hotel was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for the North Sydney Olympic Pool’s 25 metre pool.

THE following story was published in the Sydney Daily Telegraph on March 19 1932. The story reveals some interesting history of the Imperial Hotel at Milson’s Point. 

IN THE SHADOW OF A PYLON

Imperial Hotel North Sydney 1930 NBA ANU

Imperial Hotel, North Sydney, 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

AVOIDS AXE

charles waterhouse

Charles Waterhouse

Standing in the shadow of the northern pylon of the Bridge is an old building, now known as the Imperial Hotel, which has a romantic as well as an historic connection with the great structure and the North Shore in the early days.

The licensee, Mr Charles Waterhouse, is a descendant of one of Sydney’s early settlers. For years the hotel has been a place where bridge workmen have cooled their sweated brows during lunch and knock-off times.

Between drinks they swapped yarns and told of their escapes and achievements during their day’s work up on the job, sometimes over 400 feet in the air. But on occasions, when one of their mates was missing, having met a watery death earlier in the day, their beers were sipped in silence.

Often a mate of an unfortunate workman, picking up his beer, would walk to the bar door and survey the spot, hundreds of feet up, where he saw his pal alive for the last time. Even though their jobs are ended, many workmen will still visit this hotel to bring back memories of the days on the Bridge.

The building is one of the few remaining landmarks of Milson’s Point in the ‘eighties. Though hundreds of buildings were demolished round Milson’s Point to make way for the Bridge, this one, though only a few yards from the massive pylon, by a fortunate circumstance, managed to escape the demolisher’s hammer.

ERECTED 1843

It was erected in 1843, being then known as the Lily of St Leonards, named after a black gin, who belonged to the Lavender Bay tribe. About 50 years ago the property was purchased by Mr Charles Waterhouse, father of the present licensee, who made additions to the property.

WATERHOUSE FAMILY

The Waterhouse family are well known in North Sydney. They are descendants of Mr Tom Waterhouse, who came to Australia as an officer in the army, and settled at Parramatta over 120 years ago. He had two sons. The younger mysteriously disappeared, and the other, Charles, went to live at Lane Cove, where he opened up the Green Gate Hotel and acquired considerable property. He had eight sons and three daughters.

Imperial Hotel Milsons Point North Sydney 1949 anu

Imperial Hotel, North Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020


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Categories: NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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2 replies

  1. Love your stories, Mick. Today’s one on the Imperial has me curious about the 1959 photo at the bottom, seems a total rebuild or something. Gary

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