Road Trip: The pubs of Balmain and Rozelle

The Rose, Shamrock, and Thistle Hotel, Rozelle, better known today as The Three Weeds. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
Rose Shamrock Thistle Hotel Rozelle 1949 anu
Rose Shamrock & Thistle Hotel 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.


Balmain Road Trip Map

THE pubs we visited on our road trip to Sydney’s inner-west in 2019 started their trading life as working class, blue collar establishments. The four pubs all opened over a century ago, frequented by wharfies, factory workers and customers well-known for their hard drinking and take no prisoners attitude.

Balmain and Rozelle have changed though, and so have the customers at the pubs in question – Three Weeds, Welcome, Sackville and Unity Hall. Of these pubs, the Sackville and Unity Hall continue to show glimpses of Balmain’s working class, with their bar rooms catering for a mixture of blue and white collar workers – and every shade between – who now call the inner-Sydney suburb home.

There’s tradies and labourers, mixing with advertising executives, doctors and lawyers at the Sackville and Unity Hall hotels. A little to the south at Rozelle though, the Three Weeds and Welcome Hotels are a different kettle of fish – or should I say a different keg of beer.

The Three Weeds is best described as a gastro pub, while the nearby Welcome Hotel is best known for its ever-changing craft beer selection. They both attract a vastly different customer, which I would best describe as upper-middle class, to professional – those with a quid to spend.

Our first port of call on our Saturday road trip was the Three Weeds, located in Evans Street, Rozelle. I understand that the pub is still licensed under its original moniker of the Rose, Shamrock, and Thistle Hotel.

Entrance to the main bar of the Three Weeds, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
The main bar of the Three Weeds, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts

Licensed as the Rose, Shamrock, and Thistle by Tom Brown on July 1 1881, the pub had a somewhat eerie feeling to it when we wandered into a deserted public bar. A sign on the counter directed us to the ‘back-bar’ for service.

There wasn’t a soul around – or maybe there was. Although empty, generations of bygone drinkers gave the deserted bar an eerie feel.

Maybe it was the spirit of Catherine Tracey, who died from burns received in a mysterious fire in the pub in 1886. Maybe it was her brother-in-law, publican Michael Kelly, who died in an upstairs bedroom of the pub the following year.

Catherine Tracey’s death, five years after the opening of the pub, caused much discussion around the bar of the Three Weeds. She was the sister of Maria Kelly, the wife of the landlord of the Rose, Thistle, and Shamrock Hotel.

One night in July 1886 Maria was awakened by moans from the room occupied by her sister, a single 60-year-old woman. On opening the door she discovered her sister on fire in bed.

After raising the alarm, the fire was doused and a badly burnt Tracey was brought down stairs and treated by a doctor. She was taken to the Sydney Hospital and never recovered, suffering from shock and extensive burns on the arms, legs, and lower part of the abdomen. She was conscious and could not exactly tell how the accident happened, but said she believed a candle had set fire to the bedclothes.

Her last words were, “a pint of beer”.

Publican, Michael Kelly was called to give evidence at a coronial hearing into her death, but was unable to throw light on the origin of the fire. The occurrence upset him so much that, ”figuratively speaking, he was totally paralysed”.

The jury found that death was the result of shock, caused by burns accidentally received. Host, Michael Kelly died the following year in an upstairs bedroom of the hotel aged 67.

Back in the present day, I followed the instructions, and made my way to the “back bar” for service. Welcomingly there was much more life there.

There were families and couples enjoying food in a pub known for its tucker.

Ordering my drinks, I returned to the public bar, where a few more ‘souls’ had thawed out the emptiness. Two blokes were shooting pool, and a 60-something regular pulled up a stool at the end of the bar.

We ordered a plate of wedges with sour cream, washed them down with drinks – me a Carlton Draught – before making our way to the next pub on our road trip – The Welcome Hotel.

Welcome Hotel, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Welcome Hotel Rozelle 1949 anu
Welcome Hotel, Rozelle, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

The Welcome Hotel was established in 1877 by German immigrant, Gottfried Ernst Rehnisch, who arrived in the Australian colonies with his wife, Eliza in 1859.

The husband and wife team went on to host the pub at the corner of Evans and Nelson Streets for over a decade before selling their interest. The pair died in 1905 and 1905 respectively.

The pub underwent major renovation in 1919 before host Henry James Wallington took the reins in 1926. Henry had previously hosted the Railway and White Hart Hotels at Parramatta before taking the license of Rozelle’s Welcome Hotel.

The large Wallington family, consisting of six brothers and four sisters, were well-known in Sydney business circles. At least three of Henry’s brothers were also hoteliers. During the 1930s, William hosted the Hurstville Hotel, Tom, the Oxford at Petersham, and Sam the White Horse Hotel at Hurstville.

Henry and Rose Ann had an eventful stay over the six years they were hosts of the Welcome Hotel. Henry was aged 51, and Rose Ann, 43 when they moved into the pub.

Henry bought a seven and a half year lease of the Welcome Hotel, from owners, Tooth & Company Brewery in October 1921, for £5,500, with a weekly rent of £8.

A carpenter by trade, Henry first became an hotelier in 1918 when he received the license of the Railway Hotel at Parramatta, and later the White Hart Hotel also at Parramatta. Both were tough pubs.

Henry was assaulted at least twice while hosting the two Parramatta pubs. He had a knife pulled on him at the Railway Hotel after confronting a man who stole a glass.

Herbert Lawn was fined £20, and put on a good behaviour bond for 12 months after he threw a glass at Henry, pulled a knife, and threatened to kill him in 1920.

Four years later while at the helm of the Welcome Hotel, Henry lost several teeth after he was punched in the mouth. Fred Patterson, who threw the punch, was later arrested at the nearby Sackville Hotel, where he resisted police officers, and was handcuffed.

Patterson was fined £3 for the assault on the publican.

The most interesting occurrence while Henry was at the Welcome Hotel was in 1926.

His wife, Rose Ann served eight days behind bars in Long Bay Prison after she refused to reveal the whereabouts of £600 that she stole from her husband.

Mrs Wallington was convicted on November 10 1926 of having stolen the money, the property of her husband. When questioned by the Judge as to what she had done with the cash, or where she had put it, she refused to give any information, beyond stating that she had put it away as a provision for her old age.

The judge was not impressed; especially after hearing that she had stole a similar amount from her husband two years previous. He gave her time to think the matter over, and when she took her place in the dock, after having been at Long Bay for eight days, she again refused to reveal the whereabouts of the money, but threw herself on the mercy of the Court.

Mrs Wallington said that she took the money because she thought it was as much her property as her husband’s, and she did not know that in taking it she was committing a theft.

The judge said that if she had made a full confession of her financial affairs he would have ordered her husband to make her an allowance for the rest of her life.

Rose Ann was the daughter of a Chinese gold prospector, Joseph Ah You, and English woman, Charlotte Birch. She was one of three daughters born at Stony Creek, Young, in central west NSW in 1878.

There was a lawful impediment for English subjects marrying Chinese settlers prior to 1882, and Rose Ann and her two sisters were born out of wedlock.

Henry met Rose Ann in Wagga Wagga, and they were married there in 1899.  It seems they had a rocky relationship, and after Rose stole the £600 in 1926, they seemed to have lived apart, before they were granted a divorce in 1931.

Rose remarried a Roger James Bell in 1934, and she died in Sydney aged 76 in 1954.

Henry died at the grand age of 89 in Sydney in 1959. They had no children.

The bar entrance at the Welcome Hotel, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
The bar of the Welcome Hotel, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

The bar of the Welcome Hotel today is a far cry from its rough and ready days. A gentrified pub, the bar was bustling with young families enjoying a Saturday lunch when we dropped in for a drink.

A sat at its fine timber bar and got chatting with an older bloke – a regular who lived “down the road” – who said the warm weather had side-tracked him after a stroll to the nearby hardware store. We had a got old chat from everything to how pubs have changed, to how the craft beer market has revolutionised the industry.

The Welcome Hotel was just that on my visit.

The pub sells only craft beers, and the young bar manager was helpful in my decision on choosing a preferred beverage. After a taste test, I settled on a much-enjoyed stout.

I could have easily hung-around a bit at this pub. The stout was smooth, ‘morish’ and the company good. But, we had another two pubs to visit and the shadows drew longer. Down the road a-ways, our next destination was the Sackville Hotel, where publican Henry Wallington’s aggressor was arrested and handcuffed 85 years ago.

The Sackville Hotel, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Sackville Hotel Balmain 1949 anu
The Sackville Hotel, Rozelle, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

The Sackville Hotel, built for the Tooheys brothers, who ran the Standard Brewery at Surry Hills, was likely named after the British fort located in present-day Bedford, Nova Scotia, Canada, built during Father Le Loutre’s War in 1849.

Fort Sackville was named after George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.

Tooheys employed Jim and Mary Kavanagh as the Balmain pub’s first hosts in 1899.

James Peter Kavanagh was granted a license of the Sackville Hotel, Darling Street Balmain on November 15 1899.

Jim arrived from Port Plymoth, London to Adelaide on November 14 1881 before making his way to Sydney where he hosted the Shakespeare Hotel at Newtown from 1880 to 1892. While at the Shakespeare he married Mary White in 1885, before the pair went onto host the Terminus Hotel at Ashfield, ahead of opening the Sackville.

Interestingly the Sackville only provided accommodation for “gentlemen” when the Kavanaghs first opened the hotel. They advertised it as being located within a convenient 15 minutes tram ride from Sydney Railway Station.

Jim died at the hotel in 1903, and his wife followed at the young age of 42 in 1906. The post supported awning was removed from the Sackville Hotel, and replaced with a cantilevered awning in 1914. Tooheys also had the familiar bathroom tiles, so popular with Sydney pubs of the day, plastered to the outside walls of the Sackville that same year.  In later years, during the 1950s, the pub became one of the first in a long list of Sydney pubs run by legendary hotelier, Arthur Laundy.

The main bar of the Sackville Hotel, Rozelle. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

On our visit the pub was buzzing with a good mix of blue and white collar workers, a few tradies chatting over form guides, and watching horse racing, along with Balmain’s professionals, enjoying a bite to eat and a chat.

Moving on, we made our way to the last destination on our Balmain road trip – the Unity Hall Hotel.

Unity Hall Hotel, Balmain. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Unity Hall Hotel Balmain 1949 anu
Unity Hall Hotel, Balmain, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

Once owned by the Australian Pub Fund, made up of businessman John Singleton, former Qantas chief Geoff Dixon and investment banker Mark Carnegie, the hotel is famous for being the site where the first Labor Party branch was formed. And fittingly the Unit Hall is one of Balmain’s classic working class pubs.

The Unity Hall’s history dates back to 1846, when it first opened at another location on the corner of Darling and Nicholson Streets, Balmain. The pub was established by Tom and Ann Taylor, who operated the sandstone inn for over 30 years on the road to Balmain docks. When old Tom died in 1870, at the age of 70, his wife, Ann took the reins of the pub. She continued as host for another five years, before transferring the license of the pub to its present location at the 292 Darling Street, Balmain in February 1875. She remained host at the “new” pub until 1877.

unity hall hotel balmain former google
The first Unity Hall Hotel opened at another location on the corner of Darling and Nicholson Streets, Balmain in the 1840s. It survives today as a doctors’ practice and private residence. Picture: Google Streetview

The hotel was almost rebuilt in 1919 when major renovations were undertaken. Tooth’s brewery purchased the Unity Hall Hotel in 1922, and it’s remained a landmark watering hole amongst Balmain’s many pubs to the present day.

The Unity Hall was a fitting place to end our road trip, full of history, and a pub that has withstood the pressures of a changing Balmain to maintain its working class roots.

Unity Hall Hotel, Balmain. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
The bar of the Unity Hall Hotel, Balmain. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

© Copyright 2019 Mick Roberts

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Categories: NSW hotels, Publicans, review, Reviews, Road Trips, Sydney hotels

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3 replies

  1. Great road trip Mick, well done with the article, a great read.

    My mother was born and lived in Balmain from 1922 till 1946. She told some stories of sitting on the pub steps waiting for her father and uncles at times when she was a young girl and how she used to have to race up the back laneway of Balmain to put bets on with the SP bookies for her father and mother.

    Thanks for the story,

    Keith Bennett.

  2. Thanks Mick

    I’m enjoying your tales.

    I have been researching my family and found that one of them was a Thomas Aiton, who was licensee of the Crispin Arms Hotel, Clarence St 1833-44, the Erin go Bragh, York & Druitt Sts 1845 and also the original Unity Hall (Nicholson and Darling sts) at Balmain 1846-1850.

    According to Leichhardt Historical Journal No13 1984… possession of the site of the THE UNITY HALL INN passed to Thomas Aiton in lieu of a debt incurred to him by a Thomas Mooney. Aiton built the two-storey building on the site in about 1846 …the Unity Hall Inn (now 51 Darling St).
    The Unity Hall received its name from the meetings of the Balmain Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows. Thomas Aiton was a Loyal Brother of that Lodge, he was from Hamilton, Scotland.
    Thomas died at the Unity Hall Inn on 10 December 1850.
    After his death the property passed to his widow, Mary.
    Mary was licensee of the Unity Hall 1850-1854 and their son John Aiton was licensee 1856-73.

    I’m trying to ascertain whether a Thomas Aiton who arrived in Sydney 6th May 1830, on the ship “Mermaid” with the 17th (Leicestershire) Regiment of Foot in Australia is our Thomas.

    Not sure how the Taylors fit into this ?

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