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General Gordon Hotel
General Gordon Hotel, Sydenham 1949. Courtesy Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University

On Monday we heard that the General Gordon Hotel in Sydenham had been gutted by a ferocious fire, its roof collapsing under the strain. The pub was built 86 years ago and was undergoing renovations when it was engulfed by flames and a piece of Sydney’s pub history was destroyed. Listen to my segment at 2SER.

Prior to 1932, the General Gordon Hotel had occupied a different site in Sydenham, on today’s Bolton Street, where it had been operating since 1885. The hotel’s first publican, John Spicer Paris, had named it in honour of the British Army officer and administrator Major-General Charles George Gordon, who was something of a popular colonial hero and had died earlier in 1885 in the Sudan War .

In 1925 the hotel was licensed to publican Margaret Gleeson, who had been managing hotels in Sydney since 1910. Gleeson died at the hotel in 1929 following a stroke, aged only 45, and the licence was taken up by her daughter, Kathleen Tansey, who went on to run the hotel with her sister Mary Clarke. Like their mother, both daughters were widowed and became successful publicans. Tansey’s husband had also been a barman at the General Gordon when he was killed in a car accident in 1926.

In 1931, Sydney’s tabloid newspaper, Truth, reported a hearing at Newtown Police Court in which it was alleged the sisters had served drinks to two men after hours (it was illegal to operate a public hotel after 6pm at the time). In the end, the charges against were dropped as the men were ‘walking out’ with the sisters. During the trial, one of the police witnesses admitted that Mrs Tansey, described as ‘rotund and radiating good will’, actually ‘conducted the hotel extraordinarily well’.

Sydenham’s original General Gordon Hotel on Bolton Street (demolished in 1926). Courtesy Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University

In 1932, Mrs Tansey made an application to transfer the license to a new venue on the corner of Swain and Burrows Street, the construction of which was due to begin shortly. The new hotel building was designed by the architect, Sidney Warden, who was a prolific designer of hotels for the major beer brewers, Tooth and Company (the owners of the General Gordon). Warden worked on 392 hotels, designing new ones or making alterations to existing ones, and he is responsible for the designs of many of Sydney’s most beloved pubs including the Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale and the Lansdowne on City Road at Broadway.

The new General Gordon Hotel opened on 13 December 1932, with free beer given out between 5.15 and 6pm to celebrate.

In February 1948, 200 of the General Gordon’s patrons staged a protest in the pub when it apparently ran out of beer on a Saturday afternoon. The pub was black banned and picketed for 15 weeks, with the protesters demanding longer opening hours on Saturday afternoons, the reopening of the Ladies Lounge, and that bottled beer should only be sold to locals. The black ban was part of a wider protest across Sydney against the monopoly of big brewers like Tooth’s on the liquor trade. Mrs Tansey eventually acceded to their demands and the General Gordon went back to serving the Sydenham community.

In the end, Kathleen Tansey was the licensee of the General Gordon Hotel until about 1955, running the pub for more than 20 years.

This post was written by Nicole Cama and Linda Brainwood and first published at the Dictionary of Sydney. Listen to the segment online.

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