The pubs and brothels of Hobart’s Watchorn Street

An archaeological survey on the site of the of Whale Fishery Tavern prior to the construction of the The Commons residential and retail complex on the corner of Watchorn and Bathurst Streets, Hobart in 2019. Picture: The Commons Facebook Group.


NOT many would be aware of the notorious history of an unassuming service lane, linking Liverpool and Bathurst Streets, in Hobart. 

Watchorn Street looks fairly tame these days, with The Commons apartment and retail complex dominating the corner with Bathurst Street and the historic Odeon Theatre and live entertainment venue influencing the opposite corner with Liverpool Street. The character of Watchorn Street though hides an infamous tale.

Back tracking to the 1830s, Watchorn Street was a much different place. At the south-east corner of Bathurst Street, where The Commons apartments stand, was the notorious pub, known as the Whale Fishery, and about half way down was another watering hole by the name of the Royal Oak.

The street was a busy thoroughfare, alive with soldiers who frequented the Royal Oak, drunken seamen, who called at Whalers Fishery, and who both visited “a nest of brothels” that lined one side of the road.

The street was no place for the faint-hearted, a dangerous precinct, where the whalers, who often carried sheath knives, had regular confrontations with the soldiers. No respectable person would want to be seen dead in Watchorn Street during this time.

The Launceston Daily Telegraph reported a colourful insight into the history of Watchorn Street on March 17 1906:

At the corner of Watchorn and Bathurst streets Hobart stands a two-storey dilapidated looking building, which has just been purchased by a body of local philanthropists for a refuge for those individuals who have been wrecked and cast up on the coast line of life.

Like many old buildings in the city this edifice has a history. Half a century ago it was a notorious pub, called the Whale Fishery, and much frequented by the crews of whaling vessels and hordes of disreputable characters, which lived in evil-smelling shanties in the immediate locality.

In the centre of Watchorn-street in these days stood another pub, called the Royal Oak, a favorite haunt of the soldiers attached to the regiment then quartered in the military barracks.

The whole of one side of Watchorn-street at this period was a nest of brothels, and no respectful person ever passed through this thoroughfare.

On the northern side of the Royal Oak a lady of questionable attainments, called Sydney Jane, resided, and as her clientele were of a variegated nature, the place used to register four to five disturbances a week.

A few doors south of the Royal Oak was located the residence of one Jerry Sullivan, a gentleman of Milesian descent, who kept a boarding house.

watchcorn street hobart 3
In the centre of Watchorn-street in the 1830s stood another pub, called the Royal Oak, a favourite haunt of soldiers. The whole of one side of Watchorn-street at this period was said to have been “a nest of brothels” where “no respectful person ever passed through…” Picture: Google Streetview

Jerry’s lodgers had no characters to lose. So long as they paid their way their landlord never asked inconvenient questions, and when the police occasionally raided the establishment Mr Sullivan would deplore the wickedness of this sinful world, and wonder why on earth some people so persistently wandered from the paths of rectitude. Both he and the Sydney lady have long since passed into dust. The world is no better than it ought to be, but there are plenty of worse people in the universe today than Jerry Sullivan and Sydney Jane.

But to return to the subject of the Whale Fishery. A strong rivalry existed between the two hostelries, which were only a stone’s throw from one another. The whalers hated the soldiers, and whenever the crew of a successful vessel was paid off there was sure to be a row.

The whalers sallied forth from their headquarters well primed with beer and forty-rod grog, and gave the Royal Oak what they called a time of it. Then the soldiers would rush from the Oak’s parlors and taking off their heavy belts belabor their assailants, who were not chary in drawing their sheath knives when they found they were getting the worst of it.

When a kind of miniature Bedlam had been let loose, a strong body of police, assisted by a military picket, appeared on the scene, and made a few arrests. One well remembers the late Sub-Inspector Pitman remarking that it was the worst part of the town.

“There are dens in Watchorn-street which would do credit to St. Giles and Seven Dials” said he, “and the Royal Oak and the Whale Fishery are the two worst boozing dens in the city.”

When Prince Alfred arrived here in the sixties the landlord of the Whale Fishery, who was an excessively loyal man, changed the name of the hotel to the Duke of Edinburgh.

The alteration in the sign did not improve the reputation of the house, and it was the resort of dead beats and city riff-raffs, until it lost its license in the early eighties.

For some years it was used as a lodging house for dead-beats, but the landlord failed to make a fortune out of sixpenny beds, and he sorrow fully retired from the business.

There are many old residents who would tell some stirring tales of the days when the Whale Fishery boomed, and the customers were treated to dog and cock fights in the back premises on the Sabbath day. 

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023

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