The Plasto pubs: Three successful hotelier brothers, Bob, Reg and Len

The Plasto flagship pub, The Ship Inn Hotel, Circular Quay, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

By MICK ROBERTS ©

BESIDES boasting a large and profitable pub portfolio, the Plasto family were the darlings of Sydney’s social-set for over 40 years.

During the 1930s through to the 1960s, the family were rarely out of the newspapers’ society pages.

By 1951, the Plasto family owned the head lease of at least six pubs, including their flagship venues, The Ship Inn at Circular Quay, the nearby Hyde Park Hotel and the Ashfield Hotel.

The Plasto family companies were established in 1927 and were made-up of parents, Tom and Cecilia Plasto, their children, Reg, Len, Bob, Theresa Hancock, Cecilia Thompson, and all their husbands and wives.

Notable of the siblings was Len Plasto.

Len took an active part in the advocacy of Sydney’s hotel industry, holding executive positions, including the presidency, on the powerful and politically persuasive forerunner of the Australian Hotel Association, known at the time as the United Liquor Victuallers Association. He held an executive position for over 40 years, and was regarded as one of the greatest authorities on beer in NSW.

The hotelier educated hundreds of barmaids in the art of serving beer, and “Plasto-trained girls” reportedly had “little difficulty in securing jobs” behind the bar.

A First World One serviceman, Len was an executive member of Ashfield sub-branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League. After the war, he was known for his advocacy work amongst the diggers.

The Plasto brothers were amongst the most successful hoteliers in Sydney, purchasing head-leases of Sydney’s leading pubs from brewer, Tooth & Company. Their empire flourished, from the 1920s, hitting its peak in success during the early 1950s, until the last of their pubs were sold during the 1960s.

Raised in their parents’ pubs, brothers, Reg, Len and Bob each held hotel licenses for over four decades.

The Plasto story as hoteliers began with their Dublin-born father, Thomas Plasto, when he took over a pub license from another successful hotel family – the Waterhouses.

At the time, Tom Plasto had been a draper in George Street Sydney and had recently remarried after the death of his first wife, Kate in 1891.

There are references in Tom Plasto’s obituaries stating his first hotel was the Sportsman’s Arms, Campbelltown, and later the Gladstone, on the Macleay River. However, I’m unable to find any official records showing he had the licenses of these two pubs.

Official records show Tom Plasto gained the license of the Green Gate Hotel, on Lane Cove Road, Gordon, from John Waterhouse in 1895. He was 37 at the time.

The three brothers were all born – Reg in 1895, Len in 1896 and Bob in 1900 – while Tom and his second wife, Cecilia hosted the Green Gate Hotel.

From the Green Gate Hotel, Tom went onto host the Steamboat Hotel at Ryde from 1901 to 1916 (Forced to close due to Local Option Polling). From there, he hosted the Pier Hotel, Woolwich (1917/18) and the Queens Hotel in Alfred Street, North Sydney, from where he retired as a licensee in 1923. However, old Tom’s days as a hotelier were not finished, and in 1927 he and his wife Cecilia became part of the Plasto family consortium that began taking-up head leases on some of Sydney’s most successful pubs.

Woolwich Pier Hotel, Woolwich, 1930. Note the two men repairing the roof. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Queens Hotel, Blue Street, North Sydney, around 1930. Tom Plasto’s last pub. Picture: NSW Police Department.
The Station Hotel, North Sydney, 1949. The old Queens Hotel was replaced with the Station Hotel in 1930 with Tom Plasto’s eldest son, Reg taking the license. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

Tom’s second wife Cecilia died at the age of 57 in 1929, and the old Irish patriarch also took his last breath at his residence, ‘St Helens’, Francis Street, Bondi in 1936 at the age of 78.

Meanwhile, Tom’s oldest son, 28-year-old Reg Plasto took over the Queens Hotel, North Sydney after his father’s retirement in 1923. He would go onto host the pub for over 25 years, until his death in 1949 at the age of 54.

The Queens Hotel was rebuilt by Tooth & Company in 1930 and renamed the Station Hotel. It traded until October 7 1986 when it closed at midnight for the last time.

The property was sold to Burn, Philip Trustee on October 8 1986 for £65,000 and later demolished for a high-rise development.

Meanwhile the other two Plasto brothers were also making a name for themselves as hoteliers.

Len Plasto was arguably the most successful of the three brothers.

After a stint in the army during the Great War, rising to the rank of lieutenant, he became licensee of his first pub, the Summer Hill Hotel in Sydney’s inner-west, at the age of 27 in 1923.

Summer Hill Hotel, Summer Hill, 1936. The Summer Hill was Len Plasto’s first hotel license. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

With his wife Rita, the pair would go onto host a number of Sydney pubs, including the North Annandale Hotel (1925/26) and the Ashfield Hotel (1926/47).

Len was also heavily involved in the United Liquor Victuallers Association (ULVA), which in 1959 became the Australian Hotels Association. He was elected onto the executive committee in 1927, eventually becoming vice president and eventually president for many years.

The Ashfield Hotel, Ashfield, 1949. Len Plasto was licensee for over 20 years. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University. Inset: Len Plasto. Picture: Sydney Sun Herald September 12, 1954

At the age of 30 he became host of the Ashfield Hotel, where he remained for over 20 years until his retirement as licensee at the age of 51. His son, Len Jnr, also had an interest in the Ashfield pub.

Len also had a keen interest in the Sport of Kings. He bought a number of race horses, and he and his wife were regular visitors to the track – especially Randwick and Canterbury. His wife Rita was noted for her fashion, and was often photographed and mentioned in the society pages of Sydney’s newspapers.

From left to right: George Herdsman, City Tatts committee man, popular publican Len Plasto and Captain Fred Bundy at Canterbury Race Course. Picture: Daily Telegraph, April 21, 1940.
“Miss A Scanlan of Brisbane and Mrs Len Plasto of Sydney snapped at Flemington on Saturday”. Picture: Sydney Telegraph, October 31, 1932.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph reported on November 22 1933:

“THE permanent patron of Western, Suburbs sporting organisations” : That title surely belongs to Mr. Len Plasto, who has a record as a sport benefactor that will certainly take some beating. He holds the position of patron to every junior cricket organisation in the district, and, in fact, every other sporting organisation. It is, however, as patron of Western Suburbs Rugby League Club that he has become best known in general sporting circles. He has assisted in securing or retaining the services of many fine players for the club, and he has been largely responsible in inducing those three newcomers, J. Beaton, J. Sharman, and V. Sheehan, to link themselves with Wests. He also keenly follows the Sport of Kings, and has raced horses himself, including Traymobile and King’s Prize. In addition, he is kept busy with outside activities. Returned soldier, hospital, and ambulance organisations have benefited through his philanthropy, while he is senior vice-president of the United Licensed Victuallers’ Association and Federal treasurer of the same body.

By 1940, beside the Ashfield Hotel, the Plasto family held the head-lease of a number of Sydney pubs, including The Ship Inn at Circular Quay, Hyde Park Hotel, Elizabeth Street, city, Empire Hotel, Annandale, and the Bankstown Hotel, Bankstown. The family also had the head lease of the Imperial Hotel at Bombala, a town in the Monaro region of south-eastern NSW.

Plasto’s Royal Hyde Park Hotel, Elizabeth Street, Sydney, 1936. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Plasto’s Hyde Park Hotel after remodelling in 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

The Sydney Sun reported on September 29 1946 that Len employed no less than 27 barmaids and barmen.

THIS week an American visitor complained of the way beer is served in Sydney hotels – This week 27 barmaids and barmen employed by a well-known Sydney hotelkeeper, received with their pay envelopes, instructions on the art of pulling and serving beer.

The barmaids and barmen are employees of Mr Len. Plasto, regarded as one of the greatest authorities on beer in NSW. He has educated hundreds of barmaids in the art of serving beer, and “Plasto-trained” girls have little difficulty in securing jobs.

“Beer,” Mr Plasto told me yesterday, “is how you pour it”.

“Beer is a delicate liquid. You have to nurse it, handle it carefully, know how to ‘top it up’ correctly, and be expert in the art of pulling it,” he added.

“To the connoisseur there is no more pleasing sight than a glass of sparkling beer with a creamy head, pulled so that when the glass is empty there will be a “curtain” of suds covering the inside of the glass.”

Mr Plasto will not allow any of his staff to use jugs to “top up” when serving beer.

“It means,” he explained, “that to perfectly fresh beer, beer which may have been standing for some time and which has lost some of its natural ‘condition’ is added. Even if it has been standing only a minute it will have lost some ‘condition.’ All beer should come from the tap.”

Even though you may be sacrificing a few drops of the precious liquid, it is far nicer – nicer to the eye and nicer to the taste – to have a glass of beer with a creamy head to it, according to Mr Plasto’s idea.

By the early 1950s, the Plasto families were among the most successful hoteliers in the state. With the Whelan, Miller, and L. J. Hooker families, they held the greatest interests in hotels in NSW, according to documents tendered to the 1951 Liquor Royal Commission.

Len took a special interest in the Hyde Park Hotel, at the corner of Elizabeth and Bathurst Streets, which he personally managed after retiring as licensee of the Ashfield Hotel in 1947.

The Plasto family had taken the lease of the pub in 1938, when it was known as the Royal Hyde Park Hotel, engaging experienced publican, Christopher Curran as licensee.

Len was manager when the prominent corner hotel was completely rebuilt by owners Tooth & Company in 1941 and the ‘Royal’ dropped from its title.

Curran was licensee of the Hyde Park Hotel for almost 20 years, from 1938 until his death in November 1956.

Meanwhile the Plasto family bought their only hotel freehold in 1948 with the purchase of the Hampden Hotel at Pennant Hills in Sydney’s north. The family owned the hotel until 1961.

Hampden Hotel, Pennant Hills, 1949. The Plasto family bought the pub’s freehold in 1948. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Australian president of the United Licensed Victuallers Association, Jack Ahern and NSW president of the association, Len Plasto. Picture: Brisbane Telegraph, June 1, 1954

Len Plasto became president of the NSW United Licensed Victuallers’ Association in 1954 after the retirement of 77-year-old N. A. Connolly, who had been at the helm for 26 years. Connolly was reported as saying at the time that he resigned “to make room for the younger chaps”.

Len held the presidency from 1954 to 1958. He was given the opportunity of heading the NSW ULVA at a time of great change in the hotel industry. A referendum had determined to extend trading hours of NSW pubs from 6pm to 10pm, ending the dreaded ‘six-o’clock-swill’.

Pubs in the state had been forced to close at 6pm since 1916, and the ULVA had been leading the campaign for longer trading hours for many years. The Sydney Sun-Herald reported on September 12 1954:

Mr. Len Plasto, president of ULVA, said their view was that drinking would be more leisurely, more spread, and less crowded with 10pm closing. “Their members would have to work later hours and pay substantially more wages, but we do not expect more liquor to be consumed,” said Mr. Plasto. ‘These organisations are sincerely interested in the standing and prestige of their industry. They feel that a great deal of unwarranted and uninformed criticism is directed at them, most of it arising from 6pm closing.”

Sensibility came on February 1 1955 with the end of the dreaded ‘six-o’clock swill’ and the introduction of 10pm closing in NSW pubs. The Melbourne Argus reported on January 10 1955: 

Hotels in NSW won’t all stay open till 10pm

Sydney, Sunday

A LARGE proportion of city, suburban, and country hotels will refuse to recognise 10pm closing after it becomes legal in New South Wales on February 1. They will close their doors after an extended 6.30 “drink session”. Sydney publicans believe that at least half of the 618 hotels in the city area will not trade later than 6.30 p.m., after a short initial trial period. Legal authorities said yesterday that the hotels could do this without fear of penalty. The Liquor (Amendment) Act, 1954, authorised hotel licensees to keep bars open until 10pm, but did not compel them to do so, they said. Some city hotels are expected to open for late trading on only one or two nights a week. Mr Len Plasto, president of the ULVA, said that hotels could not be expected to remain open at night if there was no trade. “If the people want to drink at night in any given area, competition will force the hotels to open,” he said. Publicans believe that Mr Plasto, at a special meeting of the ULVA on Tuesday, will advise members not to open after 6.30pm, if trade does not warrant it. The ULVA has called Tuesday’s meeting to discuss “problems of 10pm closing”.

Meanwhile the youngest of the Plasto brothers, Bob, took his first hotel license at the age of 27 in 1927 when he hosted the Ship Inn at Circular Quay, Sydney. He would eventually become managing-director of the Plasto hotel companies and go on to host Circular Quay’s landmark Ship Inn for 34 years.

The Ship Inn received a new hostess after Bob Plasto was granted a divorce in 1942 from his first wife, Roma, who he had wed in 1937, before re-marrying Jean Harris in 1945. 

The pair would become two of the best-known Sydney publicans over the following decade before they retired to Turramurra, on the Upper North Shore, from their harbour-side pub in 1961.

After the death of Reg at the age of 54 in 1949, and with Len now 60, and Bob, 56, the family began selling-off their remaining hotel interests in 1956.

The lease of the Imperial Hotel at Bombala was sold in 1956, the lease of Sydney’s Hyde Park Hotel in 1959, and finally in 1961, the lease on their remaining pubs, the Granville Hotel at Granville and the Ship Inn at Circular Quay were also off-loaded.

The freehold of the Hamden Hotel at Pennant Hills was also sold in 1961. The hotel continues to trade under the name of the Hotel Pennant Hills.

Bob spent his twilight years enjoying lawn bowls at his Pennant Hills club.

Ship Inn Hotel, Circular Quay, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University. Inset: Publican, Bob Plasto. Picture: Australian Womens Weekly, May 11, 1966.

The Australian Women’s Weekly reported on May 11 1966:

He’s the darling of the bowling green

By Mary Ellen Johnson

Mr. Bob Plasto, of Turramurra, is quite a “ladies’ man”. He’s 66, and has a string of girlfriends – 92 of them, to be exact.

Mr. Plasto, a retired hotel-keeper (he was born at his father’s hotel, the Greengate, at Killara, in 1900, and retired from his own, The Ship Inn, at Circular Quay, in 1961), is the honorary coach of the Pymble Ladies’ Bowling Club, which recently celebrated its official opening.

“I come here every afternoon,” Mr. Plasto told me between lessons, “and I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend the time of day than with the girls.

“There are 120 women members here now and I am proud to say I have taught 92 of them to bowl from scratch.

“I call them all my teacher’s pets and I love them all, what’s more.”

(His wife, Jean, one of his star pupils, is an enthusiastic member of the club’s social committee.)

“Believe it or not, many of the girls are very talented,” Mr. Plasto said.

“I’ve always said you can’t make a bowler inside two years, but many of the younger girls are proving me wrong.”

Mr. Plasto ought to know. He’s a member of the Pymble Men’s Bowling Club and has been bowling “nearly all his life”.

In fact, for two years he had lessons once a week from well-known coach, Albert Newton.

“Even after that I still only profess to be a good teacher, not a good player; I’ve never once taken part in a competition,” he said.

Mr. Plasto says one of his main problems, when teaching the girls, is to keep them laughing.

“I keep cracking jokes and they keep giggling,” he said, “otherwise they get tensed up and won’t relax, one of the important things about good bowling.

“For instance, I always get a laugh when I tell them to think of their bowl as their favorite darling. You know, something they love, and to be nice to it, and deliver it gently, instead of bashing it down the green the way many do before I put them straight.

“If they step off the mat too far, after delivering the bowl, I abuse them at length and tell them they’ll never get a wolf-whistle if they stroll about the green in such a manner.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Plasto doesn’t scare the girls with his fearsome roars.

“He likes to think he does,” one told me, “but, confidentially, he’s such a darling he couldn’t scare a flea.”

“He’s quite a card,” said another, “a marvellous sense of humor, which all helps to make play more interesting.”

To help with his coaching Mr. Plasto is going to bring a metronome (musictimer) to the green in future, so that the girls will improve their timing.

“They should have what I call a ‘pendulum delivery’ said Mr. Plasto, who claims that the girls need eight or nine lessons to start, then ‘tuning up’ about once a month.

The Plasto family company was finally wound-up in 1976.

Bob Plasto died at the age of 79 in 1979, while his older brother, Len lived to the age of 88 in 1984, ending a colourful era of family owned pubs in Sydney.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022


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