By MICK ROBERTS ©
ONCE a landmark on the lonely road from Bourke to Queensland, flames and controversy abruptly ended over 130 years of history at Barringun’s Tattersall’s Hotel.
The original historic timber inn was tragically reduced to ashes on Christmas Eve 2017 before temporary premises hastily replaced the iconic pub, about 130kms north of Bourke, on the NSW side of the Queensland border.
Controversy aside, this story is in memory of two remarkable women, who despite remoteness and loneliness, and the loss of their husbands, managed against adversity, to continue to host and preserve a much-loved outback pub.
This story is a tribute to a pair of hardened bush publicans, Annie Lack and Mary Crawley, who between them reigned supreme over the Tattersalls Hotel for 70 years.
First licensed by William Henry Hayes on April 1 1884, the Tattersall’s Hotel joined James Cuffe’s Royal Mail Hotel at Barringun, providing a stopover point for shearers, drovers, mailmen, swaggies, and, of course, the famed Cobb & Co coaches.
During host William Heuston’s 20 year rein at the Tatts, poet Will Ogilvie travelled to Barringun by Cobb & Co coach in 1889. He drank at the pub with Breaker Morant.
By 1894, the Australian Handbook reported that Barringun was “a border township with post, telegraph, money order station and Government Savings Bank … Mode of conveyance per coach to Bourke. 90 miles thence per rail… There are two hotels and a customs station on the Queensland side of the border. The buildings on the New South Wales side comprise a bonded warehouse, post and telegraph offices, two hotels (Royal Mail and Queensland), a branch of the Commercial Bank, a brewery, two butcher’s shops, a few private cottages, a court house and gaol and a public school. Average attendance – 30. Population about 180.”
Bill Heuston had the monopoly on the pub trade at Barringun when in 1895 his only competition, the Royal Mail, was burnt to the ground.
After Heuston, Felix McKeown was licensee for seven years before Jim Lack appeared at the bar.
The Lack family were prominent figures in western NSW, and particularly the Barringun district. The Lack boys, six of them, spent varying, years in the district, when tank sinking “was energetically carried out”.
Jim and his wife Catherine Lack first took over the Tattersalls Hotel at Barringun, in April 1910. The pair had previously hosted the Grass Hut Hotel, near Bourke.
In 1902, Jim was in charge of the mail changing station at Native Dog Bore.
From there he went to the Grass Hut Hotel, which he hosted for many years, and then bought the Tattersalls Hotel at Barringun. He was said to have been an enthusiastic sportsman, and acted as honorary secretary to dozens of horse race meetings and other kinds of events in the region, including the famous Enngonia Races.
Jim Lack died while licensee of the Tattersall’s Hotel in 1923, the Western Herald reported Wednesday 23 May 1923:
Death of Mr. James Lack
A PROMINENT DISTRICT RESIDENT GONE
Deep regret was expressed on all sides when it became known that Mr. James Lack, the popular resident of Barringun, had passed away to “The Great Beyond” on Thursday evening last at 7.30 p.m., after a comparatively short illness, at Mrs. King’s residence in Tudor Street, Bourke. Deceased was brought into town on May 6th, and up till Wednesday last was said to be progressing favorably towards recovery, but he took a bad turn and passed away as stated… By his demise Barringun will lose one of its prominent residents, and the West generally lose another of the long line of pioneers who have braved the heat, drought and dust and varying seasons for a living, and reared a large family. Deceased leaves a wife and five sons (James, John, Neil, Thomas, and Robert) to whom we extend our heartfelt sympathy in their sad bereavement. Deceased was 56 years of age. There was a large gathering of prominent town and country friends who followed the remains to their last resting place. The late Mr. Lack, speaking to a well known town business man, some time ago, told him that during the past year he had cleared more money than in the previous six years. Buying and selling, in Queensland stock, was a side line of the deceased and he was very lucky in his various investments. Last year, it will be remembered, that the deceased donated a Cup, to be competed for by the footballers of Cunnamulla and Bourke, and all who made the trip and witnessed the match, which resulted in a win for Bourke, will agree that it was one of the most exciting games they ever witnessed. When the cup was presented to the winning team, a great many complimentary speeches were delivered, and the deceased spoken of in the highest possible terms by Bourke and Cunnamulla visitors.”
His widow, Catherine continued as host of the Tatts at Barringun until she died in tragic circumstances 18 months later when her clothes accidentally caught fire while sitting in front of the fuel stove at the pub. The Western Herald reported on Wednesday 25 August 1926:
DEATH OF A PROMINENT BARRINGUN PIONEER.
MRS CATHERINE LACK.
Quite a gloom was cast over the district, when the word was received that Mrs Catherine Luck, of Barringun, had passed away. The deceased lady had not enjoyed good health for some time, and had lately been to Dubbo to recuperate, returning with Nurse Thornton, of that town, about two months ago. The incidents surrounding the death are extremely sad. The old lady was sitting in front of the kitchen stove on Friday morning and prevailed on her sons to have their breakfast, which they did. Some twenty minutes later they heard screams in the yard and saw their mother enveloped in flames, the lady’s clothing by some means became ignited from the fire. The flames were extinguished, and all that could be possible done was done. The doctor was hastily summoned and Nurse Gumley, Bush nurse from Engonia also sent for. However the health of deceased was very low, and it was readily seen that death was fast approaching, which took place at 6 o’clock on Friday night. The deceased’s husband predeceased her some 18 months ago. The late Mrs Lack was a member of the King family, one of the pioneering families of that district. She had resided in Barringun for the past 18 years, and before that date was with her husband at Native Dog and then Grass Hut for a considerable time. She was 58 years of age, and by her death the west has last one more of the hardy pioneers, who braved the conditions cut west, without complaint, and who are gradually going one by one to the Great Beyond.
After Catherine Lack’s death, her 20-year-old son Jim Junior took the license of the hotel. Jim junior was 53 years of age when he married Annie Catherine Miller in 1949 and as the town continued its decline, with the population plummeting, the pair also took over the town’s post office.
In the early 1970s, writer, John Larkins and photographer, Bruce Howard chronicled an amazing snap shot of Australian pub culture. From that expedition they had published “Australian Pubs”, and featured a visit to Lacks’ pub.
“In the good old days when the shearing shed at Tinnenburra was the biggest in the world, Annie Lack’s arms grew tired just opening beer bottles. But the shed is disused, silent now. The shearers have gone – but Annie, in her seventies, remains behind the bar of Tattersall’s Hotel at Barringun, a mile south of the Queensland border.
‘Sometimes,’ she sighed, ‘I mightn’t sell a beer all day.’
She occupies herself by keeping alive the outback oasis around the pub; the grass is green and soft underfoot, and flowers always bloom. Her husband, James, sits at the switchboard in the tiny post office they run next door. He has a full-size billiard table in a room behind the bar. But who’s there to play?
Adjoining the corner bar, there’s the Tap Room. Except there are no taps.
‘Oh, that’s easily explained,’ Annie said. ‘The shearers used to sit around a table in that room, and when they wanted another jug of beer, they’d tap the wall.’
In another interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1973, Jim and Annie Lack revealed the decline in the once bustling township. The Herald reported on August 31 1973:
ON THE BEATEN TRACK
Continuing a twice weekly series
By a staff reporter
The population doubled overnight
History on the border
At Barringun, a scant half-mile from the NSW border north of Bourke, residents joke that the population doubled overnight when David Richards, a stock inspector, and his family set-up house recently.
Only six people live in this antipodean oasis, forgoing television and other amenities of town life, enduring isolation, heat, drought, flies and willy-willys of red dust to ensure travellers are watered, cattle ticks thwarted, and the twice-weekly mails sorted.
Barringun (Aboriginal for “fish died in water”) was once a busy little outback service township of 150 people.
In the 1850s, it was used a coach staging area by Cobb and Co.
Across the border was its sprawling rival the village of Wooroorooka.
There is now little suggestion in the Mitchell grass of Wooroorooka and the Barringun has seen its best days.
The NSW village consists of the Richards’ all-electric house, a hotel, a post office (once home to the local Queensland constable) and a blooming park cultivated by James and Annie Lack.
Alone across the highway, like some pioneer builder’s reject, another century-old police station residence-lockup sags on the featureless plain, its paint long since flaked away, and the boards cracked by kiln heat and flying grit. In the dark and vaguely threatened cell, among inexcusable tourist graffiti, an outraged voice calls from the past. Lightly carved in the hardboard planking, the neatly printed message reads:
“I spent one long year in this filthy hole for beating my wife. What is justice coming to? When I get out I will do it again. Lee Cobb, P.S. My brother has to run the stage on his own.”
Barringun’s senior citizen, its 76-year-old publican, James Lack, is resting in the shade of Tattersall’s Hotel veranda. Bourke-born, he has lived in the district all his life, being variously occupied as a drover, grazier, and stock dealer (“I had a lot of wins, a lot of losses.”). He remembers a close-knit township of 20 people in his youth, and a rabbit plague so bad that the hordes kicked up dust storms each evening when they moved in search of water.
The conies were dangerously ravenous, they stripped trees of bark, then climbed into the limbs to nibble leaves.
From a wall of the post office he produces a map of Barringun drawn from memory 40-odd years ago by a former postmaster of the 1880s. It shows among other things, the site of the huge claypan on which “the great foot race” occurred.
Mr Lack has seen enough of drought (We’re still waitin’ for rain here.”) and is fed up with continuous work. He would like nothing better to retire to his duplex house near Manly, but his wife won’t hear of leaving her beloved outpost.
Annie Lack, a kindly talkative “Ma” Kettle figure full of organised drive, bounces into the conversation. She mentions her MBE medal, awarded for 50 years of continuous local services with the post office, and her Papal blessing.
Back in the hotel bar, which Mr Lack assures me “is hardly worth keeping open – the tourists spend so little time here”, I meet Charlie Armstrong, a “young 73-year-old bachelor”.
A former dairy farmer “in the dark ages”, he has worked for the Lacks as a rousabout for 43 years. Smiling, he drawls: “Yeah, I guess maybe now it could be called a permanent job”.
Mrs Richards wanders in, looking for her husband. She says she loves Barringun, particularly her home.
“This place is like a palace to me,” she says.
“We moved about a lot before, with the Department of Agriculture. In the last two-and-a-half years we lived under canvas. Here in Barringun we have everything.”
Jim never realised his dream of retiring to his holiday home on the coast near Manly, and died just four months later on December 22 1973 at the age of 76. His widow, Annie took over the role as publican after her husband’s death, and she remained as host until 1975. She died in 1982.
After Annie, her brother-in-law, 68-year-old Henry Lack became host, and he remained licensee until 1977 when another legendary publican took the pub’s reins.
Hilary ‘Mary’ Crawley hosted the pub for over 40 years. With her husband, Alphonse (Bay), they bought the hotel and moved there with their large family at Easter 1977.
Prior to that Mary and Bay had arrived in Bourke with their two eldest children in 1948, as Bay had been appointed as the Accountant at Hales & Co in Oxley Street.
Bay died in 1994 and Mary ran the Tatts with the help of her children until 2007, when her son Patrick and his family moved away. She ran the pub single-handedly for the next 10 years, with some weekend help from her daughter Gerry and Gerry’s husband Peter.
In 2017, at the age of 93 she held the title of Australia’s oldest and longest serving publican and had become a legend of the outback with her straight-talking wisdom and uncomplicated hospitality.
After a fall in 2017, Mary was relying on the help of her children to keep the Tattersalls Hotel operating and reluctantly was forced to retire.
During the sale process, Mary was adamant any prospective buyer give a verbal commitment to keep the pub open. The sale of the pub had only just settled when tragedy struck. On Christmas Eve 2017, the landmark pub was totally destroyed by fire.
The end of an era came in 2019 when Mary Crawley died at the age of 95. The following is an excerpt from an obituary by her grandson:
“Our family has lost its matriarch and outback Australia lost one of its best. Mary Crawley’s reign at the Barringun Hotel may have ended but for anyone that met her there, she’ll be etched into their mind forever. A woman of amazing intelligence, quick wit, unconquerable toughness, fierce loyalty and a believer that at all times and no matter the consequences you must always do what is right. ‘What’ll ya have?’ gave no warning to the unsuspecting punter walking into the pub that they were about to be engaged in some of the most intelligent and free flowing conversation they’d likely ever have. Sharp minded and well informed she was at ease talking to well to do and well educated people from the high end of town, but she always preferred the company of her ‘mates’. Her mates were a band of rough edged shearers, drovers, truckies or outback workers, sometimes troubled souls, often people who may have made decisions in their lives they probably weren’t proud of, done the wrong thing – people others would call rouges or criminals. Dare question them to her and you’d be met with a stern ‘you shut up! He’s a mate of mine’ dare question her to them and it would probably be the last thing you ever did. Some of my most endearing memories growing up were of these same hard men breaking down in tears to her; she might have given them a tune up about something they’d done (‘sorry Mrs Crawley’ was a common phrase), maybe told them she was proud of them; quite often ‘don’t worry, I’ll say a prayer for you tonight’ was enough to do it. It was like we shared our Grandmother with a bunch of other people that needed one, the perfect example of how absolutely everyone was equal in her eyes. She might be gone but I know how I’ll always remember her. Sitting in her armchair on the front verandah, she’s got a view across to the stock slowly stringing, of the Emus and Roos. In that harsh country that most think is desolate and ugly, where few people can survive, she saw profound beauty and enjoyed amazing contentment (‘if I won a million dollars I wouldn’t move anywhere’). Gidgee the dog is by her side, she’s got the form guide in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, she’s holding court to her family and closest mates, and maybe there’s a caravaner looking for a ‘free shit’ for her to complain about. She’s got that cheeky glint in her eye and she’s just passionately told someone to ‘go to buggery’ cause they’re ‘full of bullshit’. I reckon that’s what heaven would be like for her. She really was one of a kind, and a lot of people, including me, are going to do it bloody tough without her. Farewell Grandmother, send me some winners from up there will ya?
A development application to rebuild the pub, with a caravan park, was refused by Bourke Shire Council in 2018. However, for a period of time the pub continued to trade from temporary structures at the site, providing ongoing hospitality as it had offered travellers for almost 150 years.
Sadly, we hear that the pub, which was trading from a couple of ‘dongas’ has now closed for business.
Tattersall’s Hotel, Barringun
Licensees – 1884-2018
April 1 1884: William Henry Hayes
1885-1888: William Henry Hayes
1888-1903: William Heuston
1903-1910: Felix McKeown
1910-1923: James Lack
1923-1960: James Lack Jnr
1960-1965: Neil Lack
1965-1973: James Lack Jnr
1973-1975: Annie Catherine Lack
1975-1977: Henry Neil Alphonse Lack
1977-2018: (Mary) Hilary Crawley
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023
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