How Sydney Drinks: Amateur barmaid reporter goes behind the bar for hotel story

A “normal crowd” in the saloon bar, Hotel Bondi, Sydney, 12.30pm Saturday, November 3, 1951. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

The above image was captured by Sydney photographer, Phil Ward at the Hotel Bondi in 1951. Although at first glance it would seem the photo was taken before closing, during the old “six o’clock swill”, it was in fact taken at 12.30pm on a Saturday and show the lunchtime crowd, which was noted as being “normal”.

Hotel Bondi was originally constructed circa 1919 from a design by architect Ernest Lindsay Thompson, for brewers Reschs Ltd. Thompson was a prominent architect in Sydney for over 40 years and a council alderman for 27 years.

The hotel became part of the Tooth & Company hotel portfolio when they bought out brewers Reschs Ltd in 1929. It still trades today and is one of the most recognisable buildings on Bondi’s Campbell Parade.

Although the above photograph was taken 30 years after the following story was published, the culture of Australians had changed little when it came to drinking in the public bar, where men were the dominant customer.

A writer, who described herself as “an amateur barmaid”, took a position behind the bar in “a well-known city hotel” for one day in 1922, in order to gather material for the following article, published in the Sydney Sun on June 4, 1922.


“Do you care for any water with it?”

“Doesn’t matter, thanks. In some parts of George-street men take their spirits neat. Gin may be diluted by a dash of peppermint or a measure of bitters – the saloon bar favors the peppermint, the public bar, the bitters – but whisky is whisky, and brandy is liquid fire, and the men of George street do not encourage the process of “breaking-down.”

As good wine needs no bush, good grog, especially at nine pence the thimbleful, needs no doctoring. The experienced barmaid knows. To describe his bar to the average man would be like carrying coals to Newcastle. He knows all about it; He knows where the bottles containing, his favorite brands stand on the shelves, he can tell you which is the draught tap for the Toohey or Tooth in ‘the four penny bar, and the lager in the sixpenny. He can direct you which glass to use for each, and even instruct you how to tilt it to the right when drawing beer so as to fill up quickly without a frothing over. He knows the hour of the day when a new bar-maid is installed behind his customary foot rail. Oh, believe me, he does! When he has put her through her facings he goes out and brings in his pals to have a drink — no, a series of drinks — and give her “the once over.”

According to his humor and his temperament, he greets her with cheers, applause, goo-goo eyes, amatory remarks, or sympathetic encouragement. He is invariably pleased to see a new face behind the beer taps, and frankly tells her that he is “jolly glad to see a new shade of hair.” Variety is the froth of life. Of course I am writing of the average man. There are, however, still some saints, who are not prohibitionists. What the average man doesn’t know is what the barmaid thinks of him. He takes her for granted. She is there from nine till six to serve, to amuse, to listen to his quips, his jests, coarse or otherwise, and to the tale of his woes that exude in verbal form when he has “put a few down.” The work is her own choice, and so she must take the good with the bad. A well-conducted house keeps a chucker-out on the pre-mises for emergencies, and the self-respecting barmaid can do no more than close her ears to slips of the male tongue, or find a more urgent customer when she has no taste for a particular conversation.

The ideal barmaid is bright without being familiar; a certain rag-time atmosphere about her, with a tendency to break into song under her breath, is usually considered attractive. As for the shouting habit – It has practically gone out of practice with the H.C.L., and there are many barmaids serving in the city of Sydney today who have never tasted strong drink in their lives.

During my first day in a bar – which was also my last, for, like Rosa Dartle, “I only wanted to know, you know” – every subject under heaven was discussed, from the existence of a personal God to whether sharks carried their young or dropped them on the sea floor.

Life stories were unfolded on one side of the counter as if polished glasses – ah, thousands of glasses, and all washed in the same water! – on the other.

Came there men of letters, men of strange and peculiar learning, and also men of the municipal service with strong views on the new regime that does not permit them at odd moments to “hop over for a change of breath” as in the good old Lambert days.

Came employers and employees from the city offices close at hand, carters and draymen, shop assistants, picture show touters and punters and football fans.

There were the Snowies (evidently a popular nickname in the city), the Johnnie, the Dads, and regiments of Macs. There were good fellows, surly, solitary drinkers, mashers, and men who came in for the solo purpose of having a drink and wasting no time about it.

My first customer was a policeman; the man who shouted for him was a dwarf. The policeman, be it told in paraphrase, was “standing with reluctant foot where the bar and residential meet”, half of him drooping over the counter rail and the other half — the quick-get-away half — in the outer hall of the hotel. Two calls for drinks, a little friendly badinage, and both men went their separate ways.

The draymen were particularly kind. Trust them to spot a tenderfoot. “Yer’ll be all right in a couple o’ days, miss. Yer doin’ fine. Turn the ‘andle sharp like, an’ then yer don’t git gas in the beer. That’s the style. Fill ’em up agin.”

A woman drifts into the bar-room, selling tooth paste and shaving tackle. She is cold-shouldered into the street without making a sale. A man comes later with a tray of camphor blocks. He fares no better.

Two young sailors come through the swing doors and call for fourpenny beers. “Any place to sit down, miss? We’re dead beat, walking the streets.” “Oh, well, you can go through to the saloon bar if you like.” They call for a couple of Gilbeys, and stretch back on the leather settee. After an hour of case and Gilbeys at regular intervals — long intervals at first — one laddie goes out and buys a dozen jam tarts for the experienced barmaid’s afternoon tea. It is his gift of gratitude for the friendly comfort of the saloon bar.

Presently a bit of human driftwood joins them. He is a stranger, but they are glad of the comradeship. The call increases. “Two Gilbeys and a Dewars.”

There is more regularity than interval about the call now. By closing time all three are inarticulate, yet manage to make themselves understood.

“Two Gilbeys and a Dewars.” It is the common daily tragedy of the lonely men of the sea. “Do you refuse to serve us?” truculently demanded a beer-and-bitters fellow, flinging a florin on the counter for himself and his mate.

The experienced barmaid, knowing the order to be a little beyond an amateur, was already preparing the drinks some distance away. “Not used to serving, eh? Good God! Then what brought you to this? Change is good for everyone, you think? I see. I want free life, and I want fresh air.”

It is evident that Mr. Beer-and-bitters knows something about our poets, but he is wrong. The fresh air is negligible, especially about 5.30, when trade is brisk and another man coming into the bar would cause something approaching spontaneous combustion.

The free life is a mirage, for the barmaid lives in a brass-bound cage, with a crystal background. She is the slave to 95 brands of whisky, and woe be-tide her if she misdeals! But then barmaids, like geniuses, are born, not made.


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Categories: Barmaids, Sydney hotels


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