1796 Australia’s first pubs

The Woolpack Hotel, Parramatta, pictured in the The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate in 1935.

The first ten liquor licenses were issued in 1796 by Governor Captain John Hunter. The measure was intended to control the liquor trade. Among Australia’s first pubs to be granted a license was the Mason’s Arms (also called the Freemason’s Arms) in Parramatta. This establishment (albeit in a different building) still trades as the Woolpack Hotel. It’s the only one of Hunter’s original liquor licences that continues today.

In the early days of the colony, ‘rum’ (a name given to any kind of spirits) was freely manufactured and traded and drunkenness was a significant problem. While beer had been carried and possibly brewed aboard the First Fleet, most of the population preferred something stronger. This was often “grog”, a watered-down mixture of rum and molasses. It was illegal for convicts to buy alcohol, but the prohibition was impossible to enforce. The first record of alcohol-related deaths dates from 1793.

Among the measures Governor Hunter took to control drinking were the issuing of liquor licenses and the first liquor tax – a duty of one shilling a gallon on imported liquor. The liquor licenses applied to various districts.

In Parramatta, one license-holder was James Larra, a former convict. Although some sources describe him as a French forger it seems likely that he was of Spanish Jewish origin. His crime had been stealing a tankard worth £5 for which he was sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation. He built his inn, the Mason’s Arms (otherwise known as the Freemason’s Arms), around 1798. The eating house attached to the inn thus became Australia’s first restaurant. At that time, Parramatta had four other inns: the Yorkshire Grey,  the Salutation,  the Crown and the Ship.

The naming of the Mason’s Arms is intriguing, considering that it was illegal at the time to form a Freemason’s Lodge. Masonic meetings at the time were sometimes held on board ships. In  1803, a number of people were arrested for holding a Masonic meeting and an Order was published forbidding meetings without the express permission of the Governor.

Larra sold the inn in 1821 to Andrew Nash, who changed the name to the Woolpack Hotel. The name recognised the growing importance of the local wool industry. In 1895 the Woolpack was rebuilt across the street from its original location and continues to trade today.

There is controversy when it comes to identifying Australia’s first pubs. Should the oldest pub be the one with the longest-running licence (like the Woolpack), the one that has traded for the longest in the same building or the one trading in the oldest building? Contenders appear to be the Australian Hotel (formerly the Greyhound Inn) and the Fortune of War, opposite Circular Quay.

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