1971 First Aboriginal publicans in Australia

Ted Wotherspoon serves up a beer in the Wallarah Hotel at Catherine Hill Bay near Newcastle . Image: Youtube

Catherine Hill Bay was a coal mining town near Newcastle, New South Wales, and was named after a ship that ran aground there in 1867. Mining began in 1873 and continued until 2002. The town’s Wallarah hotel, named after the original mining company, was familiarly known as “the Catho”. In 1971, Ted Wotherspoon and his wife, Dorothy, took over the licence for the hotel, becoming the first Aboriginal publicans in Australia. Six years later, they acquired the freehold. Ted was an ex-boxer who fought under the name of Teddy McCoy and had worked for the NSW Electricity Commission for 18 years before taking up the pub licence. Dorothy was born in Moree and had bitter memories of her father being refused entry to the local pub.

At this time, seeing a First Nations proprietor behind the bar was newsworthy. It was an era when memories of the freedom ride in northern New South Wales and of the 1967 referendum giving First Nations people full citizenship rights were still fresh. Just a few years earlier, the couple would have been refused service in the bar at the Wallarah Hotel, owing to laws that restricted the supply of alcohol to Aboriginal people.  Now the first Aboriginal publicans were, it seemed, welcomed by the local community.

For First Nations people, their relationship with alcohol since white settlement has been a troubled one. In its early days,  colonial society was awash with alcohol to the point where rum became a form of currency. Aboriginal people were paid in alcohol for services rendered or for sexual favours. Seeking to “protect” First Nations people from the evils of hard liquor, from 1838 to 1929 each jurisdiction in Australia passed paternalistic laws to forbid the sale of alcohol to, or purchase of alcohol by, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This inequity became a civil rights issue and in the 1960s these laws were progressively repealed.  Today, First Nations people are less likely to drink than non-indigenous Australians, but those who do drink are more likely to drink at harmful levels, owing to a range of historical and social factors.

Dorothy continued to run the Catho for some 30 years after Ted’s death in the early 1980s and decorated the bar in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Other First Nations people and organisations followed in the Wotherspoons’ footsteps. World champion boxer Lionel Rose became the proprietor of the Railway Hotel near Melbourne in 1973. Over a 20-year period, eight more hotels were purchased by, or on behalf of, Aboriginal community entities:  the Finke Hotel at Finke, Northern Territory (1975), the Oasis Hotel at Walgett (1983), the Transcontinental at Oodnadatta (1986), Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse (1987), Woden Town Club, Canberra (1988), the Crossing Inn, Fitzroy Crossing (1989), Daly River Hotel Motel (late 1990s) and the Wayside Inn at Timber Creek (1999). In 2014,  the Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation and the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation, both in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, purchased the Whim Creek Hotel between Roebourne and Port Hedland.

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