Publican, Rose Rooney: Sydney’s Diamond Queen

Randwick fashions a 1919
Fashion on the field: Women at Randwick Racecourse in 1919 when Rose Rooney was a regular visitor. Picture: Supplied.


Rose Rooney 1937
Rose Rooney. Picture: Supplied

KNOWN as the ‘Diamond Queen’, publican Rose Rooney was the toast of Sydney’s Bohemian social life for over 20 years.

There were few as colourful as Rose, who possessed of personality, and a lively wit, attracted her like in great numbers to the bars over which she presided during the early part of last century.

Rose, with her fingers smothered with diamonds, dressed in the latest fashions and with her bevy of buxom barmaids in tow when visiting the race track, was toasted by the sporting and Bohemian fraternity of the city.

A regular to Randwick and the now gone Ascot racecourses, where she mingled with other well-to-do fashionistas, Rose hosted four Sydney pubs, before disappearing from city life after struggling financially through the Great Depression.

Irrepressible Rose though, would return to Sydney in the late 1930s after hosting three Brisbane pubs, where she restored her fortunes, eventually making Darlinghurst her home in the years before her death.

Raised in the hospitality industry – first in coaching inns on the central-western plains of NSW, and later in a number of working-class, inner-Sydney pubs run by her mother – Rose was destined for a hotelier’s career.

The glamourous publican was born to Elizabeth and Paul Harford at Mudgee in 1868, where her father owned and operated Emby Station on the Merri Merri Creek, about 80 kilometres south-west of Coonamble, NSW.

Prior to her birth, Rose’s parents had hosted the remote Squatters Inn, located along a Cobb and Co. coach route at Merri Merri Creek, from 1859 to 1864. In his 1910 reminiscence, “Old Ned” wrote that in 1864 he spent a week at Paul Harford’s “first-class inn” after heavy rain and flooded roads trapped them there for a week.

Rose’s father Paul was often droving cattle, or prospecting for gold in settlements like Gulgong, which left her resourceful mother, Elizabeth to mostly rear their three children.

The Squatters Inn, which the family had operated, was destroyed by fire in December 1875. In turn, Elizabeth took the license of the Pine Ridge Hotel, 60 kilometres west of Coonamble just over eight kilometres from Quombone Station.

Rose was seven years of age, her siblings, Elizabeth, 5, Mary, 8, and John, 12, when her mother first fronted the bar of the Pine Ridge Hotel, located along the coaching road between Warren and Carinda.

Rose’s father, Paul sold Emby Station in 1879, and he moved to the small village of St Marys, near Penrith, establishing a tannery and shoe manufacturing business.

At the time, Rose’s uncle, Thomas Harford hosted the St Mary’s pub, the Cottage of Content. While her father relocated to St Marys, her mother, Elizabeth continued running pubs on the central-western plains.

Rose was in her teens when her mother took the license of the Tattersalls Hotel at Mudgee (now trading as the Lawson Park Hotel) in 1883, and later a wayside inn, known as the Junction Hotel, at the intersection of the Castlereagh Highway and Guntawang Road at Cullenbone, 20 kilometres north of Mudgee.

Tattersalls later Lawson Park Hotel Mudgee 1925 ANU
Tattersall’s Hotel, Mudgee, 1930. Rose’s mother, Elizabeth was licensee in 1883. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

At the age of 20, Rose, along with her two sisters, followed her mother to the big smoke, where Elizabeth took the license of the European Hotel on Castlereagh Street, Sydney in December 1888. Rose’s older brother, John, though, went to St Mary’s, near Penrith, where his father, Paul owned a tannery.

John Harford, Rose’s brother was also into fashion. The convicted conman was known as Gentleman Jack’.’

John, in his mid 20s, was constantly in trouble with the law, and eventually headed to northern Queensland in the late 1880s, where he would earn the nick-name, “Gentleman Jack”. He was once described as “a man with a most extraordinary criminal record, as well as a most extraordinary number of names”.

Gentleman Jack was convicted of almost every offence connected with dishonesty. Like Rose, he had a taste for fashion and style.

John became known as Queensland’s best dressed con-men, distinguished by his penchant for well-cut clothes, immaculate ties and highly polished shoes. He was – to all outward appearances – always the gentleman.

Rose’s older brother’s countless court appearances were always noteworthy because of his bearing in the dock. He wore an air of mystification, usually, a sort of pained surprise that he should be accused of such vulgarity as pick-pocketing, or ordinary stealing.

Gentleman Jack always strove to impress the court, with his diction and on numbers of occasions conducted his own defence. In that he wasn’t usually successful and spent lengthy periods behind bars.

While visiting Sydney, and probably his sister in 1929, the old crook was killed in a car accident at the age of 66. The Brisbane Truth reported his death on March 17 1929:

Gentleman Jack retained his well dressed mien: and never allowed himself to be seen without a resplendent 12-guinea suit, with trappings to match. But he descended in the social scale, and his last recorded crimes show him to have been guilty of such paltry thieving as snatching goods from passing wagons or stealing protruding stock from front counters. The once efficient “crook” was brought very low. In one of his most recent police court appearances he showed how habit was almost ineradicably. He had just been convicted, after a strenuous defence to some petty theft and was ordered to gaol for a few moons. As he left the dock he attempted to turn round to say something— rather nastily it seemed — to the magistrate. A detective with commendable promptitude spun him round towards the door that leads to the watch house, and in doing so perforce clutched “Gentleman Jack’s” arm. The old ‘crook,’ with, an almost indescribable gesture of contempt, snatched his sleeve away, carefully brushed himself, straightened out his crumpled sleeve, adjusted his tie, and swaggered off to the watch house. Always the little: ‘gentleman! The C.I.B. men of Brisbane said that about him, unfailingly. He would refuse to be arrested like a common or garden criminal, but would insist on “accompanying” the officer to headquarters. It was the ruthless attention of C.I.B. men that broke up “Gentleman Jack’s”, endeavours to be a leader in crime. Then came drink, which dulled the once vivid brain. When the news reached Brisbane that Jack — as is thought — had died out, there were many expressions of sympathy among detectives. Jack will be long remembered as the man who always “came quietly”. And that, in a harassed detective’s lifetime, means a great deal.

randwick fashions a 1911
Women at Randwick Racecourse 1911. Picture: Supplied.

Meanwhile 26-year-old Rose had fallen in love with Sydney’s social life. During the time her mother hosted the European Hotel on Castlereagh Street, Rose had become a regular sight at the glamour and throb of Sydney’s race tracks.

After six years at the helm of the Castlereagh Street pub, Elizabeth returned to Mudgee in 1894 to manage several of the family’s business and property interests.

Rose though had different ideas. She remained in Sydney, likely working as a barmaid, where she continued to climb the social ladder.

The bright, crowded scenes, ablaze with life and colour, the music, the fashion and even the blatant roar of the ‘bookies’ continued to draw her to the race track. She was often mentioned in the social pages of Sydney’s newspapers, which reinforced Randwick’s grand stand and lawns as the place to be seen in the 1890s:

There are to be seen thousands of ladies, the majority of them in dainty costumes, now receiving their first public exhibition, as the wearers chat with their friends on the stand, promenade the lawn, or make brief excursions between the races to the saddling paddock and the sheds, there to admire the essential racehorse and seek inspiration as to mild bets on “good things” from the horsiest of their acquaintance. From all parts of the colonies these ladies have come, as social contributors are prepared to vouch, and for them the meet not only serves to display what in the fashion columns are dubbed “confections,” but to renew many an acquaintance and make many a new friend. As the moment for starting a race approaches the stand fills, but the moment it is over its occupants surge out again.

randwick 1896
The lawn of Randwick Racecourse in 1896. Picture: Supplied

There’s little doubt it was at one of these ‘track meets’ that the charismatic Rose met her future husband. At the age of 29, in 1897, she married Bathurst born bookie, Frank ‘Darkie’ Rooney at Waverley. The following year the pair had their one and only child, Rose May.

The couple became one of Sydney’s most dashing couples, often hosting euchre parties and social evenings for charities at their Woollahra home, “Euston”.

Rose lost her Irish-born father, Paul Harford on October 21 1900 in mysterious circumstances. The 74-year-old was found dead, face-down in about two feet of water in a roadside culvert at St Marys, with his right arm extended under his face; his other arm also extended, holding his walking stick.

The coroner found his death to be accidental, and he was buried in a lone grave in the St Marys General Cemetery. The grand matriarch of the Harford family, Elizabeth died in March 1909 and was buried in Mudgee.

Like her parents relationship, Rose’s partnership with Frank was not successful. After her mother’s death in 1909, Rose returned to Mudgee where she made the Paragon Hotel her home. From there she settled the family’s business affairs. Her marriage broke down from this point, and she never returned to Frank for three months.

After Rose returned to Sydney, Frank told a court application for divorce, that she seemed dissatisfied in their relationship.

“She said she wanted to see life, and travel and make money,” he said.

“What she didn’t seem to want was my company. One morning I went out to business as usual, and on my return she had gone.”

Late in 1914, she returned to Frank, and they lived together at Darlinghurst for six weeks: but Rose left him again, and in April 1915 her career as a hotelier in her own right began.

Rose secured the license of the Town Hall Hotel in Oxford Street, Paddington. The hotel, now demolished, was located on the current site of the Paddington RSL Club, opposite the Town Hall.

Town Hall Hotel Paddington 1949 ANU
Rose Rooney’s first hotel. Rooney was host of the Town Hall Hotel, Paddington from 1915 to 1918.  Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

Already well-known in Sydney’s social circles, Rose’s celebrity status was boosted further when on Australia Day 1915 she donated the takings – £58 – from the Town Hall Hotel to help wounded soldiers fighting in the Great War.

Besides becoming renowned for the clear water-white purity of her diamonds, the Daily Telegraph once described the flamboyant hotelier as a “keen business woman”, who was “convicted of many kindnesses to her less fortunate sisters, and was a genuine friend to many disabled diggers during the war”.

Although reportedly generous, the hostess was often in trouble with the law for failing to follow licensing regulations, including selling adulterated liquor and opening her pubs during restricted hours.

Lavishly frocked, with ostrich feathers in her hat and diamonds studded in the heels of her shoes, she was followed by every eye as she staged her entrance to the lawns of Randwick and Ascot race tracks. Encrusted with jewels, Rose’s flaming red hair added to the dazzle of her presence wherever she graced her presence.

randwick races 1918 sydney mail
Soldiers mingle amongst the elegantly dressed women on the lawn of Randwick Racecourse 1918. Picture: Supplied
ranwick racecourse women chatting 1914
Women’s fashion on the lawns of Randwick Racecourse 1918. Picture: Supplied.

In 1918, at the age of 50, Rose was granted her second license, that of the notorious Graham Hotel, in Castlereagh Street, Sydney.

The Graham’, it was said, brought her great riches.

Men from all walks of life made ‘The Graham’ their rendezvous. Sailors mingled with politicians, racing men, licensing magistrates and the easy-money makers of Sydney regularly breasted the bar.

Before the ‘Diamond Queen’ took the license, the pub was a regular haunt of politician, solicitor and newspaper proprietor, William Crick. Crick was described by author Cyril Pearl as an irresistible demagogue, who “looked like a prize fighter, dressed like a tramp, talked like a bullocky, and to complete the pattern of popular virtues, owned champion horses which he backed heavily and recklessly”.

In the night life of Sydney, Rose was said to stand out like a beacon in the dark. Always she appeared in startling dresses and adorned with precious stones.

Generally she was backed by a collection of her girls – the buxom barmaids from The Graham. They reportedly moved like “a musical comedy star and chorus”.

A bevy of buxom barmaids from Rose’s hotels often accompanied her to the track

The exact value of Rose’s diamonds was not known, but it was common knowledge that those she sported on her fingers while presiding over the Hotel Graham from 1918 to 1922 were worth at least £6,000.

Only one other Sydney hotelier out-shone Rose when it came to diamonds.

Kathleen Trautwein, wife of an infamous Sydney hotelier, Theodore Charles Trautwein, often sat at her pub’s till bedecked with diamonds.

Kathleen had a collection of diamond rings valued at more than £20,000.

When it was known she was serving in the bar at Belfields Hotel, at the corner of George and King Streets, crowds would flock round her to see her diamond rings.

The Belfields hostess reportedly consistently had a bodyguard with her while working in the bar.

Rose’s presence at the Hotel Graham also attracted much interest. It was not uncommon for her to ‘crack’ a bottle of champagne when at the bar with her ‘special’ customers.

The champagne reportedly flowed as freely as beer at ‘The Graham’.

The revelry stepped up a notch at her pub on special occasions – especially when the publican celebrated a birthday.

On her 54th birthday on September 14 1922 an altercation arose in one of the pub’s parlours, when a police constable suffered a dagger wound to his left shoulder during a disturbance. The Sydney Truth reported:

Along Castlereagh-street, about 100 yards north from King Street, and opposite Martin-place, stands the Hotel Graham. It is a small building – so small as to be almost effaced by the other buildings around – and only for the mirrors that hang outside, advertising various brands of liquor that are retailed therein, you would pass it by, perhaps not even noticing that such a place, famed for its fizz and festiveness, ever existed there. It is a famed Shrine of Bacchus, and the licensee a lady known far and wide as Rose Rooney. On the 14th of September, so Dame Rumor has it, Rose held a birthday party, and all day long friends of varied social tonnage went there to pay their respects. But the day did not end as happily as it commenced. An altercation arose in one of the parlors, and the result was that a probationary constable was taken to the Sydney Hospital suffering from a dagger wound on the left shoulder. The outcome of this was that a young man, William Archer, was arrested and on Thursday last, he made his appearance at the Central Police Court, charged with maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm on Allan Richard Burnett, on September 14.

Archer was arrested at the Cambridge Flats in Bourke Street, Darlinghurst the following day and he was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour in Bathurst Gaol.

The following year, in 1923, Frank Rooney was granted a divorce from Rose – the same year the hotelier was forced out of her landmark Hotel Graham. The pub was resumed to extend Martin Place and eventually demolished in 1924.

Rose became the ‘high priestess’ of Sydney’s Temple Bar Hotel, located on George Street near the intersection of Bridge Street, when in December 1924 she was granted the transfer of the license from Maurice Kelly. It was around this time that cracks started to appear in her empire.

While at Randwick races on Saturday April 15 1925, Rose booked a return cab fare from the Temple Bar to Randwick.

The fare amounted to £2 and 4 shillings and returning to the pub after the races, Rose asked the taxi-driver, John Read to wait while she collected his fare from the pub’s till. She returned to the cab telling the driver that the girl in the bar had had a bad day, and there was not enough money in the till to pay him. He subsequently returned for his money, but was unable to collect it. Rose was summoned to court and fined £2, with £1 and 8 shillings costs for failing to pay her fare.

Later the same year Maurice Kelly – from whom Rose bought the pub, summoned her to court to claim over £270 in unpaid stock and rates.

The pair eventually settled out of court, but it was another sign that Rose was struggling financially.

The Sydney publican was struck another blow in October 1927 when a large quantity of liquor was stolen from her hotel. A man was later arrested in connection with the crime. Two days after the theft police made a surprise raid on a house in Kent Street where they reportedly found a miniature hotel.

The thief was charged with receiving two eight-gallon kegs of beer, 120 bottles of whisky, 60 bottles of champagne, 31 bottles of gin, 14 bottles of liqueurs, 30 bottles of stout, and 12 bottles of port wine valued at £90.

Rose’s financial woes were revealed in the Sydney press in 1930, when Smith’s Weekly reported that “cheap engagement rings should be obtainable in a few weeks, for Rose Rooney has filed her bankruptcy schedule”.

“You remember how her fingers were weighted down with diamonds as large as pigeons’ eggs, when she attended race meetings in glorious creations from Gay Paree,” reported the newspaper.

Just under a month later Smith’s Weekly were forced to publish a “correction and apology” for the story after it was found that although the ‘Diamond Queen’ was struggling financially, she had in fact not filed for bankruptcy.

There were no thorns on Rose though. And the 63-year-old hotelier had a few more pubs left in her yet. She gained the license of the Lion Hotel in York-street North, Sydney in August 1931, where she remained as host until September 1934.

Lion Hotel Sydney 1930
Lion Hotel, York Street North, Sydney 1930. Rose was licensee of the Lion Hotel from 1931 to 1934. Picture:  Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

The Lion Hotel was later demolished after it was resumed by the Railways Department for the extension of the line to Circular Quay as part of the City Circle. The license of the pub was transferred to the Oasis, Bankstown in 1954.

Rose reluctantly fronted Redfern Court in February 1931 after she had a diamond snatched from her ear while on her way to the Ascot races at Mascot. As she left her car, a 29-year-old accountant, Richard Brennan, pulled the jewellery, valued at £30, from her ear.

“I don’t want to give evidence,” she told the court.

“I don’t think he meant to steal it. He took it merely out of spite.”

Police prosecutor Stinson insisted the 63-year-old publican give evidence. And so she gave an account of the theft, the Evening News reported, “resplendent in grey tailored costume, black straw cloche hat, and diamond and onyx ear-rings which, hanging by a fine chain, rested on her shoulders”.

“I got it back from him this morning,” Rose said, holding up the jewel.

Brennan did not give evidence, but, by consent, was discharged conditionally on entering into a bond to be of good behaviour for six months.

Leaving her financial woes behind her, Sydney’s Diamond Queen left for Brisbane in 1935, where she would host another three pubs under the name of ‘Rosana’ Rooney.

At the age of 67, she was granted the license of the Adelaide Hotel in Stanley Street, South Brisbane in June 1935.

A few months into her new role as host, Rose was slapped with a fine of £8 13 shillings, with £1 7 pence costs, for selling adulterated rum.

The following year, Rose was the publican of the historic Pier Hotel at Cleveland, a township on Moreton Bay, about 40 kilometres out of Brisbane.

pier hotel cleveland
Pier Hotel, Cleveland, Brisbane, Queensland. Picture: Supplied

While licensee her Cleveland hotel, Rose suffered another set-back when her business was totally destroyed by fire in 1936. The Brisbane Telegraph reported on Monday August 31:

At 3.45am on Sunday morning the proprietress, Mrs. Rosana Rooney, awoke to find portion of her room which was nearest the building housing the bar alight. When she hurriedly surveyed the trouble the bar building which was detached from the main building was totally ablaze. She raised the alarm, bringing her staff and her daughter, Mrs Pyatt, to her assistance. Three campers also came to help, but with the combined efforts of all they were unable to save more than a small portion of the furnishings and some personal belongings. The proprietress lost practically everything. Her bar stock was not covered by insurance; neither were her personal belongings nor furnishings. The damage is estimated about £1,000. Amongst the proprietress’ missing belongings were a pair of diamond earrings valued at £100. One earring was later discovered amongst the smouldering mass, but its value is now negligible. Mrs Pyatt, of Sydney, daughter of Mrs Rooney, lost an emerald ring valued at £100, together with a wristlet watch valued at £25.

Rose Rooney, 1922. Picture: Supplied.

The carpenters arrived the afternoon after the fire to build a temporary bar so that the licence would not lapse, and that business could be carried on as usual on the following Monday.

It was at the temporary bar that Sydneysiders discovered the fate of their Diamond Queen, the one-time leader of Sydney’s Bohemian night life, who had vanished from the harbour city in 1935.

Almost 70 years of age, Rose was found by a Sydney traveller dispensing drinks in ‘Rooney’s Temporary Bar’ – a shack in Cleveland.

The old hotelier had one more pub in her though. She had her pride, and seemingly didn’t want to go out pulling beers in a Cleveland shack.

In July 1937, Rose gained the license of the Urangan Hotel, in the tourist resort region of Hervey Bay, Queensland, where she remained as host until the following year.

Urangan Hotel would be Rose’s last pub.

Urangan Hotel Queensland
Rose Rooney’s last hotel. Rooney was host of the Urangan Hotel, Hervey Bay, Queensland from 1937 to 1939.  Picture: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Undated

At the age of 71, she returned to Sydney to live out her life with her daughter, Rose Pyatt at Darlinghurst.

Sydney’s Diamond Queen, the daughter of an innkeeper on the Merri Merri, died at Darlinghurst, Sydney at the age of 71 on August 29, 1939, leaving behind a colourful chapter in Sydney’s pub history.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019

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