Sydney’s Bohemian pub: the Newcastle Hotel and the Molloys

Newcastle Hotel essex and george streets sydney 1949 anu
Newcastle Hotel, corner of George and Essex Streets, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Lily Molloy 1918
Young actress, Lily Molloy in 1915, who later went onto host the Newcastle Hotel, Sydney.


THE Molloy family once reigned over one of Sydney’s best-known bohemian hotels, the haunt of artists, actors, entertainers and journalists.

The Newcastle Hotel traded on the south-west corner of George and Sussex Streets, Sydney, a short stroll from Circular Quay.

The Molloys had the Newcastle Hotel from 1939 to 1954 at a time when Sydney’s bohemian nightlife was at its peak.

Unlike most other stark, bathroom tiled Sydney pubs, geared strictly towards drinking and little else more, in contrast the Newcastle Hotel was adorned with art, attracting to its bar, alternative thinkers, and Sydney’s creative drinkers. It’s no surprise then that the hotel was one of the first in Sydney to allow women into its public bar.

The license of the Newcastle Hotel was held by Jane Silvester’s great grandmother, Margaret Molloy from 1933 to 1948.

Jane told Time Gents that her great grandmother, Margaret, also had a brief lease on the Palace Hotel on the corner Dowling and Flinders Streets, Sydney prior to the Newcastle Hotel.

After the death of her husband, Margaret entered the hotel trade. Her husband, William Charles Molloy was a compositor at the Sydney Morning Herald before his death from lead poisoning in 1898.

Margaret’s son, John – who, descendants say, was a colourful character – gained the license of the Palace Hotel in 1933, before Margaret took over the following year. She remained at the Palace until 1939 before taking control of the Newcastle Hotel.

Margaret died at the Newcastle Hotel at the age of 84 on August 17 1948, and her daughter, Miss Lily Molloy, a noted Sydney actor, comedienne and silent film star, then took over as licensee of the Newcastle Hotel.

Lily Molloy had starred opposite Snowy Baker in one of the earliest Australian films, “The Enemy Within”, she died in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, from Cancer at the age of 57 on February 7 1951.

Lily Molloy her Mother Margaret Molloy Easter 1939 Hyde Park Sydney photo Jane Silvester
Margaret Molloy, and her daughter, Lilly Molloy, hosts of the Newcastle Hotel, Sydney 1939 – 1952. Picture: Jane Silvester.

“Aunty Lily was an actress, her brother a journalist,” Jane told Time Gents.

“Being quite close to the Bulletin offices as well, my mum said it was always a gathering point (for Sydney’s bohemians), and (there were) many late nights following closing. Great Grandma used to bang her walking stick on her bedroom floor above the bar to signify “enough, ‘Time Gents’.”

After Lily’s death in 1951, the pub was managed by her sister, Una Boots. Mrs Boots managed the pub for a couple of years before taking the Westminster Hotel at Temora, in the NSW Southern Riverina region.

Everyday scene at the Newcastle Hotel George Street North Sydney 1954
EVERYDAY SCENE at the Newcastle Hotel , George Street North. Three business girls get together for a lunchtime “hen party”. Centre back ground (wearing hat) is Mr. Ted (“Tiger”) Hennessy who was president of Lithgow ULVA for 12 years.
– The Sydney Daily Telegraph August 8 1954

Jane also posted a fantastic family photo of her great grandmother and great auntie on their way to church, taken Easter 1939, in Hyde Park, Sydney.

“One always dressed for church,” she said.

“Their local parish was St Patrick’s, Church Hill – the publicans and race-goers’ church!”

The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported on Sunday 6 August 1950:

Atmosphere of an English inn comes to Sydney

There’s no moaning at the bar of Lily Molloy

miss lily molloy newcastle hotel sydney 1950
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS? — An after-work drink at the ‘mixed’ bar of the Newcastle Hotel, George St., licensee , Miss Lily Molloy, serving.

By a Special Correspondent

Did you know there’s at least one bar in Sydney which presents the phenomenon of women patrons taking drinks with their husbands and men friends as they do in England, the United States, France, and the rest of the civilised world?

The spectacle of men and women sharing their leisure hour bar drink as they share company at meals, afternoon tea, or ten minutes at a soda fountain, is, of course, a phenomenon only in Australia and a few other countries still in the hillbilly stage of social development. It’s a commonplace — and socially established right— elsewhere. It makes for a standard of decency, self-control and good manners, where they are most needed; at the foundation of the licensed trade — the bar. And this ‘mixed’ bar in our town gives local proof of what was long ago proven overseas It establishes beyond question that Australian men and women, given the chance, can conduct themselves as well as their socially emancipated counterparts in Little-Puddlecombe-Upon-Sea, Oshkosh. Vichy (where they drink wine as well as water), or an inn in the Austrian Tyrol or a sun-drenched village of southern Italy.

The hotel keeper who presents Sydney with this social experiment is Miss Lily Molloy, licensee of the Newcastle Hotel, George Street. Only, to Miss Molloy, this is no experiment. She long ago proved to the complete satisfaction of herself, her patrons, and the licensing authorities, that Australian men and women really aren’t hillbillies who cannot be trusted with the same social privileges as the men and women of the England, Scotland, or Ireland from which their forefathers came.

Quite a while back, in her 11 years’ tenancy of the hotel, Miss Molloy encouraged her men patrons to bring their wives and women friends to her bar. To see exactly how this was working out, I went down to the Newcastle — with my wife — to make a test at the brass rail.

On the doorstep of the bar territory, no-woman’s land to nearly all her Australian sisters under our liquor monopoly swill, swear and guzzle rules, my wife paused doubtfully.

“I can’t really go in there, can I?” she asked nervously.

“Suppose I sail in brazenly and they’re all men?”

But once inside the cosy little bar, neatly kept and as decorous as a soda fountain, she was reassured and began to enjoy the novel experience of invading what she, like other Australian women, had regarded always as a man’s privilege. It was about 5.20 on a night last week. The bar was well patronised, but not crowded. There were high stools fronting the bar. I talked with many of the customers.

Their occupations ranged from commercial artist to engineer, two barristers and an actress, to a radio announcer, a Water Board clerk, an accountant, and a woman executive. I asked the woman executive why she had her evening drink in a ‘man’s’ bar, instead of the lounge of a more fashionable hotel.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said.

“For one thing, going to a lounge is a bit of a performance.

“It makes an occasion out of something that is merely meant to be a sort of daily relaxing routine. My husband and I almost always drop in here after business hours. He and I work for the same firm, and we pass here on the way to the ferry.

“There’s the economic angle, too. If we went to a lounge we’d have to pay a shilling for a glass of beer. Here it costs 8½d. And there are no fussing waiters to tip. Besides, we like the atmosphere here.”

ABC announcer Paul Maclay told me: “When I want a spot I always come here now. I can come by myself or bring a girl, and there’s none of that pig trough atmosphere you find in most bars.

“The men behave themselves much better. Bad language in general is out — and that must be a break for the barmaids, too.”

The wife of a barrister said: “When I come to town to do some shopping I usually meet my husband afterwards, and we drop in here on the way home. We don’t have more than two drinks, sometimes just one. “It’s not worth going to a lounge for that.”

That theme ran through most of the answers to my inquiries.

“We like it here… The atmosphere’s pleasant… We don’t have to pay through the nose.”

Upstairs I talked with Miss Molloy.

“We took over about 11 years ago,” she said. “And gradually I came to feel it might be a worthwhile experiment to let the men bring their wives and girl friends in for a drink.

“I talked it over with my sister, and she agreed it would be a good experiment. We’ve, never regretted it. I don’t allow any women into the bar unescorted. At first I got a few of the wrong type drifting in, but I soon took care of that. Now the undesirable types know they’ll get short shrift. And there’s nothing here to attract them.”

I asked her what was the attitude of the police.

“It’s really nothing to do with them,” Mrs Molloy said.

“As long as a house is well conducted and there are no complaints they’re not concerned.

“The law allows women to drink in the bar with the men. It’s just that most licensees seem to be prejudiced against it. The consorting police paid us a routine visit, and one of them asked a regular woman customer what she was doing there. He told her a woman of her class should be drinking in the lounge of the so-and-so, mentioning a fashionable hotel. She told him she didn’t like to associate with the sort of women she’d seen there. You should have seen his face!”

Lily Molloy herself is a former theatrical. She’s ‘fiftyish’ now, but retains much of the charm and vivacity which she put across the footlights when she was a leading lady in drama, comedy, and variety on the Fuller circuit 30 years ago.

On the walls of the bar are photographs of Lily in the days when she toured Australia and Africa, playing opposite Frank Neil in such shows as ‘Charley’s Aunt’, ‘Are You a Mason?’ and ‘Getting Gertie’s Garter’. She also has a picture showing her in a love scene with Reg. L. (‘Snowy’) Baker, from an early Australian silent film.

Development in Australia of this English inn atmosphere, where men and women mingle at the bar, is likely to be slow. Publicans, paying fantastic prices for their monopolistic licences, prefer to boost as far as possible the more profitable lounge trade. They will argue that it is difficult to keep a ‘mixed’ bar trade free from certain abuses (although these can — and do exist more generally in the lounge trade than they would in a ‘mixed’ bar trade).

Many Australian men are resentful of having the male club atmosphere of the bar disturbed, and, if they have never known anything else, that is understandable. Publicans ban women in the bar under a blanket rule which gives them power to refuse to serve anyone, of either sex, if they don’t care to. But Miss Molloy is insistent that the presence of respectable women in her bar helps produce an atmosphere of pleasant, adult companionship which can’t be found in the noisy, jostling bars where ‘men only’ is a hard and fast local law.

Miss Molloy says a wide cross-section of the community makes up her clientele. Tradesmen, professional men and white-collar workers, are all represented she says. She mentioned two judges presiding at the moment in Sydney, and a third who used to come when he was a barrister. While I was there she introduced me to two priests, each of whom were obviously her friends and held the house in high regard. No, there will be no rush to follow the ‘mixed bar’ plan in Sydney, but this city is growing big. And it is growing largely with the aid of new arrivals who resent the curious segregation of men and women enjoying their leisure hours.

Gradually our frontier bar customs will give place to a new grace. Meanwhile, it’s good to have people like Lily Molloy around.

After the Molloys left the Newcastle Hotel, their legacy lived on when new host Jim Buckley was licensee from 1956 to 1972. During this time the pub was managed by Jim Orme.

Most of the available wall space inside the pub was hung with artwork, including a famous nude that was said to have rivalled ‘Chloe’ in Melbourne’s Young and Jackson Hotel.

The nude of a Dutch girl belonged to Jim Buckley, who was said to have acquired it from the Sergeants’ Mess at the North Head army barracks after the wives of officers objected to its presence.

Read more about Sydney’s answer to ‘Chloe’ at the Time Gents story: Sydney’s majestic nude painting left ‘Chloe for dead’ at Sydney’s Newcastle Hotel

The back bar of the Newcastle Hotel, Sydney, 1972. The photo shows the famous nude that publican Jim Buckley said rivalled Melbourne’s famous ‘Chloe’. Photo: Bruce Howard. Picture: National Library of Australia.
The Newcastle Hotel, Sydney,1972. The photo shows the Essex Street entrance to the famous ‘Back Bar’. Photo by by Bruce Howard. Picture: National University of Australia

The Newcastle Hotel’s freehold was owned by the Maritime Services Board, a department of the NSW Government.

The pub closed for business on February 24 1973 and it was later demolished. A high rise office tower now sits on the site. 

With thanks to Martin Cooke and Jane Silvester

First published 2019. Updated 2022

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022


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1 reply

  1. I used to drink here,in 1966-70 what a great bohemian pup,with heaps of art on the walls,great atmosphere,-it really was a “one-off”plenty of mixed company drinkers,and great barmaids,who won “barmaid of the year” contests,nearly every year!-plenty of entertainment,-I could not believe it,when they demolished it!

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