Inside the Collection

Curating the seamy side- historic pubs in sydney

Hotel Marrickville
Hotel Marrickville. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.
Hotel Chatswood
Hotel Chatswood. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.
Hotel Rozelle
Hotel Rozelle. Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

These bars were designed for binge drinking, 1930s style. In those days excessive boozing was usually called the six o’clock swill, a feature of NSW pubs from 1916 to 1955, the period when hotels had to close at six o’clock. Pubs were designed to accommodate as many stand-up (hopefully) drinkers as possible.

As well as more relaxed opening hours, today’s pubs are generally more inviting. But as the binge drinking issue suggests, they are never far from controversy and anti-social behaviour.

The photos are part of an archive of the work of architect Sidney Warden, who designed more Sydney pubs than anyone else. Active during the 1920s and 1930s, Warden’s work includes the pictured hotels Rozelle, Marrickville and Chatswood as well as such familiar structures as the Clare, the Lansdowne, the Broadway, the Henson Park, the Star, the Native Rose, the Tennyson, the Oxford, the Charing Cross and the Light Brigade.

The Powerhouse got into the pub business during the 1980s, when Tooth & Co, NSW’s major brewer for most of the 20th century, donated a vast collection of brewing and hotel artefacts. The PHM was one of the first major Australian museums to collect and display social history (as it was called in the 80s) or subsequent monikers including popular culture, Australian history and culture and other generic titles.

In the 80s the aim was to identify and celebrate a unique ‘Australian identity’ constituted by pubs, sport, backyards and other elements of a casual, friendly, democratic, matey everyday life. This fragile construct fractured along with the assumptions that formed it. But the collections survived, venturing into areas difficult to predict.

Poker machine
Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

Sydney hotels were such a threatened species in the 1990s that I conducted ‘Heritage pub crawls’ for the PHM, encouraging appreciation of our hotel heritage. It was easy to be nostalgic about the six o’clock swill, ladies lounges and other remnants of pub life. Since then the pub trade has bounced back. Like most areas of our supposed ‘national identity’, it has also rebounded as a contested subject and site, even more so when poker machines were permitted in pubs. Not surprisingly the one-armed bandits have also found a place in the PHM collection.

Gambling, like drinking, is a major industry in Australia; like drinking it inflicts serious harm on some of its consumers.

None of this affects the popularity of the subject. I’ve curated or co-curated five exhibitions about pubs and brewing, including two modest exhibitions for other institutions which attracted media and visitors out of proportion to their size. As a curator I can find plenty of respectable reasons to collect artefacts of booze and betting: Australia has been an innovator in the design of totalisators and poker machines, NSW pubs of the 1930s are one of the most unusual expressions of modern design.

The true attraction of the subject lies elsewhere, of course, in its potential for fun, insobriety and damage, social and otherwise. As a result, the regulation and culture of drinking is perhaps the longest-running controversy of Australian history. The debate as to how these activities can be accommodated within society seems to be endless.

What other Powerhouse collections have a similar appeal?

One response to “Curating the seamy side- historic pubs in sydney

  • During your research into this wonderful topic did you come across a fellow called George Johnson, my grandfather, who as stories go had a good voice and sang around the Sydney pubs during the depression.

    I look forward to your comment.

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