Pubs of the Rocks

Pubs of the Rocks

For some reason every time I come to Sydney I seem to find myself down at the Rocks. Maybe it has something to do with it being the closest thing to an Old City that you get in Australia (I say that because The Rocks is where the original settlement was located and in a way it is Australia’s oldest suburb). Maybe it also has something to do with the pubs because, once again, you will also find some of Australia’s oldest pubs down here. Okay, I’ll admit it – I visited the Rocks this time simply to go and check out all the pubs so that I could write this post.

Actually, you can go on a Pub Tour where you not only get to visit a number of these pubs but you also get free boutique beers, explore old smuggling tunnels, and learn about the rum rebellion – Australia’s only military uprising (and it all had to do with the price of alcohol – well, it probably had more to do with Governor Bligh, who has a habit of being the target of rebellions, but that is another story). A friend of mine actually told me about it and I just shrugged my shoulders and said “I’ve been to all the pubs in The Rocks”. I might have been to all the pubs, but I haven’t been into the tunnels – which means I’ll be going back to the Rocks the next time I’m in Sydney.

Anyway, as you have probably guessed (from the title no less) this is a post about the pubs in The Rocks, however before I begin I better put up a map:

The Rocks

I’ve numbered all the pubs and I propose to go through each of them individually throwing out a few thoughts that I might have. Mind you, just because a pub is on the list doesn’t actually make it a good pub, nor does it suggest that it is one of the original pubs (there are apparently three all vying for the shot at the title and it doesn’t matter who you ask, each of these pubs will have an argument that proves that they were the first). Oh. I should also mention that they don’t all have boutique beers either (and apparently on the tour you only visit five of them).

1) Hart’s Pub

Corner Essex & Gloucester St, The Rocks:

Hart's Pub

Okay, Hart’s Pub may not actually be in the rocks (it’s on the wrong side of the Cahill Expressway) but I still consider it to be a member of the gang. Like many of the pubs around here Hart’s has a huge range of boutique beers – in fact from what I can remember the only beers they seem to have on tap are boutique beers, which doesn’t bother me all that much because I do end up getting quite sick of the standard fare. Mind you, when I visited here it was packed to the brim, though I did manage to get some service in the bar upstairs (there are two bars). Actually, this wasn’t originally a pub, it was a private residence (one even housing celebrity chef Margret Fulton, not that that piece of information is actually going to inspire me) but it was later transformed into what is effectively a craft beer bar. The problem with some of these bars is that there is a huge range to chose from and only enough time for one. Fortunately the bartender was more than happy to give me a taste test, so I have to give him the thumbs up for that.

2) The Australian Heritage Hotel

100 Cumberland St, The Rocks:

The Australian Heritage Hotel

Well, I’ve noticed that simply visiting the pubs doesn’t actually tell you everything about the history of the place because upon my research I’ve discovered that Australia had a nasty attack of the bubonic plague (in 1900 – which surprises me because I thought that the bubonic plague had well and truly been eradicated by then, but I guess Australia has always been a bit behind the times). Anyway, this pub used to be a lot closer to the harbour, but for some reason when the bubonic plague hit they knocked down all of the buildings and ended moving the pub up here were it has since stood for over 100 years. When I visited the pub recently they suggested that I try one of their boutique beers, but I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed.

3) Glenmore Hotel

96 Cumberland St, The Rocks:

The Glenmore

It seems as if the debate as to which pub is the oldest really comes down to location because like the Australian National (who also owns this pub by the way) the Glenmore was initially located elsewhere (on the otherside of the road to be precise). However they had to move the pub, namely because they were plunking a whopping great big bridge across where it used to stand so, as the blurb on the website said, they moved it brick by brick across the road. Anyway there is one thing that literally defines the Glenmore and that is the view. The rooftop restaurant (which is really popular by the way) has a magnificent view over Circular Quay to the city and the Opera House (no wonder everybody wants to come up here for lunch). Mind you, I have to be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed with my fish and chips, however that aside this is still one of my favourite pubs, if only for the view.

4) The Russell Hotel

143a George St, The Rocks:

The Russell

I sort of wonder which of the five pubs the tour actually visits (I’ve counted twelve pubs, but there are probably others), though I doubt this is one of them (my guess would be The Fortune of War, The Australian Heritage, the Lord Nelson, The Merchantile, and either The Glenmore or the Hero of Waterloo). The reason I say that is because this isn’t technically a pub, it is a boutique hotel. Mind you, it wasn’t until I visited the website that I discovered this – I always assumed that it was a pub because when you go inside it certainly looks like a pub. Anyway, apparently it used to be a hospital back in the long dark distant days of the early colony. However, after the hospital was knocked down the site became a rooming house, which it has been ever since. However, as I have suggested, it certainly looks like a pub.

5) The Fortune of War

137 George St, The Rocks:

The Fortune of War

This is one of those pubs that is vying for the title of Sydney’s oldest pub. In fact you can’t miss it – the words “Sydney’s Oldest Pub” is written all over the front. Mind you this made me scratch my head after visiting the Lord Nelson Brewery because that pub was also claiming to be Sydney’s oldest, which I why I asked one of the staff which pub was telling the truth – of course he said that they were. Mind you, they don’t tell us what happened to them during the time when all of the buildings in the Rocks were knocked down due to the bubonic plague, but from what the staff member (or was it the owner) told me the reason that they make this claim is because it has always occupied this spot.

It does have an interesting history because the pub was first set up by the ‘Rothschild of Botany Bay’ Samuel Taylor, who originally came out here (against his will) after stealing some lingerie. After he had completed his sentence (and thus eligible to go home) he decided to stay on and build this pub. During the war years it became the last pub that the soldiers visited before they headed off overseas and the first pub they descended upon on their return home (which is probably how it got it’s name The Fortune of War).

6) Orient Hotel

89 George St, The Rocks:

The Orient

There doesn’t seem to be all that much to say about this pub because all their website tells me about its history is that it has been around since 1844 and has been the go-to place for thousands of Sydneysiders. Well, I guess that actually tells me more than I realise  – it really doesn’t have anything in it’s history that sets itself apart from all of the other old pubs in the Rocks. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the place – it isn’t a bad pub (there are certainly much worse around here), and despite the lack of information about the place it still is quite old. One cool thing about this pub is the courtyard out the back, which is surrounded by the old sandstone buildings, which makes sitting here on a nice day with a beer quite a pleasant experienced. Mind you, since the new smoking laws came in the courtyard has been set aside for smokers, so unfortunately the days of eating a meal out here are long gone.

7) The Observer Hotel

69 George St, The Rocks:

The Observer Hotel

This is actually one of the newer pubs (if you consider a pub established in 1908 to be new, but then again considering the age of some of the older pubs in the area The Observer is relatively new). Unfortunately there isn’t anything all that fantastic about this place, and this history isn’t really something to write a huge amount about (considering that there really isn’t all that much). What I did discover is that it had been built on the site of two older pubs (most likely having been knocked down due to the attempt to stop the plague) The Observer Tavern and the Waterman Arms (both of those pubs dating back to the 1840s). As for my thoughts – I really can’t say that there is anything all that fantastic about this place, and if you are looking for the really old pubs unfortunately you won’t find them here.

8) Merchantile Hotel

25 George St, The Rocks:

Merchantile Hotel

This pub has the distinction of being the oldest Irish Pub in Australia. It’s a shame that whenever I’ve been here it has taken ages for the staff to serve me (maybe it was the way I was dressed). Since the pub was first established in 1915 it suggests that maybe the idea of setting up an Irish Pub is a relatively new phenomena (though they seem to be everywhere these days, particularly the ones that have become little more than a chain store). Mind you, I’m not really sure what makes an Irish Pub and Irish pub? Okay, they sell Guinness, but so do a lot of other places. Sure, they have lots of cool things covering the wall, but so do the traditional English Pubs. Maybe it’s the leprechaun sitting in the corner laughing at us all coming to an ordinary pub that has had the word ‘Irish’ attached to it’s name to give it a little more character.

9) Harbour View Hotel

18 Lower Fort St, The Rocks:

Harbourview Hotel

This pub used to have an awesome view of the harbour (which is why it is called the Harbourview) until somebody decided that it would be a good idea to move it about 100 meters to the west and build a whopping great bridge where it used to be located. Okay, you still have a good view of the harbour, but unfortunately that view has been somewhat ruined by some massive rock pylons and an ugly grey metal bridge (though for some reason people seem to think that this bridge is fantastic). Anyway, this is another of those old Sydney Pubs (or it used to be old until it was forced to move due to the bridge being built), having been established in 1843. It is interesting to discover that when they moved the pub the land that they moved it to was owned by the church, so a dispute arose between the church, the government, and a very powerful brewer, as to who would get the site. As you can probably tell, the brewer won. Being so close to the bridge, this pub used to be the pub of choice for the workers on the bridge and the subway. Oh, I have to also mention that I actually quite like this pub, especially the outdoor seating where you get a really good view of a rock pylon.

10) Hero of Waterloo

81 Lower Fort St, The Rocks:

Hero of Waterloo

No prizes for guessing who this pub was named after (and if you said Horatio Nelson then I’m afraid that you’ve got your Napoleonic British commanders mixed up – he fought, and was killed, at the battle of Trafalgar, which was a naval battle). Anyway it sounds as if this pub has a really nefarious past, particularly since they suggest that there is a secret tunnel underneath that runs down to the harbour and was used to smuggle things into the colony, and shanghai drunken revellers who would end up waking up with not only a whopping hangover, but also on a ship heading out to sea. Apparently, at least according to the website, the old cellars still have the shackles were such unfortunate souls were bound (though one could say that it is their fault for drinking too much – I don’t think they had date rape drugs back in those days). Oh, they also claim that this pub is haunted, though don’t expect some ghost to come tearing through the bar late on a Friday night slimming everybody.

11) Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel

19 Kent St, The Rocks:

The Lord Nelson Brewery

Now this is the pub that has been named after the hero of Trafalgar (though as I have also mentioned, despite the fact that he won, he unfortunately got in the way of an enemy bullet). Anyway, this pub is another of the three pubs that claims to be Sydney’s oldest, though the Fortune of War will argue that the Lord Nelson hasn’t always been called such (and they also claimed that it was located elsewhere, though the Nelson’s website says otherwise). Originally it was called the Shipwright’s Arms, but then changed its name to the Sailor’s Return (probably because it was frequented by lots of sailors). Then in 1840 it’s name was changed once again to the Quarryman’s arms. The next year it was sold to another person who changed the name to the Lord Nelson.

Anyway, I have to say that this is a really, really popular pub, to the point that it can be almost impossible to get a seat, let alone get a beer, on a Friday night. They also have their own brewery (and you can see the brewing vats at the back of the bar) and sell a number of their own boutique beers (should they be called house beers). Anyway, if you do want to visit this pub (and it is definitely worth it) make sure it is not at the same time as the after work crowds.

12) Captain Cook Hotel

33-35 Kent St, The Rocks:

Captain Cook Hotel

I have absolutely no idea why I have included this pub among the other pubs because it isn’t an old pub, and it certainly isn’t a pub that I would go back to again. I guess because it happens to be located in the Rocks that I thought I would mention it. Well, I have, and I might as well leave it at that.

Tooth & Co

I’ll finish off this post my mentioning a company that seems to come up time and time again in relation to these pubs – Tooth & Co. Basically they were a brewer though they weren’t any old brewer, they were the breweTooth & Cor of New South Wales. Whenever you see the mention of ‘The Brewer’ in a document about pubs in New South Wales prior to the 1970s you can be assured that they are referring to Tooth & Co. Not only did they brew beer, but they also had a monopoly on beer throughout the state. In fact they were what you would consider a vertically integrated monopoly in that not only did they brew the beer but the also owned the pubs through which they would sell the beer (and if they didn’t own the pubs then they would still make sure they stocked their beer).

Mind you the company no longer exists. During the 1970s the government enacted some laws to encourage competition (with the belief that a healthy competition regime meant that prices would go down, though these days it seems as if everything hyper-capitalist justifies their actions by saying that prices will go down, even if it involves jacking the prices up – go figure). Anyway, these laws pretty much prevented Tooth & Co from owning and operating pubs, or at least stopped them from preventing other brewers from having their beers on tap. This is why these days when you walk into a pub you will see a whole range of beers from a whole range of breweries, not just the brewer that happens to have his name on the wall.

The only beer that seems to be around that they used to produce is Reschs, though you won’t actually see it advertised, and it is only available on tap in a small number of pubs.

I have also written a post on the Rocks as a whole.

Creative Commons License

Pubs of the Rocks by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


One thought on “Pubs of the Rocks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s