Hero of Waterloo - Sydney

The Hero of Waterloo

Australia is known throughout the world for a lot of things, but history isn't one them. European history really only began for us just over 200 years ago, and while we have managed to forge a nation in the ANZAC spirit during that time, we rely more on our culture and natural beauty to define ourself rather than any historical reference. For this reason, perhaps among others, Australia does not have much to offer in the sense of old, traditional pubs. By definition, an Australian pub has to have been built in the last 200 years. And this, in the eyes of our great drinking European ancestors: the Irish, the English, the Scottish, the Welsh and the Germans, is recent history. A mere blip on the great European drinking timeline. 

However, to an Australian at least, one of the delights of Sydney is the age of some of its pubs. Here you can find places where fair dinkum Aussies (who would have originally have been Poms, Irish and so on), have been laughing, singing and drinking the amber fluid for literally centuries. Just as we do now. And that is a great feeling.

The primary spot in Sydney to check out the old pubs is in the Rocks area, which is within cooee of the Opera House. It is a touristy area now (it used to be as rough as guts), but it is loaded with character. And if you know where to go, you can find pubs that are 'off the beaten track', and less touristy than others. What's more, a lot of people live around the Rocks region - not the type of Sydney person you would expect to live so close to the harbour, but real people, who live in the housing commission estate there, have done so for decades and consider the Rocks their home. 

The Rocks, Sydney

There is of course much debate as to which is the oldest Sydney pub (we intend to look into that issue at a later date), but in our view the most genuine pub in the rocks is unquestionably the Hero of Waterloo. In our experience, and without detracting from the other pubs in the area, the Hero is a friendly place whose physical attraction is only matched by the friendliness of its staff and patrons. 

The Hero is old. It was built in 1843 by George Paton, using convict labour to dig up the sandstones that make up the pub. If you look at the walls you can still see the gouges in the rock from when they were heaved out of the ground so long ago.  If you look really hard, you can see that the gouges are a consistent pattern on particular stones, but vary from stone to stone. That's because each convict had to meet a certain quota of stones, and the particular cut on the stone allowed the convict to identify his stones at the end of the day. Hard yakka, to be sure. The best bit about the Hero, probably because of the stone, is that it is still the same basic condition it was in 155 years ago. Most so-called old pubs only have a skerrick of the old pub left in them. The Hero is the real thing: you are drinking in a place people have been drinking in for almost as long as there has been drinking in Australia. 

Note the scratch marks...

It was licensed as a pub in 1845, and was apparently a favourite with Red Coats (ie the English army). The irony is that it is now called an Irish Pub, and employs only Irish staff. We have mixed feelings about this. Really, this is an English pub more than an Irish pub. After all, the English built it, and drank in it - probably to the exclusion of the (then) miserable Irish! Shouldn't that be recognised? Some might even say that it should be known as an Australian pub, after all, it has been an Australian pub, in Australia, for longer than any other pub that calls itself an Australian pub! We understand why this isn't the case, though. An Australian pub is generally more modern, and has a beer garden. No, it is fitting that one of our European founders has been recognised (30% of the convicts were Irish), and the Irish tag allows the modern Hero to behave in a fashion that perhaps wouldn't be possible if it focussed on its English Australian heritage. 

Want a Yarn with that?

So what is the Hero like these days? In a word: fun. For starters, it has employed what must be the best bar manager in Sydney: a young bloke by the name of Davey.  Davey hopped off the ship in 1999 and hasn't looked back. He loves his job, that much is evident, and ensures his staff have fun while they work. But what's more important is the way he treats his customers: with respect. He says g'day (or whatever the Irish equivalent is to g'day), shakes your hand, and remembers who you are. If he notices you coming in, he'll come over and say g'day again, and tell a few wild yarns.  In many ways, this bloke makes the pub, and the atmosphere flows from him. We are glad to recognise it. 

Davey in Action 

Of course other tales of the Hero abound. The most famous is that there used to be trapdoors in the floor, and that unruly customers were thrown down them and forced to walk down one of the then many tunnels in the hill to the harbour. People also say that the same tunnels were used to shanghai unfortunate drunks. One minute some good bloke is buying you drinks, the next thing you know you are on a slave ship rowing to India. Rough stuff. 

Sounds like a furphy? If you are lucky, one of the staff members will take you for a tour down into the cellar. In there you will see manacles still hanging from the walls (these were presumably used to lock up the convicts while their overlords had a quiet one upstairs). You can also see ancient bellows, and a declaration of the plague (yes the Black Death) from 1911. This place has history as much as any Australian place can have history.  Relevant to the stories however, you can see the entrance to one of the mythical tunnels. It was filled in the 1960's apparently, and some rumour abounds as to a murder and hiding of the corpse. Whether or not this is true is anyone's guess. But it does look as though there was a tunnel. 

But back to the pub. True to the irish name, there is live music every night (including a near death oldie band that plays on Sundays). This contributes to a fabulous atmosphere: people sing and dance and drink the night away. It is a community feeling, even though a lot of the crowd are not actually part of the local community. For whatever reason, the pub permits people to be friendly in a way that most suburban pubs do not.  The locals help, if you go a few times you will begin to recognise people, and there is a good chance they will say g'day, and involve you in their evening. At the time of writing locals include an old pommy/australian with thick glasses, a middle aged Australian with a thick beard and a voice that seems to indicate he wishes he was a pommy in the Shakespearian age and an old aboriginal woman who takes pleasure in clearing out everyone's plates and playing the pokies. If you are really lucky, she'll even grab you for a bit of a dance. 

One of the locals

Behind all this, of course, is the current owner and licensee. He pops in most evenings, sometimes checking the till, and is off again. A painting of him, framed as the Hero of Waterloo, is above the bar. He is getting on a bit, and is no doubt responsible for the current state of the pub. Here's hoping it is much the same one hundred years hence.

And the owner looks on...

If you are anywhere near Sydney at all, pop into the Hero (go to the Rocks and ask directions). It is a rare Australian treasure, and in some minds the best pub in Sydney if not Australia.


Another night of fun and frolic at the Hero.


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