Drinking with ghosts

The Victoria Tavern’s doors are now permanently closed to the public. In honour of the ghosts, we’ve left their tales here so that they may live on.

One of Tasmania’s best-kept secrets is the haunting Victoria Tavern where the ghosts of ne’er-do-wells, clergymen and politicians (who, rumour has it, entered into the pub via secret tunnels that wormed throughout Hobart) still drink beer with those who imbibe in the glory of golden ales today.

If one can’t hike in Tasmania’s haunting wilderness, one may as well drink beer and be spooked with stories of lost tunnels and the riotous voices of those that have enjoyed a drink at the same place for more than 180 years.

I have no problem drinking with ghosts as their tales are often more believable (and their conversations more fluent) than some of the yarning one hears from fellow drinkers today. Compare these pub conversations and decide which century’s drinkers are more believable.

The calendar may change from days to decades to centuries but the yarns of drinkers change little over the years. Allow me to apply a little imagination to recreate a few front bar tales over the years.

“The whale we sighted off the s’west coast was twice as big as our schooner. It could have swallowed Hobart Town. We didn’t think we’d ever get back, much less land the whale. The rain came down so hard it was like being pelted with ten tonnes of lead as the whale started pulling the ship under the sea. Call me Ishmael.”

“I tell you, it was a Tasmanian Tiger, right there at Fern Tree, it just stood and stared at me in the midnight light. I saw its prints in the snow the next morning, I have no doubt it was the real thing. Why my uncle Ned used to see ‘em all the time on the west coast.”

“David Walsh is looking at buying half of Hobart and building a casino taller than the Eiffel Tower in the shape of a penis that will shine a light up into the clouds that you would be able to see from the moon and the Hobart City Council doesn’t know what to do with the application and whose round is it anyway?”

One should always try to drink in moderation (at least in theory) and try not to record the conversations of fellow drinkers, for in the cold light of morning they seldom stand up – the stories or the drinkers. But the stories of pubs like the Victoria are worth trying to stay sober for, if just long enough to remember a few dates and details.

In 1836 or 1839, depending upon what source you believe, when Hobart’s waterfront was a lot closer to Murray St then it is now, the Victoria Tavern was established directly across the street from St David’s Church. The publican today,

Stephen Higby, told me the Victoria should be considered the oldest continuously licensed pub in Tasmania, although there are, shall we say, different opinions on this subject.

The Hope and Anchor Tavern a few blocks away down Macquarie St (formerly Hope and Anchor Hotel, the Alexander, the Whale Fishery and the Hope), built in 1807, claims to be the oldest pub in Australia. The Bush Inn at New Norfolk, established in 1815), claims to be the oldest continually operating hotel in Australia.  

The outright oldest pub in the country (rebuilds, moves and mostly trading considerations aside) is the Woolpack, in Parramatta, Sydney, established in 1798, a little Peter Garret and Midnight Oil starting playing in the nearby clubs.

Whatever the truth of local claims and marketing magnification, what’s certain is that when the Victoria Tavern was serving beer in the 1830s, Tasmania was a lively place. George Arthur was governor and his penal settlement was being established as a punishment-oriented timber station; Aboriginal Tasmanians were outsmarting the feeble efforts of the farcical Black Line; and hotels like the Victoria were being used by an assortment of rum-drinking wharfies, whalers, sailors and ex and current convicts, as well as politicians and clergymen who had sneaked in via underground tunnels for a quick one between readings.

There are claims that there was one pub for every 200 people in Hobart. One didn’t have to wander far to wet one’s whistle and to find a ragtag assortment of good or Odd Fellows, depending upon your predilection.

What a time it must have been! No traffic gridlocks in Hobart and real estate for sale for a song. A little fixer-upper in Battery Point would have been a good investment.

Times change but the tunnels remain. Down through a trapdoor, in the basement of the Victoria Tavern there are convict brick walls that, so it is surmised, block tunnels that may still link the pub to religion and politics, and this is what makes the tavern an intriguing place to linger over a good beer or two. There is just so much history and mystery in the air.

And so many conversations to listen in on from the past still echoing off the bricks. “My name is August West and I clean chimneys for a living. Can you loan me a shilling for a glass of burgundy? I’ll tell you a story about a girl named Bonnie Lee; she knows every tunnel there is to know under this town … “

The rumour is persistent: the supposed tunnels made it easy for priests from St David’s to secretly enter the Victoria Tavern for quick shot of rum so as gather inspiration for their next sermon. It is only about 50 steps from St David’s to the Victoria, so it is entirely possible. Rumour also has it that elected officials from Parliament House frequented the tavern, entering invisibly by another tunnel to avoid gossip and connotation.

Nothing much has changed 180 years later, as of an evening one can still see dapper politicians stealthily entering the local pubs like the Customs House Hotel (est. 1846) where a tunnel “appears” to lead to Parliament House, or the Brunswick Hotel (est. 1827) to the Victoria, some with victory in their eyes and some looking like lost sheep.

Another rumour is the tunnels under the Victoria Tavern connected to Hadley’s Hotel (just one door away), then known as the Golden Anchor Inn (est. 1834)

Some say there may tunnels beneath Hobart’s waterfront that connect to forgotten basements full of barrels of rum and the skeletons of those who couldn’t find their way out. Rumours abound when it comes to tunnels.

I sense a touch of tunnel envy in Hobart, as each pub seems to have a different story about tunnels connecting them to Hobart’s cells, courtrooms, churches and parliamentary chambers. Perhaps these tunnels were the ultimate vehicle for political networking.

One thing we do seem to know, according to local historian Peter MacFie, is that some of the tunnels were used to transport the transported.

“The tunnel under the former Courthouse/Penitentiary Chapel served as a means of moving prisoners from the penitentiary. Entrance from the gaol was via a heavy door – still extant – in the courthouse wall, where steps led down to the tunnels. The dock where the accused stood was situated in the middle of the two courtrooms, and prisoners suddenly appeared there, as if from nowhere.”

When I felt the bricked up walls of the Victoria Tavern I knew instinctively that there were tunnels beyond the bricks, and that if there weren’t tunnels, then there should be. Why wreck a good story with facts? Fiction is so much more desirable these days.

So come to the Victoria Tavern and explore its past, have a drink with its ghosts and daydream down its mythical tunnels. Connect to the past and drink up, for a good beer stays fresh and cold for only so long.  

Don Defenderfer is a native of San Francisco who once went on a holiday to Alaska where he met an Australian who told him to visit Tasmania. So he did, and while here he met a woman. That was 30 years ago. He was state coordinator for Landcare for many years, a job that allowed him to be inspired by not only the beauty of the Tasmanian landscape but by the many people that are trying to repair and renew it. He has a Masters Degree in Social Ecology and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies with a minor in writing. He has published three volumes of poetry, and his work has appeared in newspapers and periodicals, including The New York Times and The Australian.

Further Reading: Underground Hobart: The World Beneath The City, by Peter MacFie; Pubs in Hobart: from 1807 by David Bryce; Pubs in Tasmania: In Search of the Holy Grail, by Steve Hyde and Howard Smith.

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