Old Gerry: Bulli pub’s roustabout and his trusty straw broom

The two visiting tourist with “Old Gerry” and barmaid “Mary” (centre) at the Bulli Family Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


THE characters that were borne out of the 1930s depression have endured as lovable larrikins in the Bulli district’s folklore.

In the 1990s, I was lucky enough to track down a couple of women who once played host to characters of the Great Depression such as Bandy Sam, Dumby Henderson, Paddy Gleeson, Noisy Dick, Bulli Lill, Di Herd, and ‘Old Gerry’.

Lousa May Ponza was born in Pyrmont in 1912 before residing with her adopted parents, who were hosts of the Bulli Family Hotel during the 1930s.

Known as ‘Masie’ to the many coal miners that frequented the pub, I spoke at length with the 90-year-old about those hard times last century.

Masie steered me in the direction of a former barmaid and mate, who in her 80s, was only to willing to share some of her memories of catering to the coal miners when she began work at the pub in 1936. She wished to stay anonymous (“I don’t want people reading this, picking away at it, and correcting what I had to say”), so we will call her Mary.

Mary began with the pub’s bookmakers.

“Leo Condon had a brother, Bud, who had a little black book,” she said. “That was his six penny double book. Bud used to take bets from a big table under the stair case, sitting there casual, everyone knew what was happening.

“Leo started off with his little book at the pub, and ended up doing quite well taking bets out the back of the billiard room [opposite the hotel].”

Mary’s working day began at 6am when the pub opened, and finished at 6pm when last drinks were served.

“We only got 26 shillings a week and your keep. That was your wage for a six day week. We all lived at the pub. There was about seven of us who worked there.”

It was the aftermath of the depression and many made the trip up the hill from a camp on Slacky Flat, known locally as “Happy Flat” for their regular tipple.

“There was old Bernard, who never interfered with anyone, they used to say he had a snake in that sugar bag on his back. I always remember old Bernard, if you said anything, he would say: ‘Birds of a feather flock with themselves’, as much to say that I’m not worried about them.”

Of all the characters that were part of the pub, both women had vivid memories of ‘Old Gerry’, a knock-about, who lived in the horse stables. Masie recalled Old Gerry:

“He was a cripple, and always carried a broom around for support. He lived in one of the old stables out the back, which were not used for anything anymore. He had his home there. My brother used to say to dad (Edward Cullen), ‘why do you keep him here – he wore out more brooms by simply leaning on them’.

“He used to do simple odd jobs like tidying up, collecting glasses from the yard and sweeping the leaves from around a huge old tree out the front.

“One Christmas dad gave him a nine gallon keg that had gone flat as a gift. We put some pepper in it to liven it back-up.”

Mary also remembered Old Gerry:

“No one ever knew his last name. You know the little old brown brooms you see? He never used it the right way up. He would always turn it the sweeping side up and hung on to that and walked around.

“Now and again he would turn the broom up the right way when he seen a bumper or something. He didn’t really work though, he sought of went with the business.

“Gerry was there, day after day, the same clothes on. They used to give him food.  They left his meals in the laundry out the back and he always put the left overs into his suit pocket for eating later. I remember on one occasion he stuck curry chops that he couldn’t finish into his pockets.

“Gerry never got into conversation and never came into the bar; he was always out on the verandah.”

Remarkably Mary had a small snap shot of Old Gerry.

“A couple, man and wife, were travelling from Scotland. They were intrigued with Gerry. They asked me if I would mind if they had a photo with him, and I said no, I don’t mind. So the Scottish man’s wife there, I’m here, Gerry, and the Scotman’s there.”

After returning to Scotland they sent Mary the photograph, preserving a rare glimpse of one of Bulli’s depression characters.

First published 2014

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020

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