The Great Northern Hotel, Newcastle

Just a couple of hours drive north of Sydney, Newcastle is one Australia's older cities. If you ask most Aussies what they think of it, they're likely to say "Coal Mining Town", and "Newcastle Knights". If pushed, they might also remember a certain earthquake that killed 13 people there in 1989. But really, that's about it.

We decided to check it out a couple of Newcastle pubs for ourselves. First stop, The Great Northern Hotel.

The Great Northern Hotel

The area in which Newcastle resides was first explored by Europeans in 1797 (remember Australia was colonised in 1788). Coal was mined in the area from 1798! Coal mining continues to this day, although the industry isn't as important as it once was. Back in the 19th century, it was pretty well everything.

The author's great-great-grandfather was a coal miner during that time, as was his son, the author's great grandfather.

Imagine for a second if you would being a coal miner during this period. Safety would not have been a priority. There was no electricity. It would have been hard hard yakka, down dark, dirty coal pits. Your days would have been spent swinging picks or blasting rock. Many of your peers would have died young, and, eventually, the coal dust would have taken you as well.

And of course even with this employment you would have lived a hand-to-mouth existence, paying for basic food and shelter for your family and the dirty shirt on your back.

There was other heavy industry at that time as well. In 1890, a zinc smelter opened. BHP opened a steelworks in 1915. Generations of Novocastrians, as they are known, scratched out a living working at those steelworks. The author's grandfather escaped the coal mines that consumed his father and father's father to take up an apprenticeship in the 1920s. He used to talk of the men of those times having to line up during the Great Depression in their hundreds outside the factory. Every day the supervisor would come out and pick but a handful of those men. If you performed that day, perhaps you would be picked tomorrow and your family would eat.

But perhaps not.

He also spoke of the working conditions back then. Men used to regularly burn off limbs, or even die an agonising death in pools of molten metal. And if you burned off part of your finger, the mill doctor would always amputate above the joint, even if it made no sense medically, because the paltry workers comp of the day was calculated based on the number of joints lost. One wonders how many old men of Newcastle spent their lives trying to perform day to day tasks hampered by their useless joints. They would all be dead by now.

The old steel worker on the left

He never used to drink anything before work, my grandfather - none of the men did - because if you took time off to go to the loo you were given the sack (literally, as in you had to put your tools in them and that was the end of you). Remember these men, and in many cases boys, were working long days with molten metal, which is a stinking hot working environment if ever there was one. Even thinking about it is enough to make you want to drink some water, isn't it?

But these men couldn't.

They used to entertain themselves in other ways though. You think you get a hard time at work as the new guy? Well, these men used to greet a new worker by blowing kero out of their mouths in his direction over a lighter. You know, the old fire breathing trick. A great laugh, well, at least till one poor bastard got burned pretty badly from it. That was his first day in his new job. They never did it again, but my grandfather would still laugh himself stupid telling the story some 40 years later.

These were hard men.

Anyway, these hard men needed somewhere to drink. And even back then, they used to drink at the Great Northern Hotel. We spoke to the barman about those times - not that he could remember them - but according to him the old pub used to be the pride of Newcastle, with great halls upstairs that attracted many people, from the Prime Minister to the Queen. They all stayed in the Great Northern.

Note the Newcastle Knights symbol on the VB tap

I was sitting at the bar chatting to the barman about all things beer (including our shared love of Squires Amber Ale), when an old bloke shuffled up and ordered a Guinness. "Haven't had one in years", he announced. "I'll bring it over to you", offered the barman, as the old bloke found himself a corner.

"You should see this place on St Pat's day", said the barman. "Its crazy".

I could imagine it was. I ordered a beer of my own - a Squires, just to wash away the cobwebs, before I wandered over to see if the old bloke had any stories to tell.

"Take a seat and ease the misery of the world", he said as he saw me coming, or something like that. I obliged.

Good for the Horn...

He was just getting into his Guinness. "Haven't had one in years", he said again. "I haven't got any kidneys, so it's good for me". I looked at him, a little confused, as he continued: "It's also good for the horn". I still looked confused and so he leaned closer, "You know, for the ladies". Ah, it all made sense - at least that part - as I tucked away this little tip in case it ever came to that.

"What do you mean you haven't got any kidneys?", I asked. "Don't you need kidneys to live?"

He just looked at me again and explained that he needed to go to hospital twice a week to get dialysis done. If he didn't do that, he would die. He lived by himself in a little unit, and even though it was lunch he'd already been to quite a few pubs that morning for a drink. And why wouldn't he. He was obviously an early riser, as his pension had some in and he'd done his weekly shopping at 2.00 that morning. He must have been hungry, I thought, as I sipped my Squires.

As we sat there over our beers he started telling me his story. He had lived in Newcastle all his life. The town had almost died 20 years ago, according to him. Back then the main street was full of pubs - you couldn't do a full pub crawl if you drank in every one - and the Great Northern was a magnificent old pub.

"But then they condemned it - it was closed for something like 15 years".

According to this old bloke it was re-opened by some bird from Sydney who used to run a brothel. "But she was a real arsehole - treated her staff shockingly". She'd also been rude to him when he gave her advice on how to get cigarette burns out of the carpet. He had worked as a cleaner in the pub up the road for many years and he knew what he was talking about.

"So how do you get them out?", I asked, curious.

He leaned even closer, his old man breath there for the smelling: "You use a texta" (which is of course Australian for a felt pen).

"Ahh", I said, respectfully.

He went on to explain how you needed to use the right kind of texta - not all textas work as well, in fact, some of them even rub off.

I didn't really know what to say about this, and after a minute or two thinking about at all the unnecessary ciggie burns on the carpet he asked me if I played sport.

Like a lot of old men, what he was really asking me was whether he could talk about the sport he played in his day. He was a bit of a Rugby Union star, apparently, but never got picked for the Wallabies because he wasn't, "a f*cking doctor or a lawyer". Probably true, too, back then.

But to make up for things, he was a Master lawn bowls player, and he also managed to find time to play darts for Newcastle.

Quite the athlete, this old bloke.

After telling me what a bloody shame it was they didn't varnish all the old wood in this place (he was also a shipwright, of all things), he announced it was time for him to go back to his unit, where was going to eat 3 iceblocks from a pack of 10 he bought for only $3.

Fair enough, I though, although I had one final question: "Mate, why is it you don't have any kidneys?".

He grabbed his coat, finished his beer, and gave me one last look: "Son, I knocked myself about in my day".

I believed him.

Take a break from drinking like the author of this article did - Read why and how in his book Between Drinks: Escape the Routine, Take Control and Join the Clear Thinkers