Johanna Ryan: The untold story

Hotel Ryan, Thirroul 1950s

Hotel Ryan, Thirroul 1950s

By MICK ROBERTS ©

FIFTY five years after the death of her husband, Irish hotelier Johanna Ryan was finally reunited with her spouse Michael, laid to rest beside him in the Catholic section of Australia’s largest cemetery. The year was 1956, and the grand old landlady, who ruled her pubs with an iron fist for over four decades, was no more.

This is the untold story of Thirroul’s own ‘iron-lady’, a hotelier, mother, and entrepreneur, who lived most of her long life as a widow, and who left Thirroul, the Ryan’s Hotel.

At the grand old age of 94, Johanna Ryan died upstairs in the Surry Hills Commonwealth Bank building at the corner of Crown Street and Lansdowne Road on August 2 1956. She was being cared for by her daughter Frances, the wife of bank manager, Vincent McDonogh.

Michael and Johanna Ryan were running the Mertonville Hotel at the corner of Beattie and Lawson streets, Balmain in 1898. The hotel was established in the late 1870s to cater for new homes being built on the Mertonville Estate. The two storey brick corner pub became a popular meeting place for the fledging Labour movement in Balmain during the early 1900s. It now is a private residence

Michael and Johanna Ryan were running the Mertonville Hotel at the corner of Beattie and Lawson streets, Balmain in 1898.

The retired hotelier’s heart had finally given-up. She was buried at Rookwood, where her elaborate headstone sits today under the sprawling branches of a Camphaloral tree.

Johanna Ryan hosted four Sydney pubs before heading south to the Illawarra to take up the license of the Bulli Pass Hotel at Thirroul in 1911.

Samuel Kirton had established the hotel as the McCawley Park at the corner of George and Phillips Streets in 1888. In 1895 it was renamed the Bulli Pass Hotel to take advantage of the popularity of the nearby tourist attraction, with its magnificent mountain scenery. But it was Johanna Ryan who had the nouse, and the capital, to rebuild the old weatherboard pub to take full advantage of a rapidly growing tourists industry.

Johanna was known for conducting an orderly house. She also more famously became known for keeping an umbrella – or, as some stories go, a Shillelagh – handy behind the bar to ‘clout’ unruly customers or heavy drinking, foul mouthed coal miners. She detested bad language and kept a tight rein on behaviour in her bar.

Johanna and Michael Ryan, although not yet married, sailed together from Plymouth on April 29 aboard the immigrant ship Samuel Plimsoll, arriving in Sydney Cove in June 1880. Both had the family name of Ryan – although this was not unusual for two Irish immigrants from County Limerick.

Johanna Ryan took over the license of the Vulcan Hotel in Wattle Street Ultimo from Elizabeth Tyler in 1909.The Vulcan Hotel was named after the Roman god of fire, and is usually associated with the melting of iron to make both weapons and agricultural implements. Built in 1894, The Vulcan Hotel provided accommodation and drinks for travellers and nearby workers involved with the storage of wool, shipping and the iron works. No longer trading as a pub, the Vulcan had a multi-million dollar refurbishment in 2002 transforming the heritage listed building into a boutique style hotel.

Johanna Ryan took over the license of the Vulcan Hotel in Wattle Street Ultimo from Elizabeth Tyler in 1909.

They both arrived in colonial Sydney as 18 year olds, although nothing is known about the first 13 years of their life. Records show the pair eventually married in Sydney during 1893, before they became hosts of the Limerick Castle Hotel at the corner of Ann and Smith Streets Surry Hills in 1894.

The Limerick Castle was established in the 1870s, and was described in 1883 as premises built of brick, on stone foundations, with a slate roof. The pub contained a bar, seven rooms, kitchen, and a cellar, and included two terrace houses in Smith Street. The Ryans’ first child, William was born at the pub shortly after they took up residency. The pub was also where Michael had his first brush with the law. He was convicted and fined £2 with 5 shillings and 6 pence costs or three weeks imprisonment, for having kept his pub open for the sale of liquor on Sunday.

Johanna gained the license of the Limerick Castle in 1896, while husband Michael took over the license of the White Bay Hotel, in Crescent-street, Balmain for a relative who was either experiencing health problems or financial difficulties. While hosting the Surry Hills pub, Johanna gave birth to her second and last child, Frances.

After Johanna had moved onto new ventures, the Limerick Castle was demolished in 1906 and rebuilt as an impressive two storey hotel. Although today no longer operating as a pub, the impressive architecture of the Limerick Castle can still be seen on the corner of Ann and Smith Streets, Surry Hills.

By 1898, Michael and Johanna Ryan were running another pub at the corner of Beattie and Lawson streets, Balmain.
The Mertonville Hotel (pictured left) was established in the late 1870s to cater for new homes being built on the Mertonville Estate. The two storey brick corner pub became a popular meeting place for the fledging Labour movement in Balmain during the early 1900s.

At the age of 50, Johanna Ryan, with her two teenage children, moved into the Bulli Pass Hotel at Thirroul in 1911. She was about to embark on her most ambitious business venture yet, rebuilding the old weatherboard pub into an imposing two storey brick structure that remains today a landmark at Thirroul.

At the age of 50, Johanna Ryan, with her two teenage children, moved into the Bulli Pass Hotel at Thirroul in 1911.

Michael Ryan died at the age of 40 of pneumonia at his Balmain pub on September 12 1901. He was buried at the Rookwood Cemetery.

Johanna, with her seven year old son and a five year old daughter, continued as host at the Mertonville until the NSW Government forcibly closed her hotel. The 1908 Local Option Poll for the Rozelle electorate decided to reduce the number of pub licenses by four. Three Rozelle pubs, The Royal Hotel in Crescent-street, The Rozelle Hotel in Darling-street, The Lord Nelson Hotel in Evans-street and Balmain’s Mertonville Hotel would lose their licenses on September 10 1910.

This may have been the catalyst for Johanna’s obsession for running a strict house in later years. Parts of the criteria chosen by magistrates to close pubs under the Local Option Polls of the early 20th century were done so by the number of police convictions at the licensed premises.

Johanna, now with two teenage children, left Balmain before the inevitable, moving to Ultimo where she took over from another woman publican. The license of the Vulcan Hotel in Wattle Street was transferred from Elizabeth Tyler to Johanna in November 1909.

The Vulcan Hotel was named after the Roman god of fire, and is usually associated with the melting of iron to make both weapons and agricultural implements. Built in 1894, The Vulcan Hotel provided accommodation and drinks for travellers and nearby workers involved with the storage of wool, shipping and the iron works.

No longer trading as a pub, the Vulcan had a multi-million dollar refurbishment in 2002 transforming the heritage listed building into a boutique style hotel.

Johanna was subject to an inquiry into the death of a lodger at the Vulcan Hotel during January 1910. The Lismore Northern Star reported on January 6 1910:

At the grand old age of 94, Johanna Ryan died upstairs in the Surry Hills Commonwealth Bank building at the corner of Crown Street and Lansdowne Road on August 2 1956. She was being cared for by her daughter Frances, the wife of bank manager, Vincent McDonogh.

At the grand old age of 94, Johanna Ryan died upstairs in the Surry Hills Commonwealth Bank building at the corner of Crown Street and Lansdowne Road on August 2 1956. She was being cared for by her daughter Frances, the wife of bank manager, Vincent McDonogh.

The inquiry into the death of James Berge, who met his death at the Vulcan Hotel on Christmas Eve, disclosed a peculiar fatality. The hotel was being fumigated, and all the inmates were warned against going into the rooms. The day after the fumigation deceased was seen in apparently his usual good health, but was subsequently found dead in his bedroom. The medical evidence showed that death was caused by the fumigation fumes.

At the age of 50, Johanna, with her two teenage children, moved into the Bulli Pass Hotel at Thirroul in 1911. She was about to embark on her most ambitious business venture yet. She became licensee of the Thirroul hotel at a time when the seaside village was growing in popularity as a tourist resort amongst the people of Sydney. A year after Johanna had taken over the bar at Thirroul the Sydney Morning Herald reported on December 30 1912:

During the holidays over 3000 persons visited Thirroul, Austinmer, and Bulli. For some weeks past the boarding establishments at these seaside resorts have been crowded. In many cases the accommodation has been inadequate, and hundreds of people have been compelled to return to Sydney.

Johanna had grand plans for the two storey weatherboard pub. The Illawarra Mercury reported on February 27 1914 that “Mrs Ryan, of the Bulli Pass Hotel, had purchased the whole of the property from Mr Sweet, the price being £300”:

It is Mrs Ryan’s intention to pull the old building down and erect an up-to-date building at a cost of between £4,000 and £5,000, with the old building it is intended to erect three cottages.

Johanna engaged the services of accomplished Sydney hotel architect George A. Marsh to design her new tourist hotel, which was completed the following year. The name of the hotel was officially changed from the Bulli Pass Hotel to the Ryan’s Hotel after further additions to the premsies in 1926.

Johanna hosted the Thirroul pub for 30 years, successfully steering the business through the world’s worse economical depression, two world wars – even farewelling her son William, a barman at the pub, to fight as a private in the 3rd Battalion during the Great War, in August 1914. William returned safely home from the conflict in 1918, but many of her young customers and William’s mates didn’t.

During the mid 1990s I was lucky enough to speak with one of the few customers able to remember the legendary landlady. I interviewed 81 year-old Dick Oakley of Corrimal, who was in his 20s in the 1930s when he frequented the bar of the Ryan’s Hotel.

“She was known as ‘Mother Ryan’, and always kept an umbrella behind the bar to keep patrons in line,” the late Dick Oakley told me. “She was a strict publican and if you played-up she would give you a hit over the head with it.”

Mr Oakley recalled on one occasion a man becoming impatient while waiting to be served at the busy bar. Cursing, he complained of poor service, and was quickly confronted by ‘Mother Ryan’. The landlady promptly served him a glass of water, ordering him, in her thick Irish accent, to clean out his “filthy mouth” before he was to get his next beer.

Mother Ryan had a ‘swear jar’ on the bar which quickly filled when drunken coal miners let slip unacceptable language. The South Coast Times reported on May 6 1927 that Mr. J Cavill, secretary of the Illawarra Cottage Hospital at Coledale, “Acknowledged with thanks the sum of one pound two shillings and nine pence forwarded by Mrs Ryan, proprietor of the Thirroul Hotel from men who used swear words inside the hotel”.

 Johanna Ryan was buried at Rookwood, where her elaborate headstone sits today under the sprawling branches of a Camphaloral tree.

Johanna Ryan was buried at Rookwood, where her elaborate headstone sits today under the sprawling branches of a Camphaloral tree.

Mother Ryan would sit on an elevated platform in the centre of the bar, according to Mr Oakley, where she operated the cash register. The barmaids would serve the customers their drinks and forward the money in a container, on a pulley system, to an ever eagle eyed Johanna. Sitting on her central throne, overlooking her empire, she was the Queen of the bar and laid down strict laws in her busy kingdom.

Dick Oakley also told of how Johanna kept a ‘book’ for the coal miners, who would ‘tick-up’ drinks on credit when regulars were short of ‘a quid’ or were on strike – which was often.

Johanna retired from the bar of the hotel at the incredible age of 79 in 1941. According to 89 year old Ceelie Broadhead in the late 1980s, Johanna moved to Sydney to operate another pub. However, no records of Johanna hosting a Sydney pub after 1941 can be found. After Johanna’s death, Mrs Broadhead said, the Irish landlady’s Will was said to state that with the sale of the hotel, the establishment must retain the name ‘Ryan’s Hotel’. Mrs Broadhead, who was a regular drinker at the Ryan’s Hotel for decades, said Johanna would regularly return to Ireland for holidays.

Just prior to Johanna’s retirement, she secured a lease agreement with Toohey’s Brewery for her Thirroul hotel. As a result the Ryan’s Hotel became a Toohey’s tied house on August 1 1940. The Ryan’s would eventually become the Wollongong Licensing District’s most popular and best selling pub. The Thirroul public house was the leading beer seller and, because of that, paid Wollongong’s highest licensing fee for most of the 1930s, 40s and into the 50s.

Thirroul was a hive of activity during the 1940s with Newbold’s Brickworks, the Excelsior Colliery, the railway locomotive and marshalling yard just some of the industries supporting a population of almost 5,000. As well as a thriving industrial base, Thirroul also was attracting hundreds of tourists during holiday periods.

A licensing magistrates report dated 25 May 1948 states:

There are two licensed houses at Thirroul, the Hotel Ryan and the Thirroul Wine Saloon. The Hotel Ryan is a well-known hostelry, well conducted and within the limits of its capacity caters for both accommodation and liquor needs of the public. It is not contended by any of the parties that Hotel Ryan can adequately cope with the needs of the public… There is much evidence that the bars of the Hotel Ryan are greatly overcrowded during peak hours. This hotel does a substantial bar trade which is rapidly increasing. The license fee which is simputed on the value of liquor purchases, has risen from the pre-war figure of 462 pounds in 1939 to 1112 pounds in 1947, a percentage increase of about 240 percent. This increase is largely accounted for by increased prices of liquor. The liquor supplies increased from 47,000 gallons to 88,000 gallons during the same period – about 87 percent increase. Mr Clegg intimated to the court that the license fee for the year 1948-9 (not yet assessed) was expected to be 1500 pounds.

The monopoly on trade at Thirroul, since the pub opened in 1888, finally came to an end when a new hotel was licensed at Thirroul in October 1953.

The Thirroul Rex Hotel was a modern up-to-date hostelry, and Thirroul’s original public house needed to modernise, or lose trade. As a result, the Ryan’s was completely remodelled in 1954. The balcony and ornate roof façade were unfortunately removed during the renovations and a new bar, lounge and parlour were opened on February 8 1954 after remodelling at a cost of £28,000.

After Johanna’s death in 1956, the hotel was sold by the family to Toohey’s Brewery in 1964.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015

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