Public Houses

Henry Melville, 'Bush Inn, New Norfolk', 1834 (ALMFA, SLT)

Public Houses when reduced to their lowest terms were in the convict period the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions were not being in some ways arranged for them. On the night of 25 July 1807 the Rev Robert Knopwood supped at the Sign of the Whale Fishery (now Hope and Anchor), Macquarie Street, Hobart. Knopwood's diary entry is the first reference to the establishment of a public house in Tasmania. By 1818 Knopwood could have extended his public drinking to a further 17 separate hostelries. By 1840 there were approximately 280 public houses (taverns, inns and hotels) in Tasmania. This number rose to 400 in 1855. The twentieth century saw a decline with only 287 by the 1960s.

The number of public houses reflects the pub's integral function in the social life of the community, especially to the working class. Popular culture is inextricably linked with the public house. The pub, while being a predominantly male-oriented institution, still had, and has, an attraction to the community in general. The pub functioned as a drinking shop, yet went beyond the role of drinking. It was an information and entertainment centre, a meeting place for working and sporting fraternities, traders and merchants, a venue for exhibitions and inquests, a place for accommodation and the provision of refreshments, and a rudimentary employment exchange. Certain trades tended to patronise a particular pub, which then acted as a 'house of call'. The Jolly Hatters in Melville Street Hobart was a centre of early trade union activity as was the case with numerous pubs. The pub provided a social centre for communities that were all too poorly housed, yet many of the entertainments that they offered were frowned upon by middle-class moralists who sought to control or prohibit them. The working-class pub was often characterised by outsiders, particularly the temperance lobby, as a centre of drunkenness or illicit activities. Publicans were seen as parasitic villains sapping the wealth and strength of the poor.

Scene at St Marys, undated (AOT, PH30/1/4132)

While this reflected a disapproval of certain working-class entertainments and an unwillingness to examine the economic and social causes of intemperance, it also revealed a serious lack of appreciation of the role of the public house in working-class communities. The power of the temperance movement in effecting the closure of public houses was slight. Other pressures, including stringent licensing laws, the changing role of the hotel, the Cascade company monopoly, and the depopulating of inner city neighbourhoods, contributed to the demise of many hotels as the twentieth century progressed. Temperance pressure may not have been influential in closing many hotels, but it was instrumental in creating the 'six o'clock swill' in pubs during the First World War. Today the 'one-armed bandit' (poker machine) has infiltrated but not destroyed the public houses and their importance to the community.

Further reading: D Bryce, Pubs in Hobart from 1807, Hobart, 1996; D Radford, AZ of Launceston's colonial public house licensees 18241900, Launceston, 2003.

Kim Pearce