Commodore Hotel named after Billy Blue, Sydney puntman and ‘first American migrant’ to Australia

The Old Commodore, McMahon’s Point, North Sydney. Picture: Sydney Evening News, October 5, 1901. Inset: Billy Blue. Picture: Supplied
Old Commodore Hotel, prior to demolition about 1900. Picture: State Library of NSW
Old Commodore Hotel August 1920 ANU
The Old Commodore Hotel, McMahon’s Point, North Sydney. August 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

THERE’S a modern looking pub trading at McMahon’s Point, North Sydney that gives no indication of its interesting connection with Colonial Sydney.

John Blue was granted a “new license” for a two-storey sandstone inn on March 7 1854. He named his new pub after his father, Billy Blue, better known to all as ‘The Old Commodore’.

An early pioneer of North Sydney, Billy Blue was a well-known identity in Colonial Sydney. He ran the punt between Dawes Point and Blue’s Point across Sydney Harbour.

Blue’s Point was named in his honour after he was given a grant of what is now a most populous and valuable part of North Sydney, lying between Lavender Bay and Berry’s Bay on the condition he run the ferry boat across the harbour.

BILLY BLUE: The first public boat service to the North Shore was started by ‘Commodore’ Billy Blue, a loquacious old identity in the early history of Sydney. At one time he was in the employment of the Governor as constable in the Domain and water bailiff. One of his daughters married a waterman who used to ply from Hulk Bay. His name was Moxham, and he gave his name to this bay. When he died Mrs. Moxham married another waterman, named Lavender, and changed the name of the bay to Lavender, by which name it has been known ever since.

– Sydney Mail, October 5, 1921

The Old Commodore died at his home on the North Shore on May 5 1834 aged in his 90s. His son, John Blue was born at Circular Quay on July 4, 1815 and ran the Old Commodore Inn up until his death on August 21, 1891.

The Old Commodore Hotel was demolished in 1901 and a large two storey Victorian styled hotel with balcony and squat tower was constructed at the corner. That pub traded until the 1930s, when it lost its balcony and, like many pubs of the day, “modernised”.

The pub had another transformation in the 1970s when it was demolished and given a “tavern” license. That pub, the Commodore Hotel, remains trading on Blues Point Road, McMahon’s Point, a testimony to one of Sydney’s early pioneers.

Old Commodore Hotel North Sydney January 1939
The Old Commodore Hotel, McMahon’s Point, North Sydney, January 1939. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Commodore Hotel North Sydney Google
The Commodore Hotel, McMahon’s Point, North Sydney, 2017. Picture: Google Streetview.

Cathy Gilbody, a five times great granddaughter of Billy Blue, says on Facebook: “Billy Blue was a freed African American slave, who was transported to Sydney from England as a convict for stealing a loaf of sugar…. according to family history he fought on both sides (in the American War of Independence), he would take boots and guns off dead English soldiers and sell them back to the English army, likewise for the Americans, when he arrived in England he had a considerable sum of money which he lost gaming. His original public house which was on the site of “The Old Commodore” was supposed to go to his daughter Susannah Blue Scholfield but in those times women could not inherit. Both of his sons lost his land grants (Blues Point and Frenches Forrest) gaming. The only records we have found show him being sold in the West Indies. He was also in charge of the bonds store during Governor Macquarie time as Governor and ferrying Lady Macquarie around Sydney Harbour.

Nick Bloom posted in response to this story on Facebook:

“Colin (who isn’t on Facebook) tells me: When they built the new pub, they started to call it ‘The Commodore’ instead of ‘The Old Commodore’, since the new owners thought the ‘old’ in the name related to the pub itself. They didn’t realise that ‘The Old Commodore’ was the nickname of Billy Blue, and not related to the age of the pub.

I grew up with stories of Billy Blue. Certainly one of the more interesting lives in local history.

He was a black New Yorker who went to the British side in the American War of Independence (as a number of others did at the time). He was pressed into naval service, ended up in England after the war and somehow got caught from some minor offence and convicted.

When he got transported to Australia, he became a bit of celebrity. On one hand black skinned people were a complete rarity (he was possibly the only one), and on the other to have service experience in the Royal Navy as well was doubly weird. Some official (legend has it that it was the governor) gave him an old naval jacket to honour his service. He wore it everywhere for the most of the rest of his life. The sight of an elderly black man getting around in a blue navy jacket led him to be known to everyone as The Old Commodore.

He was one of the very first settlers on the North Shore, and made a crust by rowing people back and forth across the harbour from his shack on Blue’s Point (named after him, obviously). His little ferry service lasted much longer than he would ever have imagined, morphing over time into a punt service for horses and carriages and eventually a larger punt service which could carry four cars. Operations continued from that same point right up until March 1932 when the new harbour bridge opened.

Drive down to Blues Point today, you’ll notice that the very end of the road is quite strange, with the road appearing to go off into the harbour and then a funny little fence forming two separate parking bays. This is the original berthing point for the car ferry, more or less unchanged, left over from before the bridge opened.

In addition to The Old Commodore Hotel, Blue’s Point and Blue’s Point Road, the street that North Sydney Station is on is also named after him (Blue Street), as is the North Shore’s largest hospitality school (William Blue College of Hospitality).

He was most probably the first ever American migrant to Australia (and possibly Australia’s first ever migrant of African ancestry too). The US Consulate in Sydney has a large oil painting of him hanging in their lobby (the Americans make a big deal of Billy Blue as ‘the first American migrant to Australia’, amusing considering he was actually on the British side in 1776!!).”

Ray Fairall posted in Facebook: Billy Blue arrived in the NSW Colony in 1796 as a convict aboard the transport Minorca. There were a bunch of Afro Americans and Afro Caribbeans on the first fleet in 1788 thereby predating his arrival by 8 years. So he’s definitely not the colony’s first American immigrant. I’m a descendant of two of the coloured convicts and there are tens of thousands of other descendants.

More Time Gents’ stories on the Old Commodore Hotel:

A life-long drinking partnership: More than three decades at the Old Commodore

Middy-a-minute man replaces his sweat

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Categories: Publicans, Sydney hotels

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for your work on the Commodore and Billy Blue. So interesting.

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