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Writer’s Guide to Broken Hill: The Pubs


In this special guest post, Walkley award-winning writer, journalist and Australian literary bad boy Jack Marx gives us the lowdown on the legendary Broken Hill pub scene. 

I came to Broken Hill three years ago to write a book about an old murder – a book now 18 months late, much to my publisher’s distress. In the meantime, this is what I have discovered.

The Alma Hotel is good on Sundays. I had a frightful blue there not long ago, for which I ended up getting a spanking in court. It was said my behaviour was “appalling” and that I’d “disgraced myself and disgraced the community”, and that was my own lawyer talking. I saw the other dude not long after and he was considerably more forgiving. He shook my hand, said he can be a bozo too when he’s drunk (it took me half a beer to work out he’d just called me a clown). That’s how they roll here.

A short walk away is the South Broken Hill Hotel, a good old joint with a bullring bar. A nervous friend from the city was once visiting and put a coin in the jukebox – Slim Dusty, to “appease the bushies in the corner over there”. When Slim was done, one of the bushies got up, strolled to the jukebox and put on Nine Inch Nails. He winked as he walked past: “Gotta love the Nails.” We laughed like boys busted shoplifting.

You can walk from there to the All Nations. I was an extra in a film that was shot there and, strangely enough, they cast me as a drinker. In one scene, some bloke had to pretend to throw actor David Field out of the pub. His performance was a little too spirited, slamming David through a 50-year-old glass door. The publican laughed at the fact that, of the hundreds of drunks and brawlers who’d been turfed through that door over the years, the brute who finally smashed it was a thespian.

Get a cab around the mines and you’ll find the Rising Sun, or ‘The Risin Sun’, as it says on the awning. The story goes that the signwriter was ducking inside for a beer after he’d completed each letter. He gave the publican a discount for the missing ‘g’ and everyone was happy.

Not far away is the Excelsior, where you’ve got to exit the pub and walk down the street a bit if you want to use the toilet. This worked well back on hot summer evenings when the wives gossiped outside and the kids skylarked around the parked cars, dad emerging every half hour or so with a few lemon squashes and some chips. If the family needed the loo, they didn’t have to bother the men inside.

The Palace is the grand old dame of Broken Hill pubs. It was built as a monstrous tea house in the 1880s by the Women’s Temperance League, alarmed as they were by the number of beer halls invading town. It surrendered in time and became a pub after all. They filmed a scene from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in one of the quaint rooms upstairs, which is now hawked as the ‘Priscilla Suite’. Deep in the pub’s basement, you’ll find the remains of a tunnel built by workers of the nearby Central Mine, who could clock on for work, make like mole rats for the pub, drink, then clock off at the end of the ‘working day’, mine managers and wives none the wiser.

The Black Lion is the preferred drinking spot of Peter Black, the town’s longest-serving mayor and former ‘colourful’ state MP. A dedicated socialist (he uses the word comrade as punctuation), Black laments the decline in the number of pubs in town (there was once upwards of 70), laying blame squarely on the evil axis of bottleshops, home air conditioning and a lingering feeling he hasn’t been doing his “bit” supporting Broken Hill’s licensed premises – a case of survivor’s guilt most people in town would consider unnecessary.

The old Theatre Royal is in the middle of the main street. It’s first to open and last to close, if you count the Night Train disco that awakens late upstairs. Affectionately known as the ‘Fight Train’, it was the scene of warm celebration some years back when it finally fell from the state’s Most Violent Venues list. You can still catch the occasional ripper after close on Sunday morning, when dance floor jealousies spill onto the street, though they’re mostly between young ladies these days, whose boyfriends never seem to know quite what to do except stand back, stroke their chins and mutter.

The Old Willyama is a gentle sort of pub that’s directly next door to the studios of ABC Radio. I read the dawn-to-midday news on the ABC for a time, and can exclusively reveal that the Old Willyama keeps its doors infuriatingly shut until the afternoon.

The Junction Hotel lies at the extreme east end of Argent Street, its beer garden a labyrinth of corrugated iron and indoor foliage, where one can easily get lost on the way to the rest rooms. One night, in exasperation, I was forced to relieve matters in the most secluded potted palm I could find, only to be surprised when the fronds parted to reveal the face of a furious barman. Recent excursions to these same gardens have revealed the palm to be luscious green and shooting toward the heavens, which speaks volumes for the nutritional value of the pub’s tap beer.

Out north is The Northern, where, one evening some years ago, police found a popular local identity after discovering his light plane wrecked and smoking in the mulga just short of Broken Hill airport. The man, who appeared well drunk, said he’d been at the pub all day, and thanked the police for finding his aircraft, which he said had been stolen earlier that morning. Finding nobody who could refute his story, the police departed, whereupon the man shouted the bar and generously tipped the barman, just as he had the taxi driver who’d asked no questions when his tattered and slurring passenger had flagged him down from the mulga near the airport earlier in the day. Meanwhile, on a station hours out of town, a grazier was worried and desperately thirsty – his friend, with whom he’d drunk the fridge dry, had flown to Broken Hill to fetch more beer, and hadn’t been heard from since.

The Tydvil is owned by former Australian cricketer Darren Lehmann, who took a shine to the old pub when passing through years ago. He doesn’t often come to town, but that didn’t stop the locals boasting when Lehmann took charge of the Australian cricket team last year, local media reporting that “a Broken Hill publican” was now the coach of the Aussie XI.

The Southern Cross features prominently in the 1971 film Wake In Fright with Chips Rafferty (born in Broken Hill) ushering Gary Bond inside to meet a man he’ll later wish he hadn’t. The Cross also has the proud honour of having hosted the only outrage of the legendarily peaceful post-war festive season of 1945, local newspaper The Barrier Miner reporting the incident on December 27 under the headline: “Quiet Christmas in Broken Hill; One Drunk”.

And then there’s the Mulga Hill Tavern, or the “vulgar Mulga”, as you’ll often hear it called. This nickname has nothing to do with the class of the establishment or its patrons, owing more to how one feels the morning after due to the Mulga’s late closing time. It also says a little about Broken Hill’s love for poetry, the Mulga being singled out simply because nothing rhymes with Tydvil or Willyama.

You can get lost in the pubs of Broken Hill (indeed, late in the evening, “get lost” are the very words I often hear spoken, repeatedly, with all manner of passion). Like the mines beneath, they are a world within a world, connected by a soul, a history and a welcoming warmth that dissolves all the troubles outside, let alone those that dwell hundreds of kilometres away. You don’t often find that in the ‘civilised’ bars of the city, where the old penal colony is alive and well, the customer made to curtsy to the lords behind the bar and the wardens at the door. Just recently, I went for a drink in a Sydney pub, but changed my mind when the barman demanded I remove my hat. My standards aren’t what you’d call high, but I draw the line at being ordered to remove my clothes.

Across the road from my place is the Old Royal Hotel, which is soon to reopen after long being closed. The publican, a former mine manager, has promised to dig a tunnel under Oxide Street that will join the pub to my ‘office’, after the fashion of The Palace.

So I’d best get to work on this book before it’s too late. The sun’s going down and I’m sure I can hear someone digging.

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