The Hopetoun Hotel, the legendary, State Heritage-listed pub on the corner of Bourke and Fitzroy streets in Surry Hills, which was closed and boarded up in September 2009, has gone through several transitions since its foundation in 1839.
Hopetoun Hotel, as it stood in 2013, boarded-up and abandoned. Photo: Alec Smart
The Hopetoun Hotel Origins
Initially, it was known as The Cockatoo, and occupied a building a little further along to its present location at 416 Bourke, on the opposite side at 471B Bourke St (which became a vehicle repairer named Metro Automotives, since replaced by terraced houses).
When, in 1846, a new landlord relocated to larger premises on the corner (where it remains today), he transferred it all, lock, stock and many barrels, as well as the avian brand, and the patrons followed.
By the start of the 20th century, the venue had seen four name changes: The Sportsman’s Arms, Kilkenny Inn, and The Great Western Hotel.
In 1901 it was taken over by Tooths, which, as one of colonial Australia’s first and largest companies (established 1835), amassed many drinking establishments across Sydney, with the liquid amber supplied by their Kent Brewery on Broadway (now high-rise apartments and retail space).
Hopetoun Hotel, 1922. Photo: Tooth's Hotels
Tooths upgraded the building in the popular Federation Warehouse style (typically red brick with decorative roof finials and cupolas, sometimes including balconies and gables) and renamed it to honour the newly independent nation of Australia’s first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun.
For the next half-century, the Hopetoun continued trading as a licensed hotel serving meals and beverages and providing accommodation for travellers. They had to keep an outside lamp burning all night (a legal requirement) and relinquish their premises for autopsies if the authorities demanded (due primarily to the convenience of a chilled basement for storing beer, where bodies could also be kept).
Wog (featuring Ray Ahn from The Hard-Ons) performing at Hopetoun, March 2007. Photo: Alec Smart
Music at the Hopetoun Hotel - Rock ‘n Roll Revelry
From the 1950s, when six o’clock closure laws (aka the “six o’clock swill”) were rescinded in NSW, the Hopetoun hosted live music for the after-work patrons seeking entertainment.
Australian bars became perhaps the world’s foremost training ground for live music, engendering noisy pub rock in the 70s and 80s, which honed the talents of AC/DC, Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel, etc.
In this heady mix, the Hopetoun Hotel was arguably one of Sydney’s best venues for nurturing new bands, due to its central location and the mixed music-loving clientele living in close proximity.
Sarah Blasko, Paul Kelly, Wolfmother, Hoodoo Gurus, Ed Kuepper (The Saints), Michael Hutchence (INXS) and The Cockroaches (two of whom co-founded the internationally successful kids’ music phenomenon The Wiggles) were among the many talents that performed in the small but intimate main bar.
There was even a series of ‘Rock Against Work’ concerts on Tuesday lunchtimes for unemployed workers that this reporter remembers fondly, including one where he met a grumpy Paul Kelly at a Ramones tribute gig.
Edwin Garland fronting Waxworks in the 1990s, during the Hopetoun's glory days. Photo: supplied
The tradition of music at the Hopetoun Hotel includes Edwin Garland, who patronised the Hopetoun for several decades. He performed with his band, Waxworks, or solo. In 1991, with venue booker Darcy Condon, he co-created a compilation album of bands that played on the premises, called Big Hope, Little Town.
Edwin explained why the Hopetoun, affectionately known as ‘The Hoey’, was such a popular watering hole during its 1980s-90s heyday.
“The Hopetoun helped new bands and those from interstate break into the Sydney live music scene,” he revealed. “There were lots of run-down terrace houses throughout Surry Hills that were cheap to rent, so the surrounding neighbourhood was full of students, artists and musicians from where their audiences came from.
“The rock ‘n’ roll community and the Hopetoun Hotel were intertwined; on a night out you might see punk rockers with mohawks alongside a transgender person. You had a diversity of subcultures because Surry Hills itself was a lot more accepting of different people and lifestyles (like the many music tribes, LGBT crowd and the theatre community of playwrights and actors), wearing clothes they couldn’t get away with in Blacktown, the Eastern Suburbs or the North Shore and Northern Beaches areas.”
'Big Hope, Little Town', the 1991 compilation album of bands that performed at The Hopetoun
The Hopetoun Hotel Musician Compilation Album
Edwin continued, “The Hopetoun was special. Women could go there and feel safe and there were a lot of mixed-gender bands thanks to bookers like Darcy Condon and Peter Kelly. The Triple J Radio DJs used to loiter there because it had an ‘underground’ music vibe, like the legendary CBGBs in New York.
“Interesting characters could also be found there, such as the neighbourhood pieman who baked pies in his kitchen and sold them out front of the Hoey on Friday and Saturday nights; Tony “Danger Mouse” Young, a tiny fellow who played air guitar onstage during gigs; and a black & white dog that used to randomly walk in and watch the bands.”
Unfortunately, with the gentrification of Surry Hills in the late 1990s, new neighbours began complaining about the Hopetoun’s rock ‘n’ roll music revelry, and despite spending money on soundproofing, the venue owners paid several Court fines for exceeding noise levels.
Sadly, the beloved Hopetoun began to lose its regular patrons as the gentrification of Surry Hills brought inevitable rent rises. Artists, students, musicians and low-income workers who loved live music relocated to cheaper accommodation options in the Inner West, where new bars sprung up to cater for the exodus.
Eventually, the iconic venue shuttered its doors on Monday 28 September 2009, the owners attributing new licensing regulations plus fines levied by NSW Police for crippling their operation. A 5000-signature petition was unsuccessful in getting the closure reversed.
On 6-7 August 2012 the Hopetoun interior was adapted to look like a Japanese bar for a scene in the Marvel superhero film The Wolverine, starring Australian actor Hugh Jackman.
(In November 2012, nearby Brisbane St was transformed to look like a Japanese laneway, including Japanese language signs, for another scene in the film, which was released the following year.)
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. A movie scene was filmed inside the Hopetoun. Photo - Maurya Rohit
Apart from the movie, the premises have remained closed to the public since 2009, although occasional rumours have arisen of rescuers promising to resurrect the historic Hopetoun.
In November 2019, Time Out magazine spoke to the wrong soothsayer when they confidently predicted the legendary pub was set to reopen in 2020. “Hopetoun .. will reopen as a pub and bar in 2020. The catch? There will no longer be live music performed here to meet with local compliances regarding noise.”
The Covid pandemic with its accompanying social distancing rules inhibited the opening of licensed venues throughout the peak transmission periods of January 2020 – January 2022.
Now the Hopetoun is locked in limbo, with resurgent speculation on its future. A Facebook page that announced in July 2022 that the ‘Hoey’ was “making a comeback” has not posted since. The webpage link it provided is inactive.
This reporter contacted Hopetoun’s Sydney owner, Evangelos Patakas, director of The Lion Investment Group Pty Limited, (which purchased the venue in 1997) for an update on the Hopetoun’s situation, however, there was no response.
Recommended reading: Hopetoun, A Colonial Survivor? by John Walter Ross.
The Hopetoun Hotel as it currently stands (2023). Photo: Alec Smart