Road trip: Pubs of the Northern Territory’s ‘Never Never’

The iconic Daly Waters Pub. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


THE pubs of the Northern Territory are full to the brim with terrific tales – some tall, some true – but most of all, entertaining; Like the one about when the host of Mataranka Hotel, Nellie ‘Ma’ Fisher had to ‘chip’ a bloke from concrete after he fell asleep in a wet-mix, poured for her new bar-room floor. You see, concrete sets fast in the tropics.

Unfortunately, the bloke – who had sunk way too many – had lost his way, and while searching for his swag late at night had stumbled into the wet cement. Soft, and comfortably cool, he fell asleep. At daylight next morning ‘Ma’ was attracted by his yells, and, the story goes, she had to call for help to chip him out of the set concrete!

This is just one of the colourful stories we discovered on our Northern Territory road trip to the famed Daly Waters pub – one of the celebrated pubs of the Never Never.

We quickly came to the realisation that it’s a bloody long way between drinks on our 600km journey south from Darwin to visit the unique pubs at Humpty Doo, Pine Creek, Mataranka, Larrimah and lastly Daly Waters, where we explored their rich history and hospitality.

Before leaving Darwin, however, I had to revisit what many would consider was once the Northern Territory capital’s most famous pub. Sadly, the historic Victoria Hotel closed for business in 2014.

The Victoria Hotel, Darwin. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

I first visited ‘The Vic’, as the pub was affectionately known, in 1986, when she still clung to the charm of her earlier years. When her bar sheltered the rogues, scoundrels and characters of the Top End.

Like all well-designed tropical pubs from her era, the public bar was dark, and almost devoid of windows, to keep the coolness trapped inside, sheltering drinkers from Darwin’s stifling humidity. On the ceiling a large punkah fan – the entire length of the bar-room – slowly swayed backwards and forwards to keep air circulating. The scene was reminiscent of British Colonial India, when large swinging fans, pulled by servants, creaked and moaned overhead.  

Tragically the punkah fan no longer sways back and forth, and the raucous laughter and competing voices from drinkers within The Vic’s bar have fallen silent.

The bars of the Victoria Hotel, Darwin, have fallen silent. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

The Victoria Hotel was built by legendary publican, Ellen Ryan, an entrepreneur who became one of the Territory’s richest women.

The hotelier was born in London, England, about 1851 before making her way to the Colony of South Australia where, at the age of 16, she married William Ryan on November 13, 1867.

The couple moved to the Northern Territory from Adelaide in 1873 after hearing reports of the discovery of gold. The Ryans arrived in Darwin, then known as Palmerston, on board the Birchgrove just three years after the town was established, and immediately made their way to the Pine Creek goldfields. 

Whether William Ryan, who loved a tipple, was attracted to the lure of liquor, or a shrewd Ellen realised there was better chances to build wealth as hotelier, we will probably never know. What we do know though is that instead of pursuing gold, the Ryans took the lease of the Miners’ Arms Hotel at The Shackle, near Pine Creek. 

The Miners Arms was operated by Edward Williams before the Ryans took over the lease in 1875. The pub was the centre of life in the gold mining town, which boasted a police station, telegraph office, and was the region’s administrative and service centre from 1872 to 1886.

William Ryan was granted the license of the Miners Arms on July 5, 1875. However, he would have a short stint as publican, and he was refused a renewal of his license in March 1877. William was hitting the bottle hard, and was deemed unfit to hold a liquor license.

At the age of 26, Ellen bravely separated from her husband in 1877, eventually taking out a formal protection order against him for her earnings, “owing to his threats, cruelty and drunkenness”. The couple had no children.

After separating from Ellen, William reportedly left Darwin, stating he had “had quite enough of the Territory and the people in it”.

Ellen – now just 27 and with no family – was granted her first liquor license in 1878 when she became host of the Palmerston Club Hotel in Mitchell Street Darwin.

Palmerston Club Hotel, 1920, corner of Mitchell and Herbert Streets (Later the site of Hot and Cold Bar Hotel, Darwin). Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.

Over the next decade, she earned a reputation for serving-up some of the Territory’s best tucker, and her pubs became known for providing excellent dining facilities.

Following the Palmerston Club Hotel, Ellen later hosted the Globe Hotel at Southport (1879-1880), the British and Foreign Hotel at The Shackle (1881-1884), Margaret Crossing Hotel, Yam Creek (1884-1888), Grove Hill Hotel, Grove Hill (1888-1889) and Union Hotel, Union (1889-1890).

Approaching the age of 40, Ellen took on her greatest achievement as an hotelier, firmly etching her name in the history of Darwin. She began construction of a new two-storey stone hotel in what would later become Darwin City.

Ellen lodged plans for her new hotel with the courts on September 9, 1890, and left the Union Hotel, transferring the license from herself to George Connelly. Her new hotel – the first two storey stone building in Darwin – was built at 27 Smith Street (known then as Palmerston), and was completed at a cost of £4,000 by builder, Henry Matthew Debross.

Like his boss who contracted him to build arguably Darwin’s most famous pub, Debross was also a ‘top-end’ identity.

Debross – or ‘Debby’ as he was more familiarly known – was a Frenchman who came to the Territory in 1884, establishing himself as a successful building contractor. The carpenter won several significant contracts, including the building of the magistrate’s and police quarters at Borroloola in 1886, and the Roman Catholic Chapel in Smith Street, Palmerston in 1888.

As Debross was putting the final touches to Ellen’s new hotel – arguably his greatest building achievement – he fell on financial difficulties and was declared insolvent. In his later years he worked for the Railway Department’s locomotive workshops at the ‘2½ Mile’ before falling ill with a “persistent complication of malaria and cold, with sore throat” and setting sail to Sydney for treatment in May 1904. He died at Dr. Woods’ private hospital, Burwood, Sydney in June 1904.

Despite this set-back, Ryan pushed-on with her new hotel, which was nearing completion in 1890. The Northern Territory Times reported on Friday July 11, 1890:

Royal Hotel – The finishing touches are now being put upon this building, which is a decided ornament to the main street of the city. There are naturally some irregularities in the architectural features of the structure — few buildings of the kind are free of such — but in a general sense the structure gives a pleasing external appearance. Inside, the portioning of space and disposal of rooms are not quite as perfect as might have been, but this is an objection of a trivial nature, and it does not conceal the fact that the Royal Hotel is the first building of its kind erected in the northern portion of the Territory. The walls are of stone, the timber used is exclusively cypress pine, the ground floors are of cement, and the roof galvanised iron. Lath and plaster partitions divide the rooms, and the same material forms the ceiling, but this, we think, will in time prove a very troublesome and expensive mistake, for we hardly expect that such material will stand the wear and tear of time in this country where thunderstorms are so severe and the wet and dry seasons are so regular. But still that has yet to be proved. As far as actual accommodation goes the hotel is none too lavishly provided, though amply so for all purposes for some time to come. On the ground floor there are eight rooms in the main building. These include a billiard room, 25ft x 20ft; a Commercial Room, 18ft x 17ft; and a dining room 24ft x 16ft. The bar adjoins the Billiard room and is well disposed for the convenience of the whole house. Underneath it is a capricious cellar 16ft x 15ft, and a fine wide hall runs from front to back of the building. A staircase leads to the second storey where there are nine rooms — an assembly room 28 x 17, and eight bedrooms — besides a [illegible] bath room. A 10ft balcony runs along the back of the building, both sides, [illegible] of the front, and this should be a charming retreat at all times from the dust and worry of the lower world. It is the first two storey hotel that has been built here, and its erection reflects the greatest credit upon the ability of the contractor, Mr. H. M. Debross, whose work throughout appears to have a first-class stamp about it. Though his contract is completed it will yet be many weeks before the house is thrown open to the public, as a licence cannot he obtained until September. We take it for granted that with a house like the Royal Mrs. Ryan will secure a fair proportion of the hotel business of the town. The pluck evidenced by her investment certainly deserves substantial acknowledgement.

The Victoria Hotel, Darwin, about 1897. Inset: Ellen Ryan. Pictures: Supplied

Upon completion, the building dominated the streetscape with its multi-coloured porcellanite stone, dominated by a facade with parapetted gable and verandahs. The hotel opened for trade in Smith Street on September 8 1890.

First licensed as the Royal Hotel, it was renamed the North Australian Hotel a few days after opening. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette reported on Friday, September 12, 1890:

THE NORTH AUSTRALIAN HOTEL – When applying for the licence for her new hotel on Tuesday Mrs. Ryan was permitted to change the name from the ‘Royal’ to the ‘North Australian’ — for many reasons a much more appropriate title. The licence was granted and the house duly opened to the public on Tuesday, but although quite ready for business, there are numerous little details to fill in before it can be considered complete in all respects. The building itself has already been described at length, and it only remains to be said that the interior arrangements are of the very best. The furnishings of the bedrooms and par-lours are both elaborate and tasteful. It has been commonly asserted that Mrs. Ryan exhibited more pluck than wisdom in entering upon such an expensive undertaking. Be that as it may, the fact remains that she has departed from the old weather-worn system of wood and iron houses and has now placed at the convenience of the public an hotel which is a credit to her enterprise and an estimable token of city improvement. And the least we can do is to wish that she may find as time goes on that her confidence in the residents of Palmerston was not misplaced. The out-look at present is not particularly cheering for any branch of business, but the North Australian Hotel is bound to secure its share of what trade is doing in its peculiar line.

Ellen remained as host of the North Australian Hotel until July 1896, when she again took the reins of the nearby Palmerston Club Hotel. The North Australian Hotel was in turn taken over by George Henry James.

The James family changed the name of the hotel to the Victoria in September 1896, and it has retained that name ever since.

Ellen returned as licensee of the Victoria Hotel in 1902, and she was host when the “Great Hurricane” hit Darwin on January 6, 1897. The Victoria Hotel lost part of its roof and was damaged internally during the cyclone.

The damage to the Victoria Hotel after the ‘Great Hurricane’ of 1897. Picture: Supplied.

The Great Hurricane killed 28 people, sank 19 vessels in Darwin Harbour, including the entire pearling fleet, and caused around £150,000 damage throughout the town.

Structurally however, ‘The Vic’ was one of only a few buildings that remained mostly intact and Ellen had the hotel repaired and reopened shortly afterwards.

The Victoria Hotel was taken under Federal control in 1915, after the Northern Territory was separated from South Australia, and was transferred to the Commonwealth, in an attempt to control alcohol consumption in the town.

Ryan retired to Adelaide to a house she named ‘The Shackle’, where she lived with her sister. She remained entangled in a compensation claim over the government takeover of the Victoria Hotel until her death at the age of 78 on May 30, 1920.

The famed old hotelier is buried in West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.

When the hotel was renovated in 1988, two stones were discovered hidden in a wall’s hollow cavity. One featured a sketch of Ellen Ryan, while the other was a poem, allegedly penned by a “disappointed former lover” – or was it her estranged husband, William? The stones are encased in glass behind the bar, and read:

She promised she would seek me here
If death was as she thought
Sometimes, less drunk, I think I see
Her lovely ghost form beckon me
Or could it be the liquor has me caught?

At the Vic Hotel in Darwin Town
They’ll all be drinking still
Not knowing that her face lies hid
May it haunt them as for me it did
Oh God! This life’s a bitter pill!

Another strong-willed, successful business woman took the reins of ‘The Vic’ in 1921. Mining entrepreneur, 46-year-old May Brown became the first publican to win the lease of ‘The Vic’ when the era of government controlled hotels came to end in the Territory. 

Brown was a flamboyant Territory miner, publican and pioneer, who became well known for her role in developing the wolfram (tungsten) mining industry in Australia. Born in Sydney in 1875, May Brown made her first trip to the Territory as a 15-year-old in 1890, where she helped her sister and brother-in-law run the Terminus Hotel in Darwin. She made several visits to the Territory between then and 1901, when at the age of 26 she married a former Australian amateur boxing champion, George Seale.

Their marriage was short, and Seale died in Sydney during 1906, after suffering from pleuro-pneumonia. A little over six months later, May married James Burns, one of the partners of a rich tungsten mine near Pine Creek in the Northern Territory.

May and James arrived in the Territory in January 1907 and they built a vast wealth from their mining ventures. May physically helped her husband in the mine, and reportedly was involved alongside Chinese employees, digging for tungsten. The pair eventually bought-out their partner in the mines.

May’s second husband, James died from alcoholism in 1912, and within seven months she had remarried Albert ‘Bert’ Brown. By 1916 May Brown’s mine had a value of £20,000, making it one of the richest of its kind in Australia.

By 1920 the price of tungsten had plummeted, and in need of an income to support her extravagant lifestyle, May turned her skills to the hotel trade. She won the lease of Darwin’s Hotel Victoria when the government ended its hold on the hotel trade in 1921. A successful publican, she built a reputation for keeping an orderly hotel by using boxing skills taught to her by her first husband, George Seale.

After her third husband, Charles Albert, died from malaria while droving cattle along the Birdsville Track in 1926, May bought the Pine Creek Hotel. She managed the pub from 1928 to 1930 before she began experiencing financial problems, and lost her mines.

May Brown retired to Sydney and died there aged 64 on July 23 1939, “a virtual pauper”. She is buried with her first husband at Rookwood cemetery in Sydney.

Christina Gordon, who previously hosted the Pine Creek Hotel, took over ‘The Vic’ in August 1926. Gordon upgraded the pub, including adding a new dining room. She also continued the strong connection with aviators. Many of their signatures from the 1920s and 1930s remain on a masonry section in the hotel, which has been preserved.

The hotel lost its roof for the second time in March 1937, during another cyclone. Although not as formidable as the 1897 cyclone, it still caused considerable damage to the town and killed one person. The hotel was quickly repaired and continued trading as one of Darwin’s most popular watering holes.

The Victoria Hotel, Darwin, 1940s. Picture: Supplied.

During World War II the hotel was occupied by United States and Australian naval authorities who remained there until the end of the conflict. In September 1941, rioting soldiers in the Darwin city area caused superficial damage to the hotel, breaking windows and furniture. With many troops stationed in Darwin, a fight, which broke out in the hotel, quickly spread outside into Smith Street. Although the damage was blamed on the soldiers, records show that civilians were also involved in the riot.

In September 1946, the pub reopened under the ownership of the Lim family, who bought the hotel from the Gordons. The Lims operated the hotel for nearly 20 years, selling it in 1965. During this period, crocodile shooters, buffalo hunters and mining prospectors, mixed with office workers and bank staff at its bar.

On Christmas Day 1974 the hotel survived yet another cyclone, when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin killing 71 people and damaging 95 per cent of buildings at an estimated cost of over $800 million.

The hotel was significantly damaged but survived structurally, losing its roof for the third time in less than a century. The Vic Hotel was not reconstructed until 1978, with some original stonework repaired, particularly in relation to the Smith Street gabled parapet.

The hotel has had several refurbishments since Cyclone Tracy. The hotel facade was registered on the “National Estate” in 1999 for its historic associations with important events and individuals for more than a century.

Sadly, the Vic Hotel closed in October 2014. At the time, it was reported to be more than $750,000 in debt. The hotel’s co-owner Andrew Chigwidden reportedly said at the time that the hotel “struggled to get market share due to its geographical position”, and that a lack of a suitable downstairs smoking area had a negative commercial impact on the pub’s viability.

We left the soulless Vic, disappointed, wondering what the future holds for this important link to Darwin’s past, and prepared for the next destination on our Territory adventure.

A short 30 minute drive from the heart of Darwin took us to another famous Territory pub – the legendary Humpty Doo Hotel.

The Humpty Doo Hotel, Humpty Doo. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Except for a sealed car park, and a fine selection of bistro food, the pub had changed little from when I first visited in the mid 1980s.

Although a youngster when compared to Darwin’s Vic, the Humpty Doo is a must for pub lovers when visiting the Top End.

Testimony to those who have rested an elbow on its bar, the Humpty Doo’s young age hasn’t hindered a swag-full of yarns that have lead to the pub’s legendary status. The pub has featured in several bush ballads, including ‘The Man from Humpty Doo’ by Ted Egan and Slim Dusty’s ‘Humpty Doo Waltz’.

The Humpty Doo Hotel was established by an early land developer and businessman, Neville Skewes (1921-1995). Skewes moved to Humpty Doo in 1967 where he built and opened a general store in 1968.

In 1971 he built the pub next door, which he and his wife, Helen hosted for nine years. While hosts, Helen caused a scandal when she shot her husband after catching him “mucking around” with a barmaid, and was jailed for 12 months.

In an interview with the online magazine,, their son, Danny Skewes reportedly said that his dad “wasn’t too badly hurt”.

“Just a couple of shots up the arse and one in the arm.”

Skewes carried out many of the first five acre (8ha) subdivisions in the Humpty Doo area. Neville and Helen Skewes are buried side by side at Aldebaran in Acacia, 60km south of Darwin.

Humpty Doo Hotel, Humpty Doo. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Humpty Doo Hotel, Humpty Doo. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Although the Humpty Doo is nothing to write home about architecturally, the pub has become known for its characters, a set of enormous water buffalo horns above the bar, Brahman bulls winning beer drinking competitions, and of course, the occasional horse visiting its public bar.

After taking the obligatory photograph under the buffalo horns, we enjoyed lunch at the iconic pub before making our way 200kms south to our next destination – The Pine Creek Hotel.

Pine Creek Hotel, Pine Creek. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

On arrival at Pine Creek, the current host, although friendly enough, seemed to have had travellers’ fatigue, and mentioned he was pleased to have had seen the back end of the Top End’s tourist season.

Like the Humpty Doo pub, the Pine Creek Hotel lacks any real architectural charm. Built in 1959 to replace the original 1889 pub, which survives nearby as a private residence, the Pine Creek Hotel reflects the practicality of Territorians. In fact, I quite like the pub’s simple and practical design, with a large ‘garage-door’ opening from its bar-room out onto the beer garden. In saying this though, it’s a real shame the original 1889 pub couldn’t have continued to trade. Its historic character would have made the old pub a much-loved tourist destination if the license was retained.

The bar of the Pine Creek Hotel, Pine Creek. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
The bar of the Pine Creek Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
The Pine Creek Hotel also features quirky memorabilia. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Thomas Evans was granted a “new publican’s license” for the Playford Club Hotel on September 10, 1889.

The pub was likely named after Edward Copley Playford, a former administrator of the Northern Territory and prominent surveyor in the mining districts. 

The Playford Club Hotel opened ahead of the completion of the railway from Darwin to Pine Creek during the gold rush in October 1889. The pub sat almost opposite the railway station, which today operates as a museum.

Playford Club Hotel Pine Creek, 1891. Picture: State Library of South Australia

Thomas Evans previously hosted the Pioneer Hotel at Burrundie, a mining settlement about 30 km north of Pine Creek. Burrundie was abandoned sometime after 1900.

After the railway was extended in 1914, the importance of Pine Creek diminished, as did customers at the Playford Club Hotel. The pub was bought by George and Evelyn Dowling late in 1929.

The Dowlings, with their daughter Mayse, moved from Queensland to the Territory in 1927 before buying the Playford Club Hotel.

George was also a gold prospector, while his wife, Evelyn was left to host the pub.

During 1932 threats were made to bomb the Playford Club Hotel because Evelyn had refused credit to unemployed men. Thankfully the threats were never carried out.

Playford Club Hotel, Pine Creek, 1926. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.
Evelyn Dowling, Joe Brennan, two children, Jim and Ethel Dowling, Mayse Dowling and George Dowling (seated in front). Picture: Mayse Young Collection, Library & Archives Northern Territory.
George Dowling (left), Ted Dowling (second left) and Mayse Dowling (right), 1930. Picture: Mayse Dowling Collection Library & Archives Northern Territory
Pine Creek Hotel, 1949. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.
Outside the Pine Creek Hotel, 1940s. William Charles Miller is the back row with face in shadow of the hat. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.

The Dowlings would host the Playford Club Hotel for 12 years before the license was transferred from Evelyn to Gordon Nicholls in 1941.

The Dowlings retained ownership of the pub until their death, when it was left to their daughter, Mayse.

In 1935 Mayse married Joe ‘Bogga’ Young at Pine Creek before making their home in Darwin. During the War years ‘Bogga’ remained in Darwin, while Mayse and the children, for safety went south. After the war ‘Bogga’ his wife, and seven children, returned to Darwin.

In March 1952 Mayse and her husband bought what is now the Crossways Hotel in Katherine. Later they hosted the Seabreeze Hotel in Darwin, and had a long term financial interest in the Katherine Hotel-Motel.

The ‘new’ Pine Creek Hotel, which we visited, was built by Mayse and her husband ‘Bogga’ when they transferred the license of the old Playford Club Hotel to its current site in 1959.

The ‘new’ Pine Creek Hotel nearing completion in 1959. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.

Mayse always retained an active interest in the pub with her daughters often taking turns in the management and licensing. In the 1950s the Youngs had interests in cattle stations, first Moroak Station between Mataranka and Elsey Station, and later Birrundudu Station.

Joe ‘Bogga’ Young died in 1983 and was buried in Pine Creek Cemetery. He has been recognised with ‘Bogga Young Park’ named in his honour at Pine Creek.

Mayse, with some assistance, later wrote her autobiography titled, ‘No Place for a Woman’. She was recognised for her contribution to the Territory in 1994 when she was awarded and OAM for services to the community. She died in 2006.

After enjoying a couple of beers at the ‘new’ Pine Creek Hotel, we hit the road again, travelling the 200km south to Mataranka, and the legendary, Mataranka Hotel.

The Mataranka Hotel, 1950. Picture: Jim Clarke Collection, Library and Archives Northern Territory. Inset: Nellie ‘Ma’ Fisher.

The Mataranka Hotel was established by 55-year-old widow, Nellie ‘Ma’ Fisher when she was granted a license at the Darwin Court House on March 12, 1929.

Ma Fisher was one of the Territories more colourful publicans.

Born in Pleasant Creek, Victoria, Nellie Fisher arrived in Darwin with her husband, Harry and children in 1917. She ran a boarding-house at the ‘2½ Mile’, along the southern railway, outside of Darwin, while her husband prospected for gold. He secured a mining lease near Grove Hill, today a ghost town, about 180kms south of Darwin.

Harry Fisher pioneered cotton growing in the Katherine region in the early 1920s. However, years of mining resulted in the 53-year-old suffering a lung complaint and he was admitted to hospital in September 1923. He died at Darwin Hospital on September 30 1923. The Northern Territory Times reported on October 2, 1923:

The comparatively sudden death of Mr. Hurry Fisher at the Darwin General Hospital on Sunday morning last leaves a distinctly deplorable gap in the ranks of the progressive element of this community, and a very general sympathy is extended to Mrs. Fisher and her family in their particularly sad bereavement. During his sojourn here, Mr. Fisher experienced all the hard vicissitudes to which this place is seemingly heir, but he never wavered in allegiance to his adopted home. A few months ago Mr. Fisher went to the Katherine, in company with Mr. George Syme, with the intention of growing cotton. The two gentlemen secured some good country about five miles up the river from the railway and commenced a pioneer’s battle in converting a wilderness into a living area. And he would have succeeded, for sure, if ill-health had not overtaken him, for he was a lion-hearted man, full of energy, always prepared to fight a battle for an oppressed friend or for a just cause, or to battle for a living against unto-ward circumstances.

Man proposes, God disposes.

Harry Fisher had not, earned for himself a competency after a battle lasting the better part of a half century, but he has done something infinitely better, for he has earned and secured the lasting goodwill and respect of all who had the honor and pleasure of his friendship. He believed in the Territory and steadily strove to inspire others in this direction, Mining occupied his attention for many years before he came here, and while engaged in that way at Kalgoorlie he suffered injuries which made him a martyr to almost constant pain, and in all probability accelerated his death. “Harry” was a labor stalwart, and until he became interested in cotton culture played a prominent part in connection with the Northern Territory Workers’ Union, whose members held him in high esteem. To mourn his loss there are four daughters, one son, and his very worthy widow.

After her husband’s death, Nellie was unsuccessful in applying for a wine license for her boarding house at the ‘2½ Mile’ when the police recommended against the application in 1924.

Nellie sold her boarding house, later buying a small block of land at Katherine where the railway was creeping further southward from Darwin. The Northern Territory Times reported on March 22, 1927:

Mrs Fisher, formerly of the 2½ Mile, well known boarding house, having acquired a small property at the Katherine township has again settled down to looking after the wants of the inner man of the railway worker.

As the railway pushed even further south, Nellie purchased a block of land at the Mataranka rail-head, where she opened another boarding house in 1928.

A correspondent to the Northern Standard described Nellie on July 6, 1928 as providing “clean, wholesome and smartly served tucker” daily at her boarding house, and was never known “to knock back any swaggie” who was in want of a feed.

Nellie was successful in applying for a hotel license for her boarding house on March 12, 1929. The Northern Miner reported on Thursday, March 14, 1929 that the Licensing Court “favorably recommended to the Minister the application of Mrs Nellie Fisher for an hotel license at Mataranka railhead”.

The hotel at Mataranka will constitute a great convenience to overlanders and the travelling public, who hitherto had been compelled to camp in railway carriages or cattle, ballast and other trucks.

Although Nellie was no shrinking violet, the 55-year-old widow, no doubt, had to contend with some pretty tough customers in her bush pub. Soon after gaining the license, her son-in-law, who had recently retired as a police constable in Hughenden, Queensland, and her daughter, joined her to help manage the pub.

Business boomed for ‘Ma’, and by the end of 1929 she added a new dining room to the pub. The pub was described in September 1929 as “one of the best little hotels outside of Darwin”.

“Mrs Nellie Fisher a kindly old widow is the licensee of the Mataranka Hotel where railway travellers from Darwin to Birdum have lunch on the second day of the journey…” Picture: Queensland Country Life, January 7, 1937

A Sydney newspaper reporter paid ‘Ma’ a visit during the depression years, giving a revealing look into the outback publican. The Sydney Mail reported on April 7, 1937:

The Mataranka Hostess

Mrs ‘Ma’ Fisher, who has spent half a century in the tropics

This is a story about an old woman, Mrs ‘Ma’ Fisher, as she is known affectionately to hundreds throughout the Northern Territory. She is hostess at her outback hotel at Mataranka — a grand woman with a great heart.

By Gwen Mottram

These boots were left years ago by a customer of the Mataranka Hotel as security for his account. Now they house sprouting ferns.

THE overlander travelling from Alice Springs to Darwin invariably calls at Mataranka, a little township on the railway line some 300 miles south of Darwin. Not infrequently it is either late at night or in the cool hours before dawn when the car draws up at the township, yet a light is always seen to be burning at the Mataranka Hotel. Closer investigation reveals the shadowy figure of old ‘Ma’ Fisher, the proprietress, whose slippered feet make little sound as she goes about her work preparing for the duties of another day. Well past the allotted span of ‘three score years and ten’ is this little old woman, and the effect of half a century of life in the tropics has left its mark in the browned and wrinkled features; yet ‘Ma’ is still as active and energetic as many a younger woman would be proud to be. Not long ago a man, finding the old woman alone in the hotel, leapt the counter and commenced to rob the till. ‘Ma’ called quickly for her daughter, who was working outside, then, grabbing a pick handle, used it to such good effect that a beaten and subdued man was very relieved to be handed over to the protection of the police. Frequently ‘Ma’ is entirely alone at the hotel, and from four o’clock in the morning until late at night she is occupied with cooking, washing, attending to the comfort of her guests, and a thousand and one self-imposed duties. When questioned she admitted that her total dress bill for the year never exceeded £2, yet she is a model of neatness in her simple print dresses, which cost 4/11 each and of which she buys only four each year. Business is usually brisk at Mataranka Hotel, and one would naturally assume that ‘Ma’ Fisher could retire and live comfortably on her accumulated wealth. Actually this is far from the case. Probably half of her ‘paying guests’ are unable to pay, and at one time she was catering for upwards of twenty unemployed youths, the victims of a depression which reached even to the Northern Territory.

BROUGHT up in the rough school of Territory life, ‘Ma’ sometimes breaks into the vernacular of the north; but swear words lose their sting and often sound like a benediction as they fall from her lips. ‘Tell Tom I want to see him,’ she says, and the word is passed along. Her word is law, and in due course an embarrassed youth present’s himself and stands awkwardly before her. ‘Why didn’t you come for your dinner?’ The youth fumbles in his pocket and in eloquent silence displays two or three coppers in the palm of his hand. ‘Be damned!’ says ‘Ma.’ ‘You can’t live without eatin’. Go and sit down. I’ve kept your dinner warm for over an hour. Don’t come here talkin’ about money until you get work.’ ‘Ma’ turns and stalks from the room. It is typical of her not to wait for thanks. One of her bushmen customers decided to move on in search of work. He was unable to meet his account, and came to her carrying his very worn boots in his hand. ‘What’s this?’ asked ‘Ma’ as the man stood the boots on the bar counter. ‘Security,’ was the reply. ‘When I can pay my account I will return for them.’ ‘Oh, be damned! I don’t want yer boots; I can’t wear ’em.’ However, the man was insistent, and after a short argument he walked away barefooted. That was years ago. Today those boots stand at the door of the hotel with ferns sprouting from their tops. ‘Ma,’ in search of pots for her plants, utilised them for this purpose, quite unconscious that those who knew the story might read a moral in the action. IT is nearly ten years since ‘Ma’ moved to Mataranka from ‘up the line.’ In that time she has seen the siding grow from a canvas town to what it is today— small though that may be. At first her hotel was simply a single room of galvanised iron. The guests dined under a shady tree, and at night unrolled their swags and slept on the main road. But now it is a commodious bush hotel capable of accommodating the largest party likely to call. ‘Ma’ never speaks of the discomforts or hardship of the earlier days, and her keen sense of humour carries her smiling through every emergency. She tells with a chuckle of the time the floors were being concreted. Cement sets quickly in the tropics, so has to be laid almost immediately it is mixed. However, one afternoon, just as a large heap of cement had been mixed, word came through that someone had died, or had been married, or done something else worthy of celebration, and the workmen knocked off for a drink. It was a sultry afternoon, so they had another. Then they toasted the King, for they are a loyal crowd at Mataranka. Finally they noticed that it was getting dark, so they had ‘just one more’ and started for their various camps. Unfortunately, one man lost his way, and while searching for his swag tumbled into the cement. It was still soft and, therefore, comfortable and cool; after an unsuccessful attempt to pull up his blanket he fell asleep. At daylight next morning ‘Ma’ was attracted by his yells, and had to call a man to help her chip him out of the concrete! Simple and unassuming, this little bush woman has helped to lift the burden from many an aching shoulder. She is rightly loved by all who have met her, and Mataranka could never be the same without her cheery smile.

Ma’s health was failing about the time of the newspaper reporter’s visit, and on May 11 1937 the Northern Standard revealed that she had been taken by train from Mataranka Hotel to Pine Creek Hospital. She had been under “special nursing care” at her hotel. Her condition worsened and she was taken to Darwin Hospital, where she died on November 9, 1938 at the age of 64.

Two unknown women in front of the Mataranka Hotel, 1954. Picture: Jim Clarke Collection, Library and Archives Northern Territory.
“STOCKMEN and other Territory travellers stop for a yarn in front of Mataranka Hotel on the Stuart Highway. Note the way in which most of them squat on their heels.” Picture/words: Adelaide News, August 17, 1950.
Mataranka Hotel, featuring a Swan Lager sign on its facade, 1964. Picture: Roger Freeman Collection, Library and Archives Northern Territory.

After Nellie Fisher’s death, her daughter, Alice Kirkwood took over as licensee of the pub. Ma’s only other daughter remaining in the Territory, Mary Seale, and her husband, George were also hoteliers, and were long-time hosts of the Parap Hotel.

Alice Kirkwood continued as host of the Mataranka Hotel through the war years, and remained licensee until 1947 when the family’s association with the historic pub came to an end and Tom Kennedy took over as publican.

During our visit I noticed that ‘Ma’ Fisher’s famous dining-room, where travellers would gather for the publican’s much-endorsed meals, was now full of poker machines. Sadly, a sign of the times.

Mataranka Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

The corrugated iron Mataranka Hotel is a favourite watering hole for the local indigenous population. In fact, we were the only white fellas in the busy public bar on our visit.

When we walked into the bar, a young woman, sitting alone, smiled and kindly offered us her seat and table. The public bar was very basic. The bar-room had only two tables and a few seats, without a bar stool in sight. Customers stood around, intriguingly waiting eagerly for something. I soon discovered why.

When I went to the bar to order my beer, I pointed to a Carlton Draught, and the barmaid shook her head in disapproval, explaining she was unable to serve me that brand until midday, as it was full-strength.

“Only mid or low-strength beer available before midday, or you can wait another 10 minutes,” she explained.

We waited, and when the bar-room clock struck midday, we joined the rush to the bar for our full-strength beer – and those same customers, who we had puzzled over earlier, who were standing around chatting between themselves.

Refreshed, we hit the Stuart Highway once again to make our way to the Larrimah Hotel – the famous Pink Pub.

The sign offering a reward to solve the mystery of missing Patrick Moriarty outside of the Larrimah Hotel, Larrimah. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

Greeting us on arrival at the Pink Panther themed pub was a large “missing person” sign, asking for information on the whereabouts of Paddy Moriarty.

Irish born, Paddy and his dog disappeared from Larrimah in 2017.

The 70-year-old larrikin was last seen leaving the pub, where he was a regular customer, with his red kelpie Kellie on the evening of December 16, 2017.

Despite extensive land and air searches, no trace of Paddy or his dog have ever been found. Police fear he met with foul play in the remote outback town of just 13 people.

Publican at the time, Barry Sharpe — whose outback bar included a zoo with 700 birds and a 3.5 metre crocodile — told the inquest into Paddy’s disappearance that he was “a good natured, happy-go-lucky man”. Other evidence from his friend Karen Rayner said he would spin yarns for the tourists at the pub.

A coroner found in 2022 that Paddy’s colourful life came to an end in suspicious circumstances. In the findings, the coroner said he could not determine the cause of his death. However, he noted that Territory legislation does not permit him to include a finding or comment that a person may be guilty of an offence, and he referred the investigation to the Commissioner of Police and the Department of Public Prosecutions.

When we arrived at Larrimah Hotel, there were a few blokes sitting in the beer garden, and not a soul – not even a barman – to be seen anywhere inside.

The Larrimah Hotel, Larrimah. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
The bar of the Larrimah Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

Shuffling tables and chairs to make enough noise to draw attention to our arrival (without much success), I eventually gave a shout – “Anyone home?”

“Be with you in a sec”, came a reply from outback.

Finally making his appearance, “sorry”, the young barman said from behind an unusually high bar – proclaimed by a sign to be the highest in the Territory.

“I’m here on my own today, the owners are down south,” he said.

When we mentioned the mystery of missing Paddy, the barman rolled his eyes.

“You wouldn’t believe how many customers who walk through that door, ask about Paddy,” he said. He then quickly changed the subject.

So we ended that conversation, and checked out the myriad of memorabilia that adorns this fascinating outback pub.

Known widely today as the Pink Pub, the hotel was established by pioneer publican, Tim O’Shea in 1952. However, the pub’s history goes back a lot further, when it was originally located 8km to the south of Larrimah at the railway terminus of Birdum.

Timothy O’Shea was a big barrel-chested Irishman with plenty of energy who didn’t mind hard work.

Arriving in Brisbane in 1900 as a 22-year-old from Ireland, O’Shea worked his way north to Townsville where he was employed as a bricklayer on a number of landmark buildings, including the court house, post office, and Queen’s Hotel. He also worked on the railways and as a cane cutter, before taking a tin mining lease at Herberton. It was here that 29-year-old O’Shea made a tin strike, making enough money to bring his extended family and sweetheart from Ireland to Australia. He returned to Ireland in 1907 and married 27-year-old Catherine ‘Kitty’ O’Keefe before returning to Australia, eventually raising six girls.

Tim and Katherine O’Shea, 1907. Picture: Supplied by Peter and Maureen Dunham. Maureen is the granddaughter of the O’Sheas.

The lure of gold attracted the O’Sheas to the Territory, where Tim took a mining lease at Pine Creek in January 1914. From Pine Creek the family moved in 1919 to Emungalan, a railway settlement north of the Katherine River.

Emungalan was the southern terminus for the Darwin railway, until the bridge was built across the Katherine River to Katherine in 1926.

When the O’Sheas arrived, Kitty established a boarding house, and Tim a billiard saloon and blacksmith shop. During 1922 and 23, O’Shea unsuccessfully applied for a hotel license for the boarding house, which was located next to his billiard room.

Finally on March 11, 1924, Catherine O’Shea was granted approval for a license for the Railway Hotel, Emungalan, near the railway station. Kitty was granted a renewal of the license of the Emungalan pub the following year.

Bill and Kitty O’shea’s Railway Hotel, Emungalan. Picture: Supplied.

While hosting Emungalan pub, Tim O’Shea was fined £5 in November 1925 after he assaulted a customer celebrating a little too hard after making “several successful investments” at the Katherine Races.

Frank Taflan was making a nuisance of himself in the bar, and O’Shea asked him to leave. Later Taflan was found lying amongst the limestone boulders, which littered the landscape around the pub, bleeding from a wound on the forehead, which resulted in a trip to the Darwin Hospital. O’Shea made a counter charge of assault against Taflan, who was also fined – five shillings.

With the completion of the bridge across the Katherine River, and the railway terminus shifting further south to the Katherine township, Tim O’Shea purchased several properties in 1926, including lot 39 of which he paid £40, of which they proposed to build a new pub. Catherine O’Shea applied to remove the license of the Railway Hotel at Emungalan to Katherine in 1926. The license was finally granted in 1928.

That same year the O’Sheas bought the Tattersall’s Hotel at Borroloola, a town located on the McArthur River, about 50km upstream from the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The O’Sheas hoped the town would become a bustling customs port and placed their nephew, Timothy O’Keefe in charge of the pub, while they continued as hosts at Katherine. However, the customs port never eventuated, and the town stagnated.

In later years, Tim O’Shea’s brother, John hosted the Borroloola hotel, which was still in the family as late as 1946.

Tim and Catherine took their six daughters, Kathleen, Johanna, May, Eileen, Noreen and Shelia to visit friends and relatives in Ireland for six months in 1928 before returning to Katherine.

The Railway Hotel in Katherine would remain in the family for almost 50 years.

When the North Australia Railway reached its final terminus at Birdum in 1929, 200km south of Katherine, Tim O’Shea, now 51, had another pub up his sleeve.

This was the northern section of the 1,420km (880-mile) Alice Springs to Darwin Trans-Continental railway vision which began in the 1870s and was finally completed on September 17 2003.

Timothy O’Keefe, O’Shea’s nephew, was granted a hotel and billiard table license for the Birdum pub on June 1, 1930. The Northern Standard reported on March 4, 1930:

Tim O’Shea has his new and commodious building nearly completed. Up-to-date sleeping accommodation is provided and all necessary out buildings are erected. Tim O’Keefe, former licensee of the Borroloola Hotel, is in charge. Already the travelling public have found the place a great boom.

At this time, Birdum with a population of 25 consisted of O’Shea’s pub, a general store, boarding house and six houses.

Birdum Hotel, Birdum, undated. Picture: State Library of Victoria.
Birdum Hotel, Birdum, undated. Picture: Libraries and Archives Northern Territory.

Sadly for the O’Shea family, their family matriarch, who was still hosting the Railway Hotel at Katherine, died at the age of 50 of rheumatic fever on June 1930.

Bush publican, Tim O’Keefe, who was the first licensee of the Birdum Hotel was colourfully described by author William Hatfield. Hatfield immigrated to Australia from England in 1912 as a 20-year-old, jumping ship at Port Adelaide and heading for the ‘the interior’. For more than a decade he travelled across the Australian continent, working as a station-hand, stockman, drover, cook, horse-breaker, kangaroo-shooter, dingo-trapper, book-keeper and timber-worker.

Hatfield suffered repeated rejections of his writing until making a name with the successful Sheepmates (1931), a novel set on a Central Australian station.

William Hatfield on one of his outback adventures, undated. Picture: Supplied.

On one of his outback adventures, Hatfield came across Tim O’Keefe at the Birdum pub, giving this delightful description of the bush publican in the Northern Territory Times on February 12, 1932:


(By Wm. Hatfield, Author of ‘Sheepmates,’)


But there are bright spots. No one going north should go past Birdum for a day or two at any rate. The main road ignores it in its tangled coolibah swamp, but I turned off at a sign on a tree that said, Hotel, Oil store and refreshments. I needed petrol, and refreshments didn’t seem amiss either. Rolling in and out of the villainous dips in the atrocious black-soil, one wheel somewhere up near my ear and another not touching the ground those things were merely details after reading the first word of that sign. A mile and a half it is along that cul de sac, a mile and a half of bumps and jolts, but the end of the ride is worth it. I don’t know whether hotel has a title or not, for my eye didn’t go past the name of the proprietor Tim O’Keefe.

O’Keefe of the O’Keefes, six feet of him or more, with blue eyes and a smile, and a brogue (accent) that would win the easiest of Sassenachs (typical Englishman) with the first sentence. Puts you in mind of the pictures you see of what an athlete ought to be, and what every Irishman feels he is after the first eight or nine.

Tim hasn’t any ice but he knows everything a wet sack will do if kept plentifully sprinkled, even when the mercury starts knocking up its second century, and while the iron roof warped and cracked and groaned and the faint breeze though the bamboo slats made you look around to see who’d opened the bakehouse door, we showed our appreciation of his art – and listened. We heard how the American ladies (the slight hesitation is Tim’s own) woke him through the night with cries of ‘Porter’ and how he dutifully lined up each time with a courtly bow and Yes, Ma’am? (for Tim is all things at his Hotel, including cook,) to explain that he couldn’t get them cherry mangoes off the ice! The good ladies in their write up gave him a cockney accent and called his pub a dirty little tin shacks.

Tim swung an axe and a pick, flicked a whip behind them on the track to Burke-town – all the rough stuff going in the north for 10 years before he sold good malt, and he has a sense of comparisons which he embroiders with the truest Irish wit. Tim didn’t take me for a tired business man ‘seeing Australia first,’ and when I was coming back he told me of a good fish hole way back in the swamp where I could find peace for a few days to do my writing, and having it direct from him that reading was his forte I lent him a copy of my book ‘Sheepmates’ while I was out.


He must have seen himself in my ‘Tim Ryan’, for we couldn’t buy a thing when I came in again. ‘Get to it, boy,’ he told me (I’m not going to ruin his Clare brogue by trying to reproduce it) ‘I’ll be polite to American lady journalists a dozen times again if you’ll give us another of those -just tel’ folks what the bushies really are.’

Most of which of course is just about Tim and myself, but though I left with HIS benediction, (packed in wet sacks out where it caught the breeze) because of what he thinks I have done in letters for the Bush, we in turn would have gladly borne the bumps once more just to look him up again. And Till then we didn’t know each other from bars of soap.

You can carry petrol to avoid that jerky ride in to the railhead, and the scenery all about there is inducement only to step on the gas, but no traveller looking for out-back Australia should go past Tim O’Keefe’s. If you’re teetotal, drive on when you’ve had a meal, but if you’re broke well, just tell him so.

Timothy O’Keefe left the Birdum Hotel as host in August 1932, and was replaced by Tim O’Shea’s brother, John, who had been host of the family’s Borroloola hotel.

In 1942, the American involvement in the north Australian air war was being directed from “the Porch of the Birdum Hotel” and it was rumoured that General Douglas Macarthur was at the pub at some time during that period and gave the order for the Coral Sea Battle.

The Great North Road (Stuart Highway) from Alice Springs (the terminus of the rail line from Adelaide through Tennant’s Creek, and past Daly Waters, was built to Larrimah in 1940, just beyond Birdum, the terminus of the railway which runs south from Darwin. The completion of the road supplied the missing link of almost 1,000kms (about 600-miles) in what would later (in 2003) become the North-South railway.

Birdum, which was off the new Great North Road, proved too wet to reach during the rainy season, so a new town, Larrimah was established about 6km to the north by the military during World War II. Larrimah was located on the new road and would eventually replace Birdum as the southern rail terminus.

Tim O’Shea, now 69 years of age, leased the Birdum Hotel to Bill Flanagan and his wife in 1947. By 1948, Birdum was on its last legs, with a visitor describing the place as “not very impressive”.

The town consisted of the railway station, which was an engine shed, the pub, with a dirt floor, and two other buildings. Flanagan was reported to have said in 1948 that he never got lonely in the isolated railway town, for he “visited Adelaide frequently” – the last time, he said being in 1925!

Flanagan and his wife left Birdum Hotel the following year, and O’Shea advertised his pub for lease in 1949. The license of the hotel was taken-over by O’Shea’s second oldest daughter, Noreen and her husband, Bartholomew ‘Bat’ Kirby.

By 1950, Birdum was all-but a ghost town, except for Noreen Kirby’s pub.

Town lots for the new town of Larrimah on the Stuart Highway were advertised for sale in 1950, and Tim O’Shea, now 72 years of age, hatched a plan to resurrect his ailing bush pub. Tim, who had retired to Katherine, acquired property near the Larrimah Post Office in a plan to relocate his Birdum pub.

His daughter, Noreen Kirby, who was host at Birdum first applied for the removal of the license to Larrimah in 1950. However, it was to be a long and drawn-out process with authorities refusing the application a number of times.

Eventually, the license was approved during the first half of 1952, and O’Shea arranged for his timber and corrugated iron pub to be shifted the 6km from Birdum to Larrimah, where a new rail siding had been built.

By July 1952, Birdum, once the terminus of the railway south from Darwin, was uninhabited, with Larrimah becoming the last stop for passengers on the Great Northern Line.

From 1953, O’Shea’s eldest daughter, Kathleen and her husband, retired mounted constable, John ‘Jack’ Mahony took over the license from Noreen and ‘Bat’ Kirby.

Roman Catholic Mass was often held at the Larrimah Hotel while Kathleen and Jack Mahony were hosts, earning it the nick-name of ‘The Vatican’.

Jack Mahony gained a reputation for his jovial hospitality and humour while publican. However, his final years were tragic. In 1957, the publican was seriously injured when a petrol engine of a lighting plant he was repairing exploded.

Mahony was badly burnt from his feet to waist, and he spent many months recovering in Katherine Hospital. Despite his painful injuries, he maintained his well-known sense of humour, and reportedly often joked that he was “too green to burn”.

Mahony suffered heart problems after the accident, which led to his death in 1959. 

Meanwhile, the old pioneering publican, Tim O’Shea died at the Railway Hotel Katherine on March 30 1958. The old Irish Territorian was 80.

Over the years since the pub’s relocation to Larrimah, the wayside inn has had a succession of publicans, many of them characters, who have added to its reputation. The giant stubby, Lake Larrimah, the Pink Panther and the Larrimah Zoo – and more recently the mysterious disappearance of ‘Paddy’ – have given the pub a notoriety that has made it a must to visit while in the Territory.

Daly Waters Pub, Daly Waters. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

From the Larrimah Hotel, we continue our journey south to our final destination and the last pub on our epic road trip – the iconic Daly Waters Hotel.

Daly Waters Hotel, simply described, is one of those rare Australian pubs – a pub that anyone who enjoys bush hospitality at its finest, must put on their ‘bucket-list’.

As our campervan arrived into Daly Waters, its unsealed main street was alive with red-dusty four-wheel-drives, towing an assortment of caravans and boats – it was the peak of the tourist season and business at the outback pub was – to say the least – brisk.

We booked our powered site in the van park beside the pub, set-up camp, before heading straight to the bar for a cold beer to escape the scorching outback heat. It’s been over 35 years since I set-foot in the Daly Waters Hotel – and, with the exception of technology (We tapped a credit card to buy a beer!) and the addition of a large outdoor eating area, it had changed little.

The signature Bougainvillea with its vivid purple flowers, was still there – engulfing most of the pub’s facade. Inside, paraphernalia precariously clings to every spare wall and roof space, ranging from Irish football jerseys to bras and nickers. Where ever you cast your eye, there’s interesting memorabilia. Outback history is on show in all its dusty glory!

The bar of the Daly Waters Pub, Daly Waters. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

Corrugated iron walls and roof, without interior sealing, louvered windows, with no glass, only the occasional flyscreen, and a concrete floor, worn smooth by the countless thirsty souls who have visited its bar, make the Daly Waters Hotel unique. 

The pub began life as an outback general store in 1930 when English immigrants Bill and Henrietta Pearce heard that the missing link of the railway would be built, connecting Darwin and Adelaide, and Daly Waters, with its telegraph office, would become an important stop.

William Thomas Pearce arrived in the Northern Territory in 1913 at the age of 28.

At the age of 14, a young Bill Pearce explained to his father that he didn’t want to be farmer, and craved a career as an engineer. His father allowed him to leave the family farm to seek an apprenticeship with aircraft manufacturers, Shorts. Shorts, founded in London in 1908, was the first company in the world to make production aeroplanes.

Sadly for Bill, there were no openings, and he was eventually apprenticed in the building trade. His two skills, building and engineering, would put him in good stead for a life ahead in outback Australia.

Shortly after he came out of his apprenticeship in England, he found plenty of work, until a slump in the trade caused him to return to his father’s Kent farm. While at the farm, he opened a shop, where he made and sold furniture.

At the age of 28, Bill migrated to Australia where he continued working as a carpenter before eventually securing a post as chauffeur to the Administrator of Darwin. For three months he waited in the northern capital for the arrival of a car. When it did arrive it was complete with chauffeur, the department responsible evidently having overlooked Bill’s appointment.

Not one to easily give-up, Bill focused on making his fortune at Maranboy, a tin mining centre about 70km east of Katherine. There he leased property, where he mined for tin, and worked his trade as a carpenter and bush-engineer.

Before he left England, Bill had had a sweetheart, Henrietta, who, after their separation, later migrated to Canada, where she was employed as a companion-carer for a disabled child of a wealthy manufacturer. In 1918, Bill travelled to Canada, marrying his sweetheart, and returning to Australia and Maranboy with his new bride.

What a shock she must have had! Imaging coming from the luxuries of the home of wealthy Canadian manufacturer, to become the wife of a tin miner and bush engineer in a humpy in a Northern Territory outback town!

While at Maranboy, the couple would have their one and only child, a girl, Rita, who was born in 1920. The couple managed a general store at Maranboy for a period of time, before Bill got wind of the completion of the missing link of the Darwin to Adelaide railway, running through Daly Waters.

Bill sold his business interests in Maranboy and purchased property at Daly Waters in 1929 where he planed to open a pub.

At auction, along with other investors, including Tim O’Shea, Harry Fong, Wing Wah Hing and Wing Chong Loong, Bill purchased eight blocks of land in Daly Waters. Then came the depression, the Government’s decision to scrap the completion of the north to south railway policy, and finally Bill’s refusal of a publican’s license for Daly Waters. It would have meant financial ruin for many – but not for Bill.

The earliest picture of the Daly Waters Hotel when it traded as Pearce’s general store in 1935. Picture: Perth Daily News 5 October 1935.

Luck was on Bill’s side. Qantas Empire Airways decided to make Daly Waters a refuelling station, and Bill built and opened a general store and hostel to provide hospitality for the aircraft crew and passengers. His engineering skills also came into demand, and he was employed by the three airlines to refuel aircraft and maintain the aerodrome. The Adelaide Mail reported on September 28, 1935:

Three years ago he and his wife arrived on one of their eight township blocks at Daly Waters with most of their belongings on a Dodge buckboard. The first thing they did was to set up the stove, which they did by cutting away half an anthill and setting it against this. Pearce then went away for wood and water, and by the time he had returned his wife had set her first batch of bread. “Without a bob,” as Mrs. Pearce puts it, and with nothing on which they could raise a loan, these two set about establishing a store, which was to re-establish their fortunes. Bill went to Maranboy and from there into the bush, where he cut cypress pine, one of the few timbers which the white ants will not attack. Hauling his logs 14 miles to the mill, he sawed them, and transported the timber 144 miles to the site of a store. There he planed them and began to build his home. Today the home is not yet complete, but when nine of us were suddenly dumped at Daly Waters owing to an aeroplane break down, the building was able to accommodate us in comfort. The uprights of the building are set in petrol tins of concrete, and the walls and partitions are of galvanised iron. The floor of the kitchen is of cement, but for the rest of the building ant bed makes an efficient substitute. This will be covered in a few weeks by cement, which was waiting in Darwin at the end of August. Then the building will be completed. Fly-proof doors and windows are there in cases waiting to be fitted, and furniture in section, at present packed in cases, will be put together. In the back yard, protected from the weather by galvanised iron, is the rest of the timber for the house, and also for a five roomed bungalow which will be erected opposite the store. The degree of comfort and the amount of business which this plucky couple have achieved in three years is surprising. Their only daughter is a boarder at a grammar school in Melbourne, and they have the assistance, of Mrs. Pearce’s nephew, Ted Scraggon, whose father, as a lieutenant, was one of the first to win a V.C. in the war. At the moment they have to carry their water five or six miles from a rockhole in the Daly Creek, but the water problem will be solved when the 18-ft. deep well, which was dug by aborigines, is cemented before the wet season. Shortage of water has not deterred them from building a comfortable bathroom. This is about 6 ft. square, and has a grated floor made of the sides of packing cases. The water is contained in a 44-gallon petrol drum placed outside, and a shower is obtained by the vigorous working of a semi-rotary pump. A hundred fowls provide fresh eggs, and a herd of 76 goats provide milk, and when beef is not obtainable, meat. The telegraph station runs a herd of about 250 cattle, and every ten days or so one of these is killed. The four people on the station take what they want for their own use, sell to Pearce at 6d. a lb., and the rest of the beast goes to the blacks in the neighboring reserve. Some is dry-salted, but none is corned, because of difficulties in keeping the brine, fresh. The goats, by the way were driven by blacks 200 miles from the Roper River. Of the original 106 35 died — some through lack of salt and some from endeavoring to find it in the chemicals thrown out on to the garbage tip from the telegraph station. As well as running a store, Bill Pearce is agent for the big oil companies, and looks after the local aerodrome, which is 700 yards square. This is not a sinecure, for in the wet season the ants build their hills at the rate of three in a day, and if a plane wheel were to come into contact with a couple of these a good landing might be turned into a bad one.

Mrs. Pearce, who makes bread, biscuits, and buns, and prepares meals that are food for the gods, looks after the many travellers who in the dry season pass their door. In addition, she is advised by wire from Qantas the MacRobertson-Miller, and Trans-continental Airways, of the number of passengers who are on their planes, and the buckboard, with an appetising meal, is waiting at the aerodrome when the planes land. This happens three days a week. There is a fair amount of traffic on the road, despite its poor condition. When the Commonwealth Government carries out its suggestion and improves the road, there will be a great deal more traffic, for those who pulled up at the store during our week there declared the trip, even under the present arduous conditions, was well worth while. Among those who passed were people from Adelaide, Victoria, and Broken Hill, while carriers from Newcastle Waters and Birdum looked in for meals, and sometimes bed. Should the railway work go on, Mr. Pearce intends to continue with his original idea of building a hotel. At present he has a storekeeper’s licence, which recently has been altered to permit of the selling of one bottle instead of a dozen at a time. This change suits everybody much better.

Bill and Henrietta Pearce and their nephew Ted Scraggon on the verandah of the Daly Waters General Store. Picture: Adelaide Mail, September 28, 1935.

Bill seems to have been selling bottled beer from his general store from at least the mid 1930s. However, he officially received a hotel license for the intersection of Stuart and Forrest Streets, Daly Waters on March 8, 1938.

Business at Pearce’s outback pub boomed after the outbreak of World War II.

Daly Waters played a significant part in the protection of Northern Australia from 1941 when Japan entered the war. Daly Waters changed overnight. Squadrons of planes left Australia to fight in Singapore, planes loaded with refugees came in from Darwin flying south, and these, in addition to the regular airmail services.

DH86B VH UYV RMA Caronia of WR Carpenter WRC Airways at Daly Waters in 1940 undergoing tail wheel repairs. Re-fueller, Bill Pearce on wing. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory

Bill’s wife, Henrietta later told in a newspaper interview of the invaluable help the local Aborigines played in the operation of the aerodrome, revealing an incident when 12 Hudson bombers, with their crews of 48 men, were forced to stay overnight in Daly Waters.

Within two hours all the aircraft had been refuelled, and the men, having had their supper, were either in bed or on night duty. Two thousand gallons of petrol had been handled by “one white man and several highly-trained natives”.

Bill Pearce with his daughter Rita and Qantas pilot, Cecil Swaffield at Daly Waters aerodrome, 1939. Picture: Ivan R Hodder Collection, Library and Archives Northern Territory.

The Pearces’ daughter, Rita, who helped her parents manage the outback pub, married Nelson ‘Neville’ Bullman, who she had met while he was Government Meteorologist at Daly Waters, in 1940. It was reportedly their marriage was the first to be held at Daly Waters.

Speaking of her early years as host of the Daly Waters Hotel, Henrietta was interviewed by the Adelaide Mail on September 18, 1943:


Pioneering At Daly Waters

Down from the north on a long holiday, Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Pearce, of Daly Waters, have a unique story to tell of pioneering in the Northern Territory. Like most bush people, they are slow to tell of their own adventures, but, loving her home, Mrs. Pearce cannot talk of it without building up unconsciously a picture of happy achievement.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, as an English nurse, she had charge of the invalid son of a Canadian millionaire, travelling from one part of America to another in search of the softest and kindest climate. When Mr. Bob Pearce, of Maranboy tin mines in the Northern Territory, wrote to ask her to marry him, and followed his letter by appearing in person to take his bride home, she exchanged this life of ease for that of an isolated mining camp, where they were the only white settlers. She still speaks happily of her Canadian experiences, but she adds, with conviction, “I liked my pioneering life best.” There were, she insists, no hardships — only the fun of learning to make bread and keep house in homemade bush houses, and planting her own oleander trees in the wilderness. “It’s interesting to be at the beginning of things,” is her own description of it all.


TEN years ago, with a vision of Daly Waters as a great transport centre of the future, they decided to leave Maranboy and make their home and fortune in that lonely outpost. Their preparations were simple. Mr. Pearce had cut the timber for their new house, but this they left to be called for later. They loaded bed and bedding, the kitchen table, and a large meat safe, on to their utility truck. The safe was turned on its back, and then they caught all the fowls and put them in it. When they arrived at Daly Waters they pulled up under a shady tree near the spot where they thought their section should be. Mrs. Pearce hunted for a few minutes among the thick grass, and discovered a short survey peg with their own number on it, so they proceeded at once to begin housekeeping. Mr. Pearce faced the sides of a tall anthill and set the oven against it, and Mrs. Pearce made a batch of bread.

There was an interval of camp life, during which the fowls, so important to future projects, while the Pearce’s picked some of their own living from the bush, became a decided nuisance. At last Mr. Pearce took the wire netting he had brought for them, and fenced in the ant bed area which made the best floor. Then the Pearce’s camped inside the wire netting and left the fowls out-side it. Timber was brought from the abandoned tin mines, and the first home was built with an ant bed floor. In the third year they obtained cement. “I was the happiest woman in the Territory that year,” says Mrs. Pearce. They planted oleander trees and rejoiced in the tall gums and the teeming wild life that surrounded their home. Kangaroos and wallabies were frequent callers, and there were hosts of brilliantly colored birds. The lizards were regarded by Mrs. Pearce with grateful affection for eating the flies.


FOR 10 years they were to be, with the addition of the postmaster, the whole white population of Daly Waters. Solitude, however, was not to be their lot, though Mrs. Pearce had no woman neighbor much nearer than 70 miles. The railway had stopped 50 miles short of Daly Waters, but time justified Mr. Pearce’s vision, and the lone outpost became one of the cross roads of Empire. It was the natural landing place for Qantas Empire Airways, the Perth plane, and for Dutch planes for the East Indies. The Pearces ran the hotel, the store, and any-thing else at Daly Waters that required running, but the aerodrome was the centre of their activities. As Mrs. Pearce put it: “Dad refuelled the aeroplanes and I refuelled the passengers.”

The aerodrome was a mile from he house, and Mrs. Pearce, as air hostess for Daly Waters, was often on duty there. Passengers arriving in the early morning were greeted by the welcome sight of new-laid eggs, home-made cakes, biscuits, and rolls. Often, when planes were held up, beds had to be made for 14 or 15 unexpected guests. Housekeeping in the wilder-ness had no puzzles for Mrs. Pearce by this time. There were the goats for milk and mutton, their own fowls, plenty of tinned vegetables, and other stores from Brisbane. Near October she ordered her flour—two tons at a time—and other provisions on a like scale, for after the “wet,” roads would be impassable and the tea room must be self contained for six months. For staff there were four intelligent black mechanics for Mr. Pearce, and their lubras, well trained, neat and devoted, for the house. Out of the four couples, one was always on holiday. “As time drew near for the yearly walkabout,” said Mrs. Pearce, “and Joey’s wife would say to me, ‘Me tired fellow,’ I would say, ‘All right, go and find the other two.’ “A letter stick would be pre-pared and sent out bush to be handed round from one native to another until it reached the missing ones, who would at once come back to duty. It might take two months to find them. “Then Joey and his wife would receive their bag of flour and other holiday tucker, go down to the camp for a “big Sunday” (feast), eat all their rations, take off their clothes, and go to visit their relatives perhaps a hundred miles away. “When they, in turn, received the letter stick they would come back, thin and happy, and ready for work again.” Interesting people from the outside world were always coming and going. Lord Louis Mountbatten, now Commander-in-Chief in South-East Asia, was a guest at the homestead, and so were many famous writers, musicians, and overseas politicians.


“ONCE”, Mrs. Pearce recalled, “the two musicians Rubinstein and Huberman met at the aerodrome on their way to opposite ends of the world. They had not met for 20 years. I remember how they stood and gazed, and then ran forward to embrace each other. “There was only a few minutes for them to talk, just long enough to transfer the passengers from one plane to another, but the meeting was an event for them both.” In the early days of their venture Mrs. Pearce was often left alone for six weeks at a time while her husband was away on station contracts. She was nervous at first, she said — before she found that the wild natives round Daly Waters were friendly. Her husband had a thought of white savages as well as black, and before he went away he took the simple precaution of procuring a Northern Territory policeman’s cap and hanging it just inside the door, where it met the respectful glance of any chance sundowner.

Once Mrs. Pearce was marooned at the aerodrome tea rooms for a night. She and her husband had crossed the creek when it was a mere trickle. After the plane had gone they walked a few miles to see the waterfall, and when they returned the creek was running a banker. Mr. Pearce, by agreement, swam across and sent natives back with bedding, carried on their heads, for his wife, who preferred to stay there all night rather than make the crossing. She spent a sleepless night, en-livened by the thunder and lightning of a tropical storm, and the eerie sound of spirit barrels expanding and contracting with sharp reports. The green eyes of a native cat, staring at her through the sieve wire, did not make the place feel homelier. In the morning, with an aero-drome uniform on, she was able to make her way, with assistance, across the swollen creek. Her worst scare, Mrs. Pearce said, was in their earliest days when her husband first went away on contract work. She stayed awake all night be-cause she was afraid of the wild natives, and was startled by soft rustling near the house. She could just make out the shape of a dark, naked figure with a spear, creeping up to the house. “Assuming a gruff man’s voice,” Mrs. Pearce said, “I called out, ‘Who’s there?’ “There was a pause, and then a gentle voice said, ‘Are you all right. Missus?’ “It was one of our own blacks, come up to guard me from the strange myalls, of whom he, being from another part of the country, was as much afraid as I was.”

Daly Waters Hotel, 1949. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.
Party in MacDonnell Ranges, 1945. Bill Pearce (far left), with his daughter, Rita Bullman and baby son, Gillen (fourth from left) and his wife Henriette Pearce (fifth from left) shortly before her death in 1946. The others in the photo are unknown. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.

Sadly, less than one year after Henrietta Pearce gave her authentic narrative of life in the Northern Territory, with no media coverage and little acknowledgement, she died on July 28 1946 at a private hospital in Adelaide. Her widower, Bill Pearce, now 62, had retired as host of the Daly Waters Hotel earlier in the year, selling the business to Thomas Humphries and his wife, Mabel.

Tom Humphries, who was the Shell and Guinea Airways representative at Daly Waters, took over the license of the Daly Waters Hotel on March 12, 1946. The couple would host the historic pub for the following 20 years., becoming just as legendary as their predecessors.

Chas S R Lloyd and J B Roderick in front of the Tom Humphries’ Daly Waters Hotel about 1949. Picture: K W V Wilmot-Smith Collection, Library and Archives Northern Territory.

Tom and Mabel Humphries were described in a story published in the Courier-Mail on July 10, 1951:


OUTBACK with Douglas Lockwood

DARWIN, Monday. — The biggest shopping centre in the world — the small community of Daly Waters in the far-north of the Northern Territory — has no shop. It has an hotel, a post office, and an aero-drome, but no policeman to control the traffic, no butcher, no baker, no candlestick maker. Tom Humphries, genial proprietor of one of the most hospitable pubs on earth, buys his meat from a butcher in Katherine, 200 miles to the north. His bread comes about 700 miles from Cloncurry in Queensland, or from Darwin or Tennant Creek, both over 300 miles. It all reaches him by air. His grocer’s shops are in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin. His beer is bottled in five States, and some of it comes from England.


HUMPHRIES has shopping-by-air down to a fine art. He knows what time a Darwin-bound plane leaves Cloncurry, where a local baker loads hot bread, and the time an Adelaide plane from Darwin will arrive at Katherine. He can telephone Katherine for fresh meat and have it two hours later. Humphries is constantly on the road himself, driving great semi-trailer loads of beer and groceries from a ship’s side in Darwin or from the railhead at Alice Springs. There are few who know it better than he does, for he helped to build it during the war years. The same strip of bitumen, carrying hundreds of tourists to the north every year, now gives him an ever-growing income. Humphries bought the Daly Waters hotel from Bill Pearce, about whom Elizabeth George wrote a book, and has achieved for it the warmth and friendliness of an old English inn. Where possible every traveller is greeted at the door. If his requirements should include a bottle of beer (at 4/ a bottle), Humphries is often first to buy.


EACH time I have stayed overnight at Daly Waters I have made a 5am start to eat up miles before the tropic sun begins to boil the bitumen road. On these occasions Mrs. Humphries has never failed to cook steak or bacon and eggs (ordered the night before), and to have it ready five minutes before the appointed time. She thinks nothing of cooking dinner for 50 tourists, helping in the bar at night, then rising at 5am to prepare breakfasts. Is there any hotel in any capital city where a traveller can ask for a 5 o’clock breakfast? Are there any others where this service is offered? Is there one other where the guest is welcomed with a smile and farewelled with a handshake before dawn?

Meanwhile, old Bill Pearce, who had remarried, thought he might have one more pub in him. In 1949, he received a new license for a hotel at Elliott in the Northern Territory at the age of 65. However, in 1950, age had finally caught-up with the old pioneering publican, and he decided to retire to Adelaide with his new wife, Muriel.

Daly Waters Hotel, 1957. Picture: Library and Archives Northern Territory.

Rita Pearce, Bill’s only child, and who helped manage the Daly Waters Hotel, died in Sydney at the age of 32 in February 1952, leaving a husband, three sons and a daughter. Just seven months later, the founder of the Daly Waters Hotel, Bill Pearce died in Adelaide at the age of 67.

A long line of licensees have continued the pioneering spirit and traditions associated with hosting the Daly Waters Hotel, including the current publican, Tim Carter.

Daly Waters Pub publican, Tim Carter (centre with hat) and a few German tourists. Picture: Daly Waters Pub Facebook Page.

Tim, who was our host during our visit, has been at the helm for over six years. He has stamped his special signature on the pub, while maintaining its outback character and bringing entertainment and other attractions to Daly Waters.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023

Subscribe to the latest Time Gents stories


If you would like to support my work, you can leave a small tip here of $2, or several small tips, just increase the amount as you like. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs.



Don’t have PayPal? Instead, you can support my work by leaving a secure $2 donation here, or you can increase the amount after clicking or tapping into the icon below. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs and research.

Premium content

For as little as $1 you can subscribe for access to Time Gents’ exclusive content. Here’s a list of stories available by subscribing to Time Gents’ premium content:

Categories: Australian Hotels, Northern Territory hotels, Road Trips

Tags: , ,

What's Your Thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.