The Tasmanian Hospitality Association claims that the first legally licensed public house opened in Hobart Town’s first year of settlement. However, the first recorded mention, by diarist Robert Knopwood, dates from 1807. He mentions dining at the Sign of the Whale Fishery, later to become the Hope, the Anchor and Hope, the Alexandra and finally the Hope and Anchor. The hotel claims to hold the oldest licence in Australia (a claim contested by Parramatta’s Woolpack Hotel which dates its licence back to 1796).
The first licensed public house in Launceston was The Black Swan, kept by one G. Burgess. It opened in 1820. In February 1897, local magistrate Mr. E. Whitfield gave a lecture on early Launceston history, citing information from old papers and first-hand accounts of old residents. He dwelt for some time on the various public houses. Here are some excerpts:
In 1820 came the first public house, “The Black Swan,” kept by G. Burgess, corner of Brisbane and Wellington streets. Then came in 1823 the Launceston, the Plough Inn, kept by W. Field, where Hart and Sons are now, and the Hope and Anchor, kept by Nat. Lucas. The Launceston Hotel ,was built by Richard White, familiarly known as “Dicky White.” He was a Norfolk Islander, as also was his mate or comrade, Mr. Whittle (afterwards of the White Hills).
In those days any free man could mark off a piece of land, settle on it, and procure a title afterwards. White pegged out the present site of the Launceston Hotel, and Whittle squatted alongside of him, and built a “wattle and daub” hut in the centre of what is now St. John Street. White and Whittle owned the land including what is now St. John Street as far as Mr. A. J. Hall’s residence and along Brisbane-street to Wade’s right-of-way.
Where the Bijou Theatre now stands was a large water hole where the bullocks were taken to water. When York Street was surveyed White and Whittle gave the land required to continue St. John Street to York Street. White built the Launceston Hotel, and also erected an auction mart on what is now Frank Hart’s corner, and carried on business for some years.
Another mark of civilisation followed—the erection of a gaol and military barracks … It doubtless has struck you we have been taking civilisation in pretty well the usual order it is known to progress, that is public house first, then watch house.
I am now going to take you back to a few of the hotels. They were the principal landmarks in those days, and, like the old village inns of England, pictures of which we are all familiar with, the early Tasmanian inns had the large painted sign-board either hung over the footway or exhibited over the door. Some were very quaint and costly, but the spelling, in many instances, would not pass with Noel Webster. They could not always be charged to the ignorance of the painter, but he, being paid by the letter, often put in extra letters where he could do so, when the publican did not know as much as himself.
Let me give you now a sign-board or two. You all know where Mr. R. D. Richards’s new building is being erected in Brisbane Street. On that spot once stood an hotel; it was called “Help me through the World,” very appropriate, though they are apt to help one too quickly at times. On one side of the swinging signboard over the footway was depicted the world with a man’s head and shoulders apparently coming through it, and on the reverse the world again with the heels and hinderpart of the man. The words “Help me through the world” were beneath.
At the foot of George Street there was a ferry, and near that ferry stood another public house. It was named the “Lame Dog.” Poor doggie, as depicted on the sign board, was a deplorable looking object with one leg in a sling, and beneath were the lines: “Step in my friends and rest awhile, And help a lame dog over the stile.”
The Tamar Hotel, in William Street, was once known as the “Golden Lion,” but prior to that it went by the name of the “Sawyers’ Arms.” Here two able-bodied sawyers were seen working at a pit, and the words beneath were-“Halt, mate, let’s drink.” Early in the fifties we had the “Gold Digger’s Return,” corner of Charles and Patterson streets. A true type of the gold digger was depicted, holding a large nugget in his hand. The two we remember of late years are the Scottish Chief and Elephant and Castle; the latter alone remains. A few old pictorial signboards, as we may call them, still remain in Hobart, but they are fast dying out.
The licensed public house played an important role in early colonial society and has continued to do so to this day.