A publican’s tragic life

Sam Russell's Wollongong hotel from

Sam Russell’s Wollongong hotel from “Sketches of Australian Scenes” by J.G. Sawkins; The Royal Marine Hotel later bacame part of St Mary’s Convent. The original temporary St Michael’s Church of England (built 1847, demolished 1857) is at the left and in the foreground is the lagoon which for many years was Wollongong’s fresh water supply.

By MICK ROBERTS ©

SAM Russell just wasn’t cut out to be a businessman. To be fair, he had to struggle through the economic depression of the 1840s, but the fact remains Lady Luck just wasn’t on the merchant’s side when it came to running a business.

Sam arrived in Tasmania from England as a single 30-year-old immigrant on the ship Hope in 1824. He eventually made his way to Sydney where he married Mary Croaker at St Phillips Church of England in 1830 and went about the task of setting himself up in business.

At first Sam’s business dealings seemed to be going along fine. He delved into the hospitality industry in January 1834 leasing the billiard room of the Wellington Inn at 65 George Street Sydney, opposite the NSW Colonial Treasury building. Within a couple of years Sam had established a shipping yard at Darling Harbour and in 1836 he secured a lucrative contract to lengthen and renovate the steamer Tamar. The Sydney Gazette reported on Tuesday 27 September 1836:

Not withstanding the threatening appearance of the weather on Sunday last, the Tamar steamer with between thirty, and forty passengers on board, took an excursion pursuant to advertisement, at eleven o’clock, with numerous flags streaming from her rigging in all directions, she left Wilson’s Wharf, “and walked the water (majestically) like a thing of life”. Having proceeded a little, outside the Heads to see how she would work in a sea-way, which had the happiest effect of relieving the sickening sensations of many of the fair visitors, whose heads dropped gracefully over the lee scuppers like drooping lilies discharging the fragrant sweets upon the desert air; the owner to please the ladies directed the vessels head once more towards the town. Some persons were ill natured enough to say that his face suddenly became pale, and that a little regard for himself was not by any means the least consideration; of this, however, we have no means of judging. The vessel certainly behaved herself as well as her spirited owner could possibly de- sire, perfectly easy in a sea-way, without that dreadful roll too common in steamboats, and propelled with the velocity we should say of ten knots an hour, we think we may safely congratulate Mr. J. T. Wilson, of her complete success in making the Tamar what she now is, her accommodations are certainly far superior in every respect to any thing of the kind that has ever been in the Colony, and as Captain Mullhall is the Skipper, and Mr. Russell the Steward, we may safely say that every attention will, we presume, be paid to her passengers.

Sam “finished his engagement” as a steward on the steamer Tamar, opening a general agent for the sale of dairy and farm produce in Druitt Street Sydney in 1838. The Sydney Herald reported on 31 May:

S. RUSSELL HAVING finished his engagement as Steward of the steam-vessel Tamar, begs to acquaint the Graziers and Agriculturists of Hunter’s River, that he intends commencing Business as General Agent for the Sale of Dairy and Farm Produce, in those premises lately occupied by Mr. Thomas Stubbs, situated in Druitt-street, Sydney, adjacent to the steam packet wharfs, where he trusts, by assiduity and attention to business, to receive a share of their patronage and support. S. Russell in returning thanks to those Ladies and Gentlemen who have patronised the Tamar during his stewardship, and begs to inform them, that the same punctuality will invariably be paid to their commands as agent in Sydney, and which he flatters himself has given general satisfaction. Sydney, May, 1838.

Sam’s financial woes evolved after he purchased the cutter, Young Queen with Rees Jones, to “service the settlers on the banks of the Hunter River and its tributaries”, who, he advertised in April 1840, were “badly off, for want of sufficient vessels to take them supplies, and bring their produce to market”.

By October the following year Sam, now aged 47 and with a young family, was in debt and advertised for his creditors to meet at his residence in Druitt Street Sydney. He was forced to assign his property to his creditors, Sydney merchants George Richardson and William Tucker, and placed his business and the ‘Young Queen’ on the market for sale.

The Sydney Monitor advertised for sale his stock in trade, including cases of wine, ale, porter and gin, kegs of tobacco, office furniture, horse, dray, and his household furniture, in October 1841. The Young Queen was taken to Harper’s Wharf, two days prior to the sale, with the asking price of £30.

An 1840s sketch of Russell’s Hope Tavern (The corner building on the extreme right) at York and King streets Sydney.

An 1840s sketch of Russell’s Hope Tavern (The corner building on the extreme right) at York and King streets Sydney.

Although Sam was already dealing in grog, he took it a step further when he entered the role of publican in April 1842 after he was granted the license of the Hope Tavern on the corner of York Street and Barrack Lane in Sydney. By July 1845 Sam hit another snag when the owner – for unknown reasons – turfed him out of his tavern and advertised the premises for lease. Not one to give up easily, Sam placed the following advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald Monday on 18 August 1845:

REMOVAL OF THE HOPE TAVERN. S RUSSELL returns his grateful thanks for the kind support he received during his residence at the corner of Barrack lane and York-street, and respectfully begs to acquaint his friends and the public, that he has removed his business to a more convenient situation, corner of York and King streets, and trusts that his well selected stock of wines, ale, porter, and spirits will merit a liberal patronage. N.B.- A select coffee room, where colonial, provincial, and London papers, for the perusal of those who may favour him with a visit.

Just 12 months later Sam was facing creditors again. He had fallen behind in his brewery bills, and beer makers Tooth and Company marched the publican off to the Supreme Court to fetch their money. He was forced to sell a quantity of household furniture, fittings, his beer engine, and a spirit fountain to pay his debts. Before the end of the year Sam, with debts in excess of 180 pounds and personal assets valued at just over 140 pounds, was declared insolvent.

Defeat wasn’t in Sam’s vocabulary though, and in September 1846 he had found his way to Wollongong to take the reins of the Marine Hotel, a stones throw from the Wollongong wharf, in today’s Harbour Street and today the site of a Catholic college. He advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald on 2 September 1846:

MARINE HOTEL, WOLLONGONG. S RUSSELL begs to acquaint the inhabitants of Illawarra, and all who are desirous of visiting this highly interesting and beautiful district, either for pleasure or health, that he has opened the above large establishment, relying on a generous public for support. S. Russell flatters himself that families and gentlemen will find in his house all that they can desire, having been expressly fitted up with an adjoining cottage, for their use. To invalids it offers many advantages, for it is within three minutes’ walk of the steam boat, and also of the sea beach. The views from its verandahs ure most enchanting, Mounts Keera and Kembla in front, and the Beach and Five Islands in the rear. S. Russell, to induce parties to remain at this delightful a spot, “the Brighton of Sydney, for health and recreation,” is determined to make his charges moderate… Wines and English bottled beer, of excellent quality at equally low prices. Visitors from Sydney may reckon on always finding accommodation in his house, there being six sitting and nine bed-rooms. N.B.-Ponies will be kept during the summer season for the amusement of children. The steamboat, as soon as her new boilers are in, will leave Sydney every Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday, at nine o’clock, from Kelick’s Wharf, returning the following days. It is expected the trip will generally be made in six hours. August 31.

Now in his early 50s and with five children ranging in age between nine and one, Sam and his wife Mary settled into country life in the emerging rural village of Wollongong.

By the late 1840s coal was successfully mined from nearby Mt Keira and the economic depression that had plagued Sam for the last decade seemed to becoming to an end. Prospects must have looked good for the Royal Marine Hotel with tourism, agriculture and coal mining shaping-up to provide Sam with plenty of cashed up customers. However, it seems Sam did it again.

He once again over capitalised in his business and invested heavily in providing a concert hall at the Wollongong pub. The hall, was opened in style, in January 1856 with a grand ball, but Sam’s investment didn’t pay-off and within a few months the creditors came-a-calling. The pub was advertised for sale in May 1857, and by March 1858 he had taken his young family to Sydney where he had opened a “boarding establishment” at 105 Harrington Street Church Hill.

The end came for Sam in August 1858 when after years of battling financial woes he committed suicide by slashing his throat. A boy, carting brushwood 200 or 300 yards off the Camperdown Road, beyond the Glebe, saw him lying on his back and called police.

Inspector Quirk found Sam with his throat cut, his features pallid, and his pulse “all but imperceptible to the touch”. He was taken to the Sydney Infirmary, where he died a few hours later from the loss of blood after suffering a three-inch razor cut across his windpipe.

At the inquest into his death, Sam’s son, Charles said “that his father had for some time been in a desponding state from experiencing many losses in business”, and that “he was in very low spirits last Sunday, and could not make up his mind to go to Church, on Monday he was very silent, and sat for two hours as in deep meditation”. Charles said the losses he sustained were “entirely through his own acts”.

The medical evidence having been taken, the jury returned a verdict that Sam came to his death “from a wound inflicted by himself, and that he was in his right mind at the time he committed the deed”.

After his death, Sam’s widow, Mary went on to run a guest house by the name of Carlton House in Kent Street Sydney.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015

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