By MICK ROBERTS ©
FROM a humble innkeeper on the NSW South Coast, with a keen interest in horse racing, to one of Australia’s wealthiest businessmen, the story of George Adams centres firmly on Sydney’s Tattersalls Hotel.
Having a punt at the pub, while enjoying a beer, studying the form guide and attempting to win a ‘few quid’ on the horses has filled countless Australian bar rooms on a Saturday.
Adams can thank his horse-racing interests for taking him from rags to riches, and earning him the status of one of Australia’s first millionaire publicans. He would later be known as “The Man in the Hat” – an imposing, tall, bearded gentleman, with flaming red hair, who went on to found the Tattersall’s Sweepstakes.
George Adams’ birthplace was the parish of Sandon, near London, England. Born to farming parents in the small village of Redhill in 1839 he immigrated to Australia as a boy with his family in 1855 after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 allowed foreign produce into the United Kingdom causing enormous financial problems for local farmers.
At the age of 26, and after working as a butcher in Goulburn, and wielding the whip as a driver for the legendary Cobb & Co coaching, he and his first wife, Fanny took the reigns of the Steam Packet Hotel at Kiama on the NSW South Coast in the mid 1860s.
The Steam Packet was a ramshackled single storey weatherboard inn overlooking the picturesque Kiama Harbour. Here he etched out a living as host to a small, quiet village made up mainly of dairy cattlemen and their families.
Big George’s interest in the Sport of Kings saw him make frequent trips to Sydney where he would attend race meetings and mingle with the racing confraternity at O’Brien’s Hotel.
O’Brien’s Tattersall’s Hotel is now the site of the Hilton Hotel in Pitt Street, Sydney. It was established by Richard Hayes as the Mayor’s Inn during the early 1840s.
Hayes was operating the Mayor of Sydney Hotel in George Street before transferring the license to Pitt Street on June 26 1843, where he also was granted a theatre license. There began a long tradition of theatre and hospitality in Pitt Street, which has continued to the present day with the Hilton Hotel.
Hayes left the hotel in 1847, with a number of hosts taking the reins before William John O’Brien became licensee in September 1855. Although the pub had already gained a
reputation as a venue for Sydney’s sporting enthusiasts, O’Brien significantly boosted that distinction after becoming host.
The Mayor’s Inn had a threepenny bar fronting Pitt Street. Behind this bar was the ‘tin bar’, the rendezvous for sportsmen, especially those interested in horse racing.
Behind the ‘tin bar’ the “Foundation Forty”, the original members of Sydney’s Tattersall’s Club – a private club, which conducted major race meeting sweepstakes – was established in 1858. The publican of the Mayor’s Inn, William John O’Brien was said to be the founder of the Club.
The betting rooms were where the Club adopted the rules and regulations of Tattersall’s in London.
O’Brien officially changes the name of the Mayor’s Inn to the Tattersall’s Hotel that same year. In 1860 he built a three storey extension to the side of the original Mayor Inn, which by this time had become the hub of country travelling in the colony.
Besides being a terminus for Cobb and Co coaches, Sydney’s sporting community continued to meet at the pub, including the Australian Jockey Club. The hotel was also the preferred accommodation for the England cricketers when touring Australia.
George Adams loved the environment of O’Brien’s Hotel and enjoyed the company of the many “horsey types” who gathered there. He regularly hired a Cobb and Co coach to take him from his Kiama pub to the Tattersall’s Hotel, and was often heard to say how he wished he owned it. His dream was about to come true.
Jim Conroy drove his Cobb and Co coach the 26½ hour trip from Sydney to Kiama in 1878 to deliver the news that Adams was the new owner of O’Brien’s Hotel.
Conroy, a man of few words delivered the message to Adams that three of his punting mates had bought O’Brien’s pub for him. The anxious Kiama publican drove back to Sydney with Conroy to tell his friends that he was unable to afford to pay them the money for the Sydney hotel. His mates shrugged off Adam’s concerns, telling him to pay when he could! And so he accepted, beginning the legend of one of Australia’s most famous pubs and publicans.
The new Sydney publican renamed the watering hole Adams’ Tattersall’s Hotel and began a small lottery for customers, before opening it to the public in 1881 with a prize of £900 on the Sydney Cup – won that year by Progress. Adams’ Tattersall’s Sweepstakes became known far and wide spreading to every important Australian horse race.
In 1884, a year after the death of his first wife Fanny, the publican’s success allowed him to repay his mates the £40,000 they had loaned him to buy the Tattersall’s Hotel.
Adams married Norah Malone in 1886, and his business empire continued to grow. Seemingly everything the publican touched turned to gold. Despite the Tattersall’s Club vacating his hotel in 1890 to move into their own purpose built premises, trade at the Pitt Street pub continued to boom.
With little improvement since the three-storey extensions of 1860, Adams needed to keep pace with the grand palace like hotels that were being built across Sydney in the 1890s. He engaged architect Varney Parkes to design him a bar that would impress Sydney and beyond. The publican purchased a next door property and set forth to build what many consider was the colonies’ greatest bar-room.
Adams’ marble bar would go down in history as arguably Australia’s, if not the world’s most famous drinking space. Built at a cost of £30,000, the pub featured a main bar room decked out in marble, stained glass, mirrors, mahogany, and artistic paintings.
Opened on Christmas Eve 1892, the saloon was 45 feet square, divided into a central nave separated from wide side aisles, containing the bar counters by massive, square, arcaded columns. It was described as “the handsomest marble hall in Australia worthy of London or Paris”. The Sydney Evening News reported on Saturday December 24 1892:
The latest magnificent addition to the saloon bars of Sydney is that which Mr. George Adams has just completed at his well-known Tattersall’s Hotel, in Pitt-street. At the invitation of the genial host, a great number of prominent citizens assembled yesterday to witness the formal opening of the bar… The building which Mr Adams has just had erected comprises, besides the new bar, a hotel which is supplied with all modern comforts. In Pitt-street are three elaborate entrances… while the central entrance leads through a long corridor, wide and lofty, and built in marbles in classic Italian design. The walls are built of marbles, which run throughout the vestibule, the saloon, lavatories, bathrooms, and passages. There are four beautiful mantelpieces, and many of the panels and the materials have been brought from the Pyrenees, Italy, and other countries. From the main entrance screen doors open on to the main saloon, the doors being of highly polished cedar, chastely designed and panelled in hand painted and stained glass of most elaborate character. The designs are life studies and foliage for the door panels, and the nasturtium vine and sprigs of the orange-bearing fruit are displayed on the side lights and circular light, while the fanlight represents three mermaids sporting in the surf of the sea. After passing through the swing-doors a vestibule is entered with walls curving to right and left, displaying the whole of the splendid room, the extent of which is in the clear 45 feet by 43 feet. The walls of the vestibule are of marble, and surmounting it is a beautiful circular glass dome representing popular field sports, with delicately-shown figures of animals, and rural scenery. The spandrels are in delicate scroll work. The floors of both the hall and vestibule are of enriched mosaic tiling. The approach to the saloon is through three arches, and the room is placed amid a cluster of marble piers and noble arches. The bars and cabinetwork surmounting them at the rear are of carved walnut of unique design, covered with floral decorations. A carved and richly decorated ceiling with cornice and running scroll entablature, adds to the general effect. Fire-safety appliances have been placed in the building and the premises throughout are lighted with both electric and gas lighting. The contractors for the work were Messrs. Stewart Brothers, of Campbell-street, Camperdown… The Mayor of Sydney (Alderman Manning) performed the opening ceremony, proposing in a complimentary speech, “Success to Tattersall’s New Bar”…
The NSW Colonial Government outlawed Adams’ sweepstakes in 1893, so the enterprising publican simply relocated his business to Queensland, then later Tasmania and finally Victoria, to stay ahead of the new anti-gambling laws put in front him.
In the early 1900s he bought the Bulli Coke Works, then the Bulli Colliery, on the NSW South Coast, together with the steamer Governor Blackall. He engaged in many enterprises, including the Waterloo Paper Mills, Newcastle Electric Light Station, Broken Hill Electric Light Station, and many other ventures.
In 1902 Adams purchased the old Tasmanian Brewery premises in Elizabeth Street, Hobart, and immediately began extensions and improvements on a grand scale. The Sydney publican planned to capture most of the Tasmanian market and develop business to the Australian mainland. No doubt he had visioned Adams’ Tasmanian Ale pouring from the taps of his Tattersall’s Hotel in Sydney’s Pitt Street.
While his ale was reasonably popular in Tasmania, his grand plans ended suddenly in 1904 when he died in Hobart. He was 65.
Adams died a rich and famous man – a true rags to riches success story. George and his two wives never had children, and after his death the Tattersalls Hotel was left to his family estate.
While the hotel continued trading under the name Tattersall’s, the sign was officially changes to “Adams’ Hotel” in his honour on September 26 1960.
Sadly Adams’ Hotel was demolished to make way for a Hilton Hotel. The old pub closed for business on February 18 1969 and was demolished soon after.
The Hilton Hotel opened for business on July 19 1973. Thankfully, Adams’ famous marble bar was carefully dismantled, with each part numbered individually, and painstakingly reassembled inside the Hilton.
Today the marble bar continues to trade and impress patrons and visitors in the basement of Sydney’s Hilton Hotel – a testament to one of Australia’s most enduring entrepreneurs, The Man in the Hat.
Read how the marble bar was reassembled in the Hilton Hotel at the Time Gents story: Marble Bar makes comeback
Marble Bar in the basement of the Hilton Hotel, Sydney
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019