Toowoomba’s Pubs and Publicans – then and now

Book launch—BAR AND BONIFACE: a compendium of Toowoomba’s Pubs and Publicans 1844-2020

Yesterday I had the pleasure of launching Maurice French and Judy Brewer’s two-volume history of Toowoomba’s pubs and publicans at the Stock Hotel. It was my first-ever role as such and I got the gig because many of my settler-ancestors arrived on the Darling Downs in the 1850s and started life as hotel-licencees.

The book is a fascinating compendium not only of the Downs’ history of hostelries and those who ran them, but also of the changing culture of entertainment in the city. Threaded through the facts and dates are snippets of what the authors call “Liquor Lore.” These reflect the delightfully human face of history, and what brings the pages to life.

This was what I said at what was a most successful launch for Maurice and Judy.

Good afternoon. I’m so pleased to have been asked to launch Maurice and Judy’s book. The reason it’s me is that I’m here as one of the descendants from my mother’s side of my family, and representing many of the individuals who appear in the companion volumes. I thought I’d tell you a little bit about them.

The McGrory, McGoldrick, and Gentle families arrived on the Darling Downs as settlers in the 1850s. They came from Scotland, and from County Donegal, and Fermanagh, in the north of Ireland. From that time on they married, had children, set up businesses in pubs, and gave their names to many of the streets in the city. In the 1930s my mother’s part of the Gentle family moved to Brisbane. I was the first to return at the end of the 70s, and from then on, with one period away, have made this lovely part of the world my home.

I’m named after Irish-born Catherine Elizabeth McGoldrick, my great-grandmother. Catherine was wife to William Gentle, who was a landholder, horse-trainer and, as a ” popular knight of the spigot,” the publican-licensee of The Gladstone, The Courthouse, The Freemasons’, and The Royal hotels. Catherine was a few years older than Willie and was, to all who knew her, the powerhouse in that alliance.

Catherine (Kate) Gentle became a businesswoman, and a successful one at that. Maurice notes in the book the role that many women played in the hospitality industry and the unusually large percentage of women who held licences and/or worked in pubs in the city. My mother told many stories of gran’s association with traders and the wider society in the town and of her close association with St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral as a generous donor. Some of these snippets can be found in the book in the four pages allocated to the Gentles alone.

Catherine may have inherited her drive and temperament from her mother, Mary McGrory McGoldrick. Mary was a diminutive but formidable Catholic woman. Her spats with members of the Protestants in the Gentle clan were the stuff of family legend. She once threw her rosary beads at Thomas Lavis during an argument. The family connection — Tommy owned the Horse and Jockey pub and was the second husband of Willie’s mum, Eliza Gentle. Those rosary beads mysteriously disappeared and were never to be found from that day on. Mary blamed Tommy, a “dirty Protestant,” and viewed him (probably) as an agent of the devil. She was also known to curtail the alcoholic inclinations of her husband John McGoldrick by applying mustard plasters to his feet when he was drunk. “Although she be but little she is fierce,” as Shakespeare put it. It sums up this fiery little Donegal Irishwoman, my second great-grandmother, perfectly.

The double volume compendium BAR AND BONIFACE from Maurice and Judy makes for fascinating reading. It’s beautifully produced and generously illustrated with historical and contemporary photography. It is a wonderful example of substantial historical scholarship, and substantial heft. Not that you would, but don’t try tossing either volume aside lightly, or think of using them as coffee-table books unless you have a table that matches the challenge. 

The comprehensive listing of pubs and their owners is extraordinary. Who knew there were so many pubs and hostelries back then? Of course, liquor licensing laws have changed and restaurants and licensed cafes and bars have taken the place of the pubs.

The snippets of people and events that are sprinkled throughout the book make for delightful reading on their own. I suspect anyone who starts reading will find a personal connection that they didn’t expect. I did.

My own career has been in theatre as a practitioner and educator, so I was delighted (if not surprised) to find a reference to the banning of music and fiddling in pubs in the early years of settlement in the town. In 1867 there was a complaint by local publicans about a well-known and enterprising sly-grog shanty that served people “during late theatrical performances.” It’s still hard in Toowoomba to find somewhere to get a drink after a show, right?

But wait, there’s more. There once was a pub on the eastern side of Ruthven Street called – yes, the Shakespeare. It was there that my mother, Mary Catherine Gentle, had the distinction of being pub-born, as she told it, upstairs in one of the rooms on 12th November, 1911. By this time, the old Shakespeare had changed its name, and morphed into the Gladstone Hotel which was owned and operated by her parents.

My mother was the only daughter of Mary Angela O’Driscoll, the licensee, and Peter Gentle, the manager. My grandfather was incidentally a tee-totaller, book-maker, and a gifted amateur actor with Toowoomba’s own Colleen Bawn Dramatic Company. This group was named after one of the most popular plays of the time, The Colleen Bawn, a romantic comedy written by the Irishman Dion Di Boucicault. I have always been struck by the link between local and Irish culture in these early years, and it is also evident when you see the names of pubs and their publicans. 

As I read through both books, I was also struck again and again by the connection (between the lines) of the performing arts and the pubs in the city. It’s not particularly surprising, I suppose. After all, the Greek god of the theatre Dionysius was also the god of wine and ecstasy. It was, however, delightful to have this connection rekindled in the books.

The old Shakespeare pub had been built next door to the Theatre Royal which has long since gone the way of many other theatres via fire or wrecking ball. Later there was a vacant lot where you could see itinerant shows and performers – we’d call them touring productions these days but, in the late 19th and early 20th century, tent shows were enormously popular. The remnants of these can be seen in circuses that, these days, play near Frog’s Hollow in Queen’s Park. The book, in so many ways, is a lovely cultural history of the places people went for entertainment and companionship.

One day, perhaps, the history of Toowoomba and the Downs’ performing arts will be written. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy as much as I have the history of hospitality that is so richly and comprehensively treated by Maurice and Judy. Congratulations, and sláinte (cheers)!





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