Perth publican ‘Old Penn’ was a colourful character: A history of the Woodbridge Hotel

Woodbridge Hotel Woodbridge WA 1902
The Woodbridge Hotel, Woodbridge (later East Guildford), 1902. Picture: Western Mail, December 25, 1902


A LARGER than life character, Jabez Penn made quite an impression during his 20 year career as a Perth hotelier.

The son of an English conservative politician, Jabez Penn hosted two pubs and a wine saloon after arriving in Perth from London at the outbreak of the Great War.

The colourful publican, known by all as ‘Old Penn’, could be said to have paved the way for the modern Australian ‘beer-garden’ when way before they became popular, he built what was described as ‘a lawn’ beside his East Guildford pub in 1914.

Old Penn Publican 1912
Jabez Penn, publican and avid hunter. Picture: The Swan Express December 20 1912.

The lawn, outside the Woodbridge Hotel, was a popular entertainment venue at Guildford, about 12km from Perth, where patrons could sit at tables and watch attractions like wood-chopping, lawn bowls and bands play.

The ‘lawn’ was also where the ‘Western Australian Hunt Club’ met.

The Woodbridge Hotel, Guildford, Circa 1902. Picture: Woodbridge Hotel

The call of ‘tally-ho’, the traditional cry of huntsmen as a means to alert others that their quarry had been sighted, and the colourful spectacle of mounted horsemen became a regular sight around Old Penn’s pub early last century.

Penn, and his wife Alice had hosted several pubs in London before their arrival in Perth in 1911. Prior to their arrival in Australia they had hosted the Prince Arthur, in Eversholt Street, Euston Square, London. The Prince Arthur continues to trade to this day.

Old Penn was 43 when he took the license of the Woodbridge Hotel from Nicholas Gimm on January 8 1912. The Swan Express reported on January 12 1912:

The Woodbridge Hotel has changed hands, the new proprietor being Mr Jabez Penn, who has just landed from London. Mr Penn has had considerable experience in hotels and for the past 18 years has successfully conducted hotels in various parts of London. Prior to leaving England Mr Penn was entertained by the Somers Town Conservative Club, of which he was vice chairman for nine months, and was presented with a gold watch from the members of the club. The chairman said, according to the ‘St Pancras Gazette’, they would agree with him that they had only carried out in a small way what they might claim to be a little appreciation of Mr Penn’s past services to the Somers Town Conservative Club. They would all agree that as a vice-chairman Mr Penn was one of the best and ‘one of the boys’ (hear, hear), and his motto had always been ‘merry and bright’. He (the speaker) now asked Mr Hopkins to present Mr Penn with a gold watch, subscribed for by most of the members of the club, and whenever Mr Penn returned to England he would always receive a welcome from the Somers Town Conservative Club. The new proprietor wishes it to be known that all classes of catering will be carried out under his personal supervision.

The Woodbridge Hotel was built in 1902, close to Woodbridge Railway Station, with M. H. Grahame (formerly of the Queen’s Hotel, Perth, and the Victoria Hotel, Subiaco) as licensee. The hotel was built by contractor R. A. Dixon, and E. Giles was the architect.

The whole of the hotel was lit by acetylene gas, and had hot and cold water throughout. The hotel, which included a billiard saloon, was built well back from the street, giving the house “a semi-private appearance”.

The spacious balcony overlooked the Guildford Show Ground, which also gave, what was described, a “splendid view” of the surrounding district.

The Woodbridge Railway Station opened on 13 July 1896 and served the nearby Royal Agricultural Society’s Woodbridge Showgrounds. It was renamed East Guildford on April 1 1908. Despite this the hotel retained the name Woodbridge.

The Swan Express, Penn’s preferred newspaper when advertising, gave the publican plenty of editorial coverage in return for his advertising pounds. The newspaper reported on December 20 1912:


The proprietor of the Woodbridge Hotel at East Guildford, came from London only a little over twelve months ago in search of health. It is pleasing to be able to record that he has found it, and he desires no return to the old country from Sunny Westralia. He is none of your lantern-jawed misanthrope, but a merry old soul, who is ever ready to look on the best side of things. “Old Penn’s motto is always merry and bright: Never worry about to-morrow in case you die to-night.” We know publicans whose looks are calculated to turn the beer sour, but Old Penn is not of these, and his cheery disposition has done much towards popularising the “Woodbridge.” Inside and outside the house he has made considerable improvements, the laying down of extensive lawn at the side being a very important consideration where we have a climate which makes living out of doors during a great part of the year desirable. Inside the hotel is well-lighted by electricity, the ten bedrooms are models of cleanliness, and as a residential house the hotel is everything one could desire. The Woodbridge was built about 12 years ago when the Royal Shows were held in the grounds opposite, but since their removal the house has completely justified its continued existence.

Jabez Penn had an attempt at local politics in 1913, when after claiming that “new blood is necessary to prevent the waste of the ratepayers’ money”, he ran for the local council. Despite stating he had plenty of “on the ground” support his tilt at politics was unsuccessful, and he remained as host the Woodbridge Hotel.

The publican established what could be considered one of Perth’s first ‘beer gardens’ in 1914 when the Swan Express reported that at “considerable expense” he built “an extensive lawn”, added a verandah on the south side of the building, and made “sundry minor improvements to the grounds”.

The newspaper added that Penn had been “well repaid for his labours, the whole scheme adding considerably to the appearance of the premises and surroundings, and incidentally enhancing the comfort of callers at this well-known house”. The newspaper reported on Friday, February 27, 1914:

On Saturday afternoon last the lawn was formally opened in the presence of a large crowd. The ceremony was advertised to have been performed by the member for the district (Mr W. D. Johnson) but that gentleman was unfortunately unable to be present. In his absence there was no official opening, nevertheless it was decided that this fact should not be allowed to interfere with the day’s enjoyment, and it may be taken for granted that those present bad a good time all round. To add to the day’s interest the proprietor had arranged for a log-chop, and the contest was productive of considerable interest to spectators… Following on this was a tug-of-war between the log-choppers and a team representing the loco, the former team triumphing. This concluded the contests for the day, but by no means ended the general fun. This was maintained until a late hour, and the proprietor should have no reason for complaint, as to success of the gathering. Additional enjoyment were lent the proceedings by the presence of the Midland band which rendered a number of selections.

The lawn also became the venue for “continental concerts”, where on one occasion in March 1914, Penn acquired the services of ‘Professor’ Ryder, “who has mystified audiences in all parts of the world and will give one of his most popular performances”. Penn was also ahead of his time when he illuminated his bowling green beside the pub at night with an “electric light” in 1918.

Woodbridge Hotel, Guildford, 1933. Picture: Woodbridge Hotel

Old Penn made several trips back to London while in Australia. In 1920 he gave up the license of the Woodbridge Hotel to visit “the old country”. The Swan Express reported on March 26 1920:

Old Penn from London, who some few years ago chanced his last few sovereigns in the Woodbridge Hotel at East Guildford, has sold out his business, and intends revisiting the old country. As he is able to do this after the final squaring up, the ‘chance’ was evidently a better one than backing horses at the current rate of odds. His successor at the Woodbridge is Mr. A. J. Enright, favorably known to habitues of the Terrace as the publisher of the ‘Daily News’.

Penn was back in Perth in 1923 operating the Victoria Wine Saloon. It was at the wine saloon that he landed in hot water with the law when he was charged with allowing a “reputed prostitute” on his premises. The Perth Truth reported on Saturday March 10, 1923:

Kind action that cost a ‘tenner’

Jabez Penn, you, on the 23rd day of February, 1923 at Perth, being the licensee of premises known as the Victorian Wine Saloon, situate at 186 William-street, did permit one Violet Scott, a reputed prostitute, to remain on your licensed premises.”

This was the charge levelled at the hoary head of a grey whiskered benefactor in the Police Court on Thursday morning. Mr W A G Walter PM was on the bench. Mr J L Walker appeared for defendant and pleaded guilty…

The time was 8pm and ensconced therein the constable spotted a well-known lady in the gentle person of Violet Scott. Returning 20 minutes later the sleuth found Violet still on the premises. When the matter was mentioned to Penn, he admitted that he knew who and what the lady was, but he thought that she had turned over a new leaf. Mr. Walker: Did you notice anything peculiar about the condition of the woman at the time – I could not say. I did not notice anything.

In explanation, Mr. Walker stated that the position in the matter, so far as the constable’s evidence was concerned, was stated correctly. However, Penn told him that whilst he had persistently refused to serve Scott with drink previously, some time ago she came to him and told him she bad pulled herself together, and had got married. She brought a young man along who said that he was her husband and from that time Penn had allowed the lady drink, but had never permitted her to linger long on the premises.

On the occasion of the 23rd of February, she had come to the shop and asked for a drink. He served her and then she asked him to let her sit down for a while, as she was very tired. She told him she was in a certain condition, and from her appearance he thought that she was. He gave her permission to sit down, and under the circumstances thought he was doing no wrong. He did not notice how long she remained there, having forgotten her presence. He had no intention of doing wrong: and had an unblemished record here as a licensee of 10 years’ standing.

Mr Walker pleaded that in the circumstances his Worship should treat the case very leniently. It was one of extraordinary circumstances.

Mr Walter said that under the circumstances he was quite prepared to look upon the offence leniently. However the fine, under the Act was £50 and the minimum was one-fifth of that. He did not propose to penalise defendant to a greater extent than the minimum.

Mr Walker protested that here was a man with an unblemished record of 10 years, and of 12 years in England previous to that, who was convicted for what he thought was a common act of humanity. He asked his Worship to exercise that discretion he had under the Justices Act of recording a conviction without imposing a fine.

Mr Walter thought that would be going a bit far. Especially as defendant had pleaded guilty, he felt it would be necessary to inflict a fine.

As £10 was the minimum it would have to be £10. However, if defendant thought the fine was too heavy for the offence he could appeal.

Mr Walker said he supposed he would have to leave it at that. And so it is left at that. But it would seem an unwise man who in future places himself in Penn’s position, by an act of humanity to such distressed females. These times have not much regard for acts of humanity.

At the age of 57, Penn bought the freehold of the old established North Perth Hotel in December 1926. He made several improvements to the hotel, including brick additions the following year.

north perth hotel wa
The North Perth Hotel C1920. Picture: State Library of Western Australia

Penn and his wife remained as hosts at the North Perth Hotel until his retirement in 1929. The Western Australian Hunt Club met at Penn’s hotel during this time.

Jabez Penn died on May 4 1930 at the age of 61. The Swan Brewery bought the North Perth Hotel from his estate the following year.

The Penns had no children, and his widow, Alice was given an allowance of £10 a week, with the remainder of his estate divided between his sisters and brothers in England, South Australia, and New South Wales.

The North Perth Hotel was demolished and replaced with a new hotel in 1962. The hotel’s name unfortunately changed to the ‘Vegas Hotel’ in the 1980s, and it traded at the busy intersection until 1994, when that too was demolished. Sadly a McDonalds Restaurant and petrol station now sit on the site of the North Perth Hotel.

Old Penn’s other pub, the Woodbridge, where he established one of Western Australia’s first beer gardens, thankfully remains. It trades at 50 East Street, Guildford.

Woodbridge Hotel, Guildford, 1955. Picture: Woodbridge Hotel
Woodbridge Hotel, Guildford, C2003. Picture: Woodbridge Hotel
Woodbridge Hotel Guidlford WA Google
Woodbridge Hotel, Guildford. Picture: Google Streetview

© Copyright 2020 Mick Roberts

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Categories: Perth Hotels, Publicans, Western Australia hotels

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