Long awaited re-opening of Sydney’s Abercrombie Hotel: A 180 year history continues

The former Australian Hotel, now known as the ‘Abercrombie’ on Broadway, 2021. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


ON the eve of the long-awaited reopening of the Abercrombie Hotel on Sydney’s Broadway, Time Gents takes a look at its history, spanning back over 180 years as a much-loved Sydney watering hole.

The hotel, located in the inner-Sydney suburb of Chippendale was established in 1843 as the Australian Inn, and the current art-deco building was completed in 1938 as its third reincarnation. 

In welcome news for thirsty Sydneysiders, the Abercrombie’s beer taps will flow again on Friday, December 23, 2022 after its closure in 2014.

Hospitality group Solotel, co-owned by chef Matt Moran and hotelier Bruce Solomon, bought the pub in 2016 and had originally planned to reopen the venue in 2018.

The Solotel hospitality group will celebrate the return of the Abercrombie with a 36-hour party running from Friday, December 23 2022 until 5am on Christmas morning, followed by a seven-day entertainment program commencing on Boxing Day.

The owners of the hotel, which has undergone a massive restoration and refurbishment, have acquired a 24-hour licence, and the refurbished pub will be home to three separate venues, including a public bar at street-level.

The original pub at the corner of what was known as ‘George Street West’ and Abercrombie Street was built in 1843 by Irish immigrant and brick manufacturer, John Bryen.

The Australian Inn was cleverly positioned on the busy road to Parramatta and the south coast to capture trade from passing traffic.

Three generations of the Bryen family would go on to own the landmark pub for 80 years before its sale to brewery giant, Tooth and Company in 1923.

Bryen manufactured bricks on a George Street property, and was well-equipped to build his own pub. He had previously hosted the Golden Anchor Hotel on George Street West from 1839 to 1840, and in 1843 acquired the license of a pub originally located on Phillip Street, Sydney.

John Kellick was given approval to remove the license of the Australian Inn from Phillip Street to George Street West in October 1843.

On approval, the license was immediately transferred from Kellick to Bryen, who owned the property, on Tuesday, November 7 1843.

The removal of the license allowed Bryen’s new pub to open for business, and began a long history of hospitality from the corner site.

The Bryens, John, 28, and his wife, Ellen, 34, moved into the pub in 1843. They remained hosts for four years before leasing the inn, and focussing on a growing property portfolio. Except for a short period in 1858, John Bryen would never return as licensee of the Australian Inn.

The old Irishman was a shrewd and successful businessman, buying-up property all over Sydney, including in the immediate vicinity of his pub around Abercrombie Street.

Although never divorcing, John and Ellen separated later in life, and lived apart.

Ellen died in 1876 at the age of 57, while her estranged husband, John died the following year aged 62, leaving a huge property portfolio valued at over £52,000. The Sydney Evening News reported on Monday, June 4, 1877:

Sudden Death of an Old Colonist

Mr John Bryan, an old and well-known colonist, who for many years carried on a large business as a brickmaker, was found dead at his residence, Abercrombie-street, this morning. Deceased, who was one of the earliest arrivals in the colony, was entirely a self-made man, and is believed to have amassed considerable wealth. It was his usual habit to lock up every apartment containing articles of value in his place before retiring to rest for the night. On Sunday evening he discharged that duty, and was not seen afterwards till found dead as stated, this morning.

Stephen Bryen, the only son of the wealthy hotelier and property investor, amongst his vast wealth, inherited the Australian Inn.

After his father pulled his last drinks at the pub, a long line of licensees – some for short periods of time, others for many years – would follow, including Patrick McMahon.

For unclear reasons, McMahon lost his license of the hotel when it was cancelled by the NSW Government under section 72 of the liquor act in 1882.

At least three unsuccessful attempts were made to have the pub re-licensed over the following 12 months, with the police opposing each application.

In the end, Stephen Bryen successfully challenged the decision in the Supreme Court, and the pub was re-licensed on October 24, 1883.

With John Cashman at the helm, the name of the hotel was officially changed from the ‘Australian Inn’ to the ‘Australian Hotel’ on May 7, 1889.

Another prominent publican of the Australian Hotel was John Woods, who held the lease for a decade from 1891.

John Woods held the license of the Australian Hotel from 1891 to 1911

Born in Limerick, Ireland, Woods was a high-profile Roman Catholic and supporter of the Home Rule (Irish Independence) Movement. He arrived in Australia as a young man in the early 1880s, eventually becoming a successful commercial traveller.

At the age of 29 he was granted a publican’s license for the Australian Hotel and was given a 10 year lease from the owner, Stephen Bryen. It was here that his wealth grew.

An extensive traveller, often returning to Ireland, Woods placed a manager in control of his hotel, from where he also operated a wine and spirit store.

John Woods and Company became one of Sydney’s most successful wine and spirit merchants. John was the general manager, while his brothers were directors.

After his lease of the Australian Hotel ended in 1911, Woods relocated the wine and spirit business to Sussex Street, where it became one of Sydney’s largest merchants, trading into the late 1940s.

At the age of 49, Woods married 39-year-old Bridget Johnson in 1911. By this time he was a wealthy man, and his importance in Sydney’s Catholic community cannot be overstated. Knighted by the Pope, he was treasurer of St Mary’s Cathedral building fund, a director of the ‘Catholic Press’ newspaper, and for a number of years treasurer of Sydney’s St Patrick’s Day sports committee. 

On John Woods’ death in 1924 at the age of 62, a great deal of his massive wealth was bequest to Roman Catholic institutions, like orphanages. In fact, £56,000 went to the religious institutions, as well as £20,000 towards the St Mary’s Cathedral building fund. His widow, Bridget died in 1942 at the age of 74.

Meanwhile, owner of the Australian Hotel, Stephen Bryen, had died at the age of 60 in 1909, leaving the pub to his only son, John George Bryen.

John George Bryan undertook a major rebuild of the hotel in 1911, with an additional storey added, making it one of the more imposing hotels on George Street West.

With the completion, the Bryen family leased the three-storey pub to William and Bridget McCarthy.

The Australian Hotel C.1935. Picture: City of Sydney Archives. Inset: John George Bryen, the last of three generations to own the Australian Hotel.

William McCarthy died aged 58 in 1915 while host of the pub and his widow Bridget took control after his death. During this time the McCarthy’s’ pub became home to many of Sydney’s best boxers.

Their son, William “Bluey” McCarthy was a successful boxing manager at the time, and operated a gymnasium and boxing ring from the hotel.

Australian Hotel owner, John George Bryan was charged with manslaughter in 1922 when the car he was driving hit and killed a pedestrian alighting from a tram on busy George Street West. He was eventually acquitted, the jury adding a ‘warning rider’ to their verdict: ‘We are of opinion that Bryen should have taken more care’.

Also in 1922, brewery giant, Tooth and Company, which by now had swallowed-up most of the block around the Australian Hotel into their sprawling Kent Brewery site, had its eyes set on acquiring Bryen’s pub. They already owned three other nearby pubs on the brewery site facing George Street West.

Bryen made a deal with the brewery in 1922 for a 14 year lease of his hotel at a rental of £20 a week, in consideration of the payment of £10,000 at the expiration of an existing lease.

However, Bryen reneged on the deal, which landed him in court when Tooth and Company sued for breach of agreement.

Bryen lost the case, and Tooth’s took over the lease of the hotel, and eventually purchased the freehold in March 1923, ending the family’s 80 year ownership of the pub.

With the purchase of the Australian Hotel, Tooth and Company had acquired the last of four pubs that were located along George Street West adjoining the old Kent Brewery site, and ended a three generation ownership of the pub.

The Australian Hotel 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

Bryen, who like his grandfather had separated from his wife in 1927, died at the age of 71 on December 13, 1947.

Meanwhile the brewery undertook major interior renovations to the Australian Hotel in 1928, and again in 1931 before the bulldozers moved in, replacing it with a modern ‘art-deco’ designed building.

Sydney City Council acquired a portion of the property from Tooth & Company, and construction of the new hotel – set further back off George Street West – got underway in 1937.

The ‘new’ Australian Hotel was designed by celebrated Sydney architects, Copeman, Lemont and Keesing and built at a cost of £11,070.

The firm was responsible for many hotels in and around Sydney, including the design of the landmark Criterion Hotel at the corner of Park and Pitt Streets in the city, built in 1936.

With the completion of the Australian Hotel and the widening of George Street West, along with the acquisition of several other properties, the name of the busy thoroughfare was officially changed to Broadway in 1938.

Australian Hotel, Broadway, Sydney, 1938. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

A revolving door of licensees hosted the Australian Hotel after its completion on January 24, 1938.

The pub continued to be an important local watering hole in the southern end of the CBD, attracting a motley crew of Fairfax journalists, Carlton United Brewery staff and local rag-trade workers through its doors during the 40s, 50s and 60s.

The hotel was heritage listed by the NSW Government in 1989.

Australian Hotel, Broadway, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Australian Hotel, Broadway, Sydney, 1960. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

Michael Beattie was a regular drinker at the Australian Hotel during the 1980s and recalls a few of the publicans from that era.

“Bobby Reed was a publican at the Australian Hotel; I’m pretty sure he was an ex-jockey, a great publican – as were Norm and Jock Thompson, and Keith and Ross Ollerenshaw. You could always ‘snip’ any of them for $50 until pay day,” he said.

Michael, who supplied us with a few photos from that time, said another popular publican from that time was Neil Moore.

“He was a friend to all – a genuine guy.”

Australian Hotel publican, Neil Moore, 1980s. Picture: Michael Beattie from Reschs Appreciation Society.
Australian Hotel barmaid, Carlene (blue top, second from left) ensuring women are looked after in the public bar, 1980s. Picture: Michael Beattie from Reschs Appreciation Society.
Australian Hotel, Broadway ‘happy hour’, 1980s. Picture: Michael Beattie from Reschs Appreciation Society.
Free feed during ‘happy hour’ at the Australian Hotel, 1980s. Picture: Michael Beattie from Reschs Appreciation Society.

More than 170 years of history sadly came to an end in 2011 when the pub’s name was changed from the Australian Hotel to the Abercrombie Hotel.

From 2011 the pub became famous as a late night entertainment venue, with raucous parties, cheap jugs, and the obligatory sticky floors.

After the closure of the Carlton & United Brewery (the old Kent Brewery), the hotel was sold to the developers of the Central Park residential, commercial and retail precinct, and after more than 170 years of trading, the pub closed for business on January 9, 2014.

The main bar of the Abercrombie Hotel undergoing renovations in 2021. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
The Abercrombie Hotel on Broadway after its closure in 2014. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
The Abercrombie Hotel undergoing restoration in 2021. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

The hotel and adjoining terraces in Abercrombie Street were sold in 2016 to the Solotel Group, who currently own a number of Sydney pubs, including the Golden Sheaf, Double Bay, Clock Hotel, Surry Hills, Bank Hotel, Newtown, Kings Cross Hotel and Paddo Inn at Paddington.

While Solotel planned to restore the pub and have it opened by 2018, those dreams will finally be realised on December 23 2022 when the group continue the hotel’s recent legacy as a late night entertainment venue.

Do you have any memories of the Australian/Abercrombie Hotel? Scroll down to the comments section below to share your stories.

Australian Inn/Hotel Licensees 1843 – 1987

1843 – 1847: John Bryen

1847 – 1849: Maurice O’Flaherty

1849 – 1851: John Langford

1851 – 1852: John George Williams

1852 – 1855: Francis Hayman

1855 – 1856: Eliza Whitmarsh

1856 – 1858: David Woodham

1858 – 1859: John Bryen

1859 – 1861: John Anderson

1861 – 1863: Thomas Jones

1863 – 1870: Henry Reynolds

1870 – 1871: James King

1871 – 1874: Michael Donnellan

1874 – 1875: S. W. Rollins

1875 – 1880: Thomas Donohue

1880 – 1881: John Collins

1881 – 1882: Patrick McMahon

Hotel closed 1882 – 1883

1883 – 1884: Stephen Josiah Bryen

1884 – 1885: Michael Roche

1885 – 1889: James Kelly

1889 – 1891: Edward Cashman

1891 – 1911: John Woods

1911 – 1915: William McCarthy

1915 – 1918: Bridget McCarthy

1918 – 1919: Michael Doyle

1919 – 1922: Frederick R. Pooley

1922 – 1923: Michael John Buckley

1923 John George Bryen sells hotel to Tooth & Co

1923 – 1931: E. C. Williams

1931: Vincent A. Coates

1931 – 1932: P. T. Scahill

1932 – 1936: J. L. Flynn

1936: L. N. Clugston

1936 – 1937: C. J. O’Brien

1937 – 1938: Henry B. Reid

1938 Replacement hotel opened

1938 – 1939: Cecilia Burke

1939: Raymond W. Burns

1939 – 1940: Henry Ellemor

1940: Claude M. Hamilton

1940 – 1948: William J. Cole

1948 – 1959: Sybil Gwendolyn Kane

1959 – 1960: Edwin Samuel

1960 – 1962: Stanley Bunce

1962 – 1965: Lawrence Joseph Wallington

1965 – 1966: Raymond Ernest Hillman

1966: Daniel John Hannan

1966 – 1968: John David Johnson

1968 – 1969: Earle Graham McIntosh

1969 – 1974: Norman David Thomson

1974 – 1977: Keith Ollerenshaw

1977 – 1979: Robert Bernard Reed

1979 – 1982: Kenneth John Upton

1982 – 1987: Neil John Moore

1987 Tooth & Co sells hotel to Traclon Pty Ltd

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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  1. The Australia Hotel, aka The Abercrombie, Broadway, Sydney – TIME GENTS

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