Notorious Sydney wharfies’ pub, the Bristol Arms

bristol arms hotel sussex street sydney 2018 TG 2
Bristol Arms Hotel corner of Sussex and Slip Streets, Sydney, 2018. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


SYDNEY’S remaining wharfie pubs are far and few between, where brawls were common, and thirsts were big. 

Down on Sussex Street, towards Darling Harbour, can be found a pub from that era, although its ‘bloodhouse’ days, when waterside workers packed its bars, are long gone.

The Bristol Arms Hotel, established in 1858, now trades as a gentrified inner-city pub, providing a sanctuary for office-workers and the occasional tourist exploring the streets surrounding the famed Darling Harbour precinct.

There’s been a pub trading on the site of the Bristol Arms for over 164 years.

Bristol Arms Sussex Street Back Entrance edited C1900
Bristol Arms Hotel, Sussex Street, Sydney, C1900. Picture: State Records NSW

The area immediately to the rear of the pub at Cockle Bay was where the ‘patent slip’ wharf once operated. The slip or marine railway was an inclined plane extending from the shoreline into the bay, featuring a ‘cradle’ onto which ships were floated, and maintained or repaired.

Sussex Street was the main thoroughfare between the wharves and Sydney Town, where many pubs serviced the endless thirst of the sailors and wharf workers.

bristol arms sussex street sydnet back entrance 2 C1900
The Bristol Arms, Sussex Street, Sydney, C1900. Picture: State Records NSW
Bristol Arms Sussex Street Back Entrance 1 C1900
The Bristol Arms, Sussex Street, Sydney, C1900. Picture: State Records NSW

The Bristol Arms became known for its infamous ‘back-bar’, a small separate building in a lane way facing Cockle Bay, behind the pub-proper.

Sadly it was demolished to make way for extensions to the hotel in 1994. The bar – a stone throw from Cockle Bay – was a favourite with sailors and waterside workers.

Bristol Arms Hotel Sussex Street Sydney 1930 ANU
The infamous ‘back bar’ facing Darling Harbour in a laneway behind the Bristol Arms Hotel, 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University. 

A pub was first licensed on the corner of what is today Sussex and Slip Streets on April 25 1845, when Patrick Lee opened the Harp of Erin Inn. With his wife Bridget, the pair hosted the pub that catered for the hard-drinking wharfies and seamen from the docks.

After Patrick’s death on October 28 1854, aged 79, his widow Bridget took the reins of the Harp of Erin for a couple of years, before timber merchant, James Blair purchased the pub.

At the age of 41, Jim was granted a new license for the premises on September 14 1858, giving it the name, Bristol Arms. He had been operating a timber yard, between Erskine and King Streets, opposite the Harp of Erin Hotel on Sussex Street before becoming publican. He remained as licensee until 1869 when his son, Frank took over as publican. Frank’s brother, James also ran a pub; Blair’s Hotel at the corner of Kent and Margaret streets at the same time.

The founder of the Bristol Arms, James Blair died at the age of 63 in 1880.

The hotel was described as having two bars, 10 rooms, kitchen and cellar on land with a 64 feet frontage to Sussex Street and a depth of about 64 feet towards Day Street.

The Bristol Arms was purchased by the Haymarket Permanent Land, Building, and Investment Company from the Blair estate, with the company investing in a total rebuild of the old public house in 1898.

During the pub’s rebuilding some excitement was caused when the front facade of the old hotel collapsed. The rear portion of the building had been demolished, but the front wall had been left standing. During the height of a fierce storm the facade suddenly collapsed, and fell across the footpath in Sussex Street, smashing the hoarding erected by the contractors carrying out the alterations.

Fortunately, no one was injured.

Within two years of completing the grand-new Bristol Arms, Haymarket Permanent Land, Building, and Investment Company were notified that the NSW Government were to resume the property.

The area was resumed by the Government in 1900 after the outbreak of plague, and placed under the control of the Darling Harbour Resumptions Advisory Board. Control then passed to the Sydney Harbour Trust.

The Trust was responsible for the improvement and preservation of Sydney’s port. It regulated the movement of vessels and the handling of cargo in the port, granted licences for building piers, maintained wharf facilities and collected wharfage rates.

The Trust resumed two pubs owned by the Haymarket Permanent Land, Building, and Investment Company in 1900 – The Bristol Arms and nearby Mariners’ Hotel.

Some big compensation payments were awarded against the Government after the resumption of several properties around Darling Harbour.

In 1902 the Haymarket Permanent Land, Building, and Investment Company claimed £12,100 as compensation for the resumption of the Bristol Arms Hotel.

The Government valuation of the Bristol Arms was £7260, and the Court awarded the plaintiffs £9120. The same company also claimed £9120 for the resumption of the Mariners’ Arms Hotel. The Government offered £5500, and the company was eventually awarded £8830 by the court.

The area around the pub wasn’t the safest place to wander after nightfall.

Shortly after 11pm one evening in January 1905, Bristol Arms barmaid, Lillian Phillips was stabbed in Sussex Street by a German sailor. She was talking to a friend, when her assailant began verbally abusing her.

The barmaid ignored the sailor, who drew a razor and slashed her, inflicting three-inch wounds, across her arm and shoulder. She was later allowed to leave Sydney Hospital.

A month earlier, the barmaid was assaulted by her boyfriend while working in the bar. James Smillie, a “middle-aged miner”, appeared in the Water Police Court in December 1904 to answer a charge of having threatened Lillian Phillips.

Smillie threatened to ‘blow her brains out’, at the same time menacing her with a loaded revolver. He was arrested by police at the Bristol Arms.

“That woman has been my ruination, both financially and in health,” he told police during his arrest. “I’ve been intending to leave her for a long time. This will finish matters”.

In the impending court case, reported in the Sydney Evening News on December 5 1904, it was also revealed that Lillian was hit with a water bottle by Smillie, before she attempted to escape under the bar. As she did, Smillie took out a revolver, shouting, “I’ll murder you”.

The men in the bar struggled with Smillie, and the barmaid managed to escape. Smillie was bound over to keep the peace for six months; self in £20, and two sureties of £10 each. He was also ordered to pay costs.

There’s no doubting the rowdiness of the Bristol Arms during the 19th century and early 20th century with the bar packed with waterside workers. The Labor Daily newspaper reported on Wednesday December 5 1928:




FOUR casualties resulted from a savage brawl between union and non union seamen in a waterfront hotel shortly before 6pm yesterday.

Members of the crews of the steamers Mildura and Murada, which have been carrying mixed crews of union and volunteer seamen since the recent strike, were set upon while drinking in the bar of the Bristol Arms Hotel, Day and Sussex Streets. They were knocked to the ground and subjected to an unmerciful kicking by their attackers. Three of them were removed to hospital, but the fourth steadily refused medical aid, though in rather a bad way.

Blows Rain Freely

The first three men were members of the crew of the Mildura. Schmidt, who refused to be taken to hospital, is aboard the Murada. Hodgens was admitted to Sydney Hospital, and the other men were allowed to return to their ship after receiving treatment. McKay had one stitch Inserted over his left eye, one in his knee, and two in the wound in his foot. From his injuries, it is evident that his at-tackers used some sharp instrument. Eye-witnesses of the melee state that one man was seen to produce a wharf-laborer’s hook.

Twelve Rush In

The four injured men were drinking in the hotel bar shortly before 6pm when about twelve men, who appeared to be also seamen, rushed in. “Come on, you — scabs!” they are stated to have shouted. As the four men wheeled around, blows were rained on them from all directions. They endeavored to protect themselves, but against the unequal numbers had little chance. Within less than a minute all had been knocked to the floor. Their assailants then commenced to kick them unmercifully. Wherever a portion of the prostrate men’s heads or bodies was visible, a boot thudded against it.

Attackers Flee

The general commotion in the vicinity of the hotel attracted the attention of Sergeant Day and Constables Hardy and Higgins, of the Water Police, who were in the vicinity. Their approach was noticed, however, and the attackers in the hotel notified. They immediately ceased belaboring their victims and made their way out through a side-door. Constables Bold and White soon joined the other police, and an endeavor was made to locate those responsible for the attack. However, a considerable crowd, composed chiefly of seafaring men, had assembled, and it was impossible for the police to pick out the men they wanted. The fracas only lasted a couple of minutes and but for the intervention of the police the victims would have been more seriously Injured. They were all in a sorry plight when the police went to their assistance and could not give any information of much value as to the identity of their assailants. The Mildura and Murada, in which the injured men were nerving, are cargo steamers engaged in the interstate trade.

The NSW Government continued ownership of the Bristol Arms, with the Maritime Services Board – as the Sydney Harbour Trust became – leasing the pub to Tooth and Company during the 1920s.

In 1937 the hotel’s sign changed to the Welcome Inn.

Welcome Inn Hotel Sussex Street 1949 anu
The Welcome Inn, Sussex Street, Sydney, 1949. Photo: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

Interestingly the Maritime Services Board owned or managed on behalf of the Crown, 22 Sydney pubs in 1946, including the Welcome Inn. Breweries held the leases of 21 of those 22 hotels with controversially no tenders ever called for the purchase of those leases. Although unrelated, it is also note worthy that Sydney City Council owned 12 Sydney pubs at this time.

Meanwhile the Sussex Street pub remained popular with waterside workers during the 1940s and 50s. Hundreds of wharf labourers “flush” with their weekly pay stormed the pub in April 1948 when it was announced that the beer “was turned on” after months of shortages due to government rationing.

World War II had caused a shortage in beer supplies in Sydney’s pubs, with many running dry during and for many years after. When word got around that a sign reading, ‘Beer on at 12’ was displayed outside the Welcome Inn, the Cockle Bay waterside workers thirstily marched with anticipation to the hotel from their pay office.

When new licensee John Dodson took over the Welcome Inn, he did a deal with Briton’s beer, which was in plentiful supply, allowing him to provide plenty of beer to his customers.

The wharfies crowded around the public bar doors more than an hour before opening time, and at zero hour the men were climbing over parked cars, blocking part of Sussex Street outside the pub in an effort to order their beer.

McLeish publican welcome inn sussex street sydney counter lunch 1953
Elsie McLeish serving sandwiches in the Welcome Inn in 1953.

The Welcome Inn was at the centre of the storm surrounding free counter lunches in the 1950s, when publicans David and Elsie McLeish started providing food at no cost to his customers.

The husband and wife took the license of the Welcome Inn during 1953, and immediately began providing free counter lunches for his customers. The United Liquor Victuallers Association, the forerunner of the Australian Hotels Association, and the large breweries had a policy against the practice. McLeish’s free counter lunches included meat rolls, rissoles, sandwiches, bread rolls, biscuits and cheese.

At this time the Welcome Inn was a freehold hotel, serving Tooth’s and Brookvale beers.  McLeish was reported to have said he had not had any complaint from the ULVA about the free counter lunches. However, he soon landed in hot water, with Tooth and Company, which threatened to end his beer supplies. Tooths brews were the most popular in Sydney, and not supplying its beers was business suicide.

As a result McLeish, like other hotels, toed the line and was forced to charge for his counter lunches. In defiance though, McLeish donated the money from his counter lunches to a local charity.

Welcome Inn Hotel Sussex Street Sydney 1960
Welcome Inn, Sussex Street, Sydney, 1960. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

The Welcome Inn continued to function as a hotel until 1969, when the property was resumed by the Department of Main Roads as part of the realignment of Day Street. It was reportedly a notoriously rough venue during the 1970s, often described as a “bloodhouse”.

The NSW Government put the property up for sale after 1984, and for the first time since 1902 it became under private ownership. The new owners reverted to its original name – the Bristol Arms.

The infamous “back-bar” facing Cockle Bay docks was demolished in April 1994 when a four-storey extension was built to the rear of the hotel. The pubs again underwent a major renovation in 2013, at which time a rooftop bar was added.

bristol arms sussex street sydney 2018 bar
The public bar of the Bristol Arms Hotel, Sussex Street, Sydney, 2018. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
bristol arms hotel sussex street sydney 2018 TG 3
The Bristol Arms Hotel, Sussex Street, Sydney, 2018. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019

Additional Comments from Facebook Page:

Mark Gozzola writes: “The Bristol Arms was once nick named the ‘Buncha’ which came from the nick name ‘Buncha C**ts’… it was called that because strike breakers or ‘scabs’ were allowed to drink there… “

David Phegan, added: “You could ask any taxi driver to take you to ‘The Bunch’, and he knew where to go… a very colourful pub.”

Laurie McCurry‘s imput: “I recall having a few beers there with members of the Hells Angels in the early 70s. It had a parachute hung from the ceiling and was called The Bunch of Cards Hotel, but it was known as the Bunch of C****…”

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