Patrons then and now
The first hotel, aptly named The Balmain Hotel, opened in 1842. It provided much needed refreshments for occupants of the recently subdivided land, and from then on, hotels formed the basis for the social and political life of the growing suburb.
Many hotels didn’t survive the Great Depression and later a changing demographic. Of the original 55 hotels and pubs, 24 remained in the mid-1990s. Today the Balmain peninsula has 19 operating pubs. In the early days, licenced hotels were open from 4am to 6pm and were required to have two sitting rooms and two sleeping rooms fit for public accommodation. In 1849 the closing hour was extended to 10pm.
The term “pub” (short for Public House) was adopted from Britain and first used in the mid-1880s whilst “pub crawl” dates back to 1915. The term “pub crawl” had a resurgence in the 1970s thanks to the Sydney Push movement which spread to Balmain, attracting an intellectual subculture. The politics of this crowd were predominantly left-wing libertarianism and included artists, writers, students, academics, manual workers,musicians, lawyers, criminals, journalists, and public servants. The Push operated within a pub culture that regularly met and filled the bars.
There’s been a long tradition in Balmain to preserve pub exteriors whilst internally modernise and renovate. This practice has kept the legacy of Balmain’s heritage pubs alive, and they continue to attract visitors well beyond the peninsula.
Since 1842 to the present day, a range of interesting personalities have operated and owned the pubs that have shaped the hospitality industry in the Balmain area.
Olympian and local state politician Dawn Fraser operated the Riverview Hotel between 1970 and 1983. One of the latest influential people to operate in the Balmain peninsula is media mogul John Singleton who co-owned Unity Hall Hotel with Qantas boss Geoff Dixon. They bought the pub in 2011 and in 2015 it became a part of the Australian Pub Fund. It sold again in 2019. Pre Covid, Unity Hall Hotel was the only venue in Balmain licensed to trade until 3am. With just over 30 years at the helm of Royal Oak, Maureen Thornett is the longest serving publican on the peninsula. When she started in the industry, women weren’t even allowed in the main bar!
Images: Courtesy of Inner West Library and History
We’d like to thank Inner West Council historian Amie Zar for sharing her knowledge with us.
What to learn more?
Called to the Bar: 150 years of Pubs in Balmain and Rozelle, published by the Balmain Association in 1991 features the rich cultural history of hotels and pubs since 1842. The book compiled by three Balmain Association members is a deep dive into our local history. Extracts of the book have been used for this story.
To order your copy visit balmainassociation.org.au