By MICK ROBERTS ©
THERE are some pubs that even the bravest men would fear to tread.
The North Illawarra Hotel at Austinmer, south of Sydney, had that reputation. A coal miners’ pub, it was one of the toughest in the Illawarra region.
The two-storey timber pub had a short existence and had the rare distinction of becoming a club for a brief period of time after it lost its license in 1889.
The hotel was located at the northern corner of Moore Street and The Grove, opposite Austinmer Railway Station. The building existed for less than five years before it burnt to the ground in 1893.
John Heal was granted a conditional license for the unfinished hotel, built and owned by James Huxtable, in January 1889. However, Heal never got to serve a beer from its bar.
Before the hotel was completed, Heal handed the rights of the hotel back to its owner, James Huxtable. The Sydney Mail newspaper reported on September 8, 1888 that the pub was nearing completion, and would soon open for business.
Huxtable was granted confirmation of his conditional license on Tuesday, October 16, 1889. Huxtable remained licensee for two months before selling a lease to George Dent, the son of Sydney publican, Jessie Dent, in November 1888.
The decision to sell the lease to Dent was a mistake by Huxtable. The North Illawarra Hotel would be 22-year-old George Dent’s first pub. Although he had worked in his mother’s hotels, he had been refused license applications for two Sydney pubs prior to taking-on the North Illawarra Hotel.
George and his wife Jane took-over the pub in March 1889. With the couple came Jessie Dent to help manage her son’s Austinmer pub, which already had a reputation as a fairly tough establishment.
Jessie Dent though was no shrinking violet. A divorced mother of five children, she had hosted several Sydney pubs, including the Governor Denison Hotel at Erskine and Kent Streets, the Brisbane Hotel at Kent and Druitt Streets, and the Haymarket Hotel, Haymarket, before relocating to Austinmer at the age of 58 to help her son with a pub noted for its hard drinking coal miners.
Despite this assistance, George Dent would find himself labelled as “incompetent” and his pub became an even more notorious bloodhouse after he took the reins. He was no sooner behind the bar when a customer William Cooper was allowed a ‘skin-full’ and was killed by a train while walking home along the tracks after leaving the North Illawarra Hotel on March 9 1889.
The pub was known for drunken men lying about, with frequent complaints about “foul language” coming from the bar. The North Illawarra Hotel, according to the local religious minister, had a “demoralising effect” on Austinmer, and the local cop branded Dent as “either physically or mentally unfit” to be a publican.
The constable told a licensing court that the outhouses at North Illawarra Hotel were filthy, and he once found a 12-year-old girl in its bar. With such a notorious reputation it’s little wonder the pub traded for just 12 months.
When Dent fronted the Wollongong Licensing Court to renew his license in October 1889, he was met with a barrage of complaints. As a result, Dent was refused a renewal of his license.
The Austinmer community were divided over the loss of their pub. Despite its shocking reputation, Huxtable was determined to have his pub re-opened. The Austinmer correspondent to the Illawarra Mercury reported on November 16 1889:
The proprietor has got a petition going the rounds of the township, asking the Bench to grant the license to the applicant. This being so, we trust that all friends of order and justice will support an opposition petition, as no one can dispute the fact that before the house was opened and also sine it was closed, there has been the best of order in the place, while during the brief time it was open disturbances were frequent occurrence, and we also fail to see how a license can be granted with any degree of justice to another person, after the harsh manner in which the previous tenant was treated.
Huxtable was denied a license for the house on the grounds that the peace and good order of the locality would be disturbed. The refusal flared tempers, with the Illawarra Mercury’s correspondent reporting that one witness appearing against the granting of the license had been threatened with abuse “to such an extent that revolvers were being furbished up”.
Huxtable tried and failed a number of times to have the hotel relicensed. After exhausting almost every avenue at licensing the premises he came-up with a novel way of selling grog from the former pub.
The Austinmer Workmen’s Club was formed in 1892 and consisted of a manager, secretary, treasurer and a committee of five. This was the first attempt at operating a club in the Illawarra.
Members purchased drink coupons from Huxtable, who in exchange were given their preferred refreshment from the bar. Huxtable would place the coupons in a ballot box. The Club’s secretary had the key to the box which he periodically opened and Huxtable then produced the money to the amount of coupons.
Although the police tried to have the club closed, a loop hole in the law allowed Huxtable to get around not having a liquor license by selling the coupons to members of the club.
The Austinmer Workmen’s Club though soon ran into financial difficulties. The profits made on an 18 gallon keg of beer were soon “wiped out” by the committee men, who according to reports took their free pint every time they visited the club. The Austinmer Workmen’s Club folded in January 1893.
The end came for the Austinmer pub later that year. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Tuesday, February 7, 1893 that the two storey timber pub had completely been destroyed by fire.
FIRE AT AUSTINMER
About four o’clock yesterday morning, when the early train from Sydney was approaching Austinmer, the driver perceived huge flames of fire issuing from what was known as the North lllawarra Hotel. The train was immediately brought to a standstill, and the whistle set going sounding the alarm, but although a number of people were soon on the scene it was found impossible to do anything to arrest the progress of the fire, and the large building was reduced to ashes, leaving only the brick chimney standing to mark the place where once existed a flourishing place of business. The premises, which were unoccupied, we learn, were insured with the United Insurance Company for £700. An inquest is to be held.
Jessie Dent moved to nearby Helensburgh, where she operated a general store for 20 years. She died there in January 1914 at the age of 82. Her son, George Dent seems to have never taken another pub license after his Austinmer debacle. He moved to Kogarah where he worked as a carter and died at the age of 54 in 1921 after he was thrown from a sulky he was driving at Penshurst when the wheel struck the kerb. Another sulky ran over Dent while he was lying on the road and crushed his head. He was taken to St. George Cottage Hospital by ambulance, and died shortly after admission.
About 1990 Austinmer resident, Kevin Ross told me that when he was working on the construction of an art-deco style bakery building at the corner of Moore Street and The Grove in 1946, the cellar of the old pub was discovered.
Today a vet surgery operates from the 1946 bakery building, where once the notorious North Illawarra Hotel traded.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023
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