Big George's Tatts Hotel

BY Mick Roberts

Having a punt at the pub, enjoying a beer, studying the form guide and trying to win a motza on the gee-gees fills many a bar room on a Saturday.

One colonial English migrant can thank his horse racing interests for taking him from rags to riches and earning him the status of one of Australia's first millionaire publicans. He would later be known as "The Man in the Hat" - an imposing, tall, bearded gentleman who founded Tattersall's Sweeps.

The Tattersall's Family Hotel

George Adamsí birthplace was the parish of Sandon, near London. Born to farming parents in the small village of Redhill in 1839 he immigrated to Australia with his family in 1855 after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 allowed foreign produce into the United Kingdom causing enormous financial problems for local farmers.

At the age of 26, and after working as a butcher in Goulburn, he took the reigns of the Steam Packet Hotel at Kiama on the New South Wales South Coast in the mid 1860s.

The Steam Packet was a ramshackled single storey weatherboard inn overlooking the picturesque Kiama Harbour. Here he etched out a living as host to a small, quiet village made up mainly of dairy cattlemen and their families.

Big George's interest in the sport seen him making frequent trips to Sydney where he would attend race meetings and mingle with the racing confraternity at O'Brien's Hotel.

Big George

O'Brien's Hotel (Now the site of the Hilton Hotel in Pitt Street) was originally established as the Mayor's Inn during the 1850s. The inn became home, in 1858, to the "Foundation Forty", the original members of Sydney's Tattersall's Club - a private club which conducted major race meeting sweepstakes amongst its members. Adams loved the environment of O'Brien's Hotel and enjoyed the company of the many "horsey types" who gathered there. He regularly hired a Cobb and Co coach to take him from Kiama to the Sydney pub and was often heard to say how he wished he owned the pub. His dream was about to come true.

Jim Conroy drove his Cobb and Co coach the twenty-six and a half hour trip from Sydney to Kiama one day in 1878 to deliver the news that Adams was the new owner of O'Brien's Hotel. Conroy, a man of few words, delivered the message to Adams that three of his punting mates had bought O'Brien's pub for him. The anxious Kiama publican drove back to Sydney with Conroy to tell his friends that he was unable to afford to pay them the money for the Sydney hotel. His good friends shrugged off Adam's concerns telling him to pay when he could! And so he accepted, beginning the legend of one of Australia's most famous pubs and publicans.

He renamed the watering hole Adam's Tattersall's Hotel and began a small lottery for customers, before opening it to the public in 1881 with a prize of 900 pounds on the Sydney Cup.

Adam's Tattersall's Sweepstakes became known far and wide spreading to every important Australian horse race.

The NSW Government outlawed Adam's sweeps in 1893 and the enterprising publican simply relocated his business to Queensland, then Tasmania and finally Victoria.

Adam's repaid his mates the 40,000 pounds they loaned him to buy his Sydney pub in 1884 and embarked on transforming his Pitt Street pub into one of the county's most grand hotels.

The three-storey unpretentious Tattersall's Hotel had seen little improvement since the 1850s. Adams needed to keep pace with the grand palace like hotels being erected in Sydney throughout the 1890s and engaged architect Varney Parkes to design a bar that would put the best grand bars of Sydney to shame.  He purchased a next door property and set forth to build the colonies' greatest hotel.

Adam's marble bar would go down in history as arguably Australia's, if not the world's, most famous pub. Built at a cost of 30,000 pounds the room was decked out in marble, stained glass, mirrors, mahogany, and artistic paintings. Opened in 1893 the saloon was 45 feet square, divided into a central nave separated from wide side aisles containing the bar counters by massive, square, arcaded columns. It was described as "the handsomest marble hall in Australia worthy of London or Paris".

Sadly Adam's Tattersall's Hotel was demolished to make way for the Hilton hotel in the 1970s. Thankfully, however, Adam's famous bar was carefully dismantled and painstakingly reassembled in the new hotel.

George Adams died in 1904 a rich and famous man - a true rags to riches success story.


Mick Roberts is a journalist and hotel historian. He has had two books, The Little House on the Hill and The Local, published on the liquor industry and, besides other local history publications, is presently working on a comprehensive history of the liquor industry and hotels in the Illawarra region of NSW. His regular history feature, Looking Back, can be read in the Northern Leader newspaper distributed throughout the northern suburbs of Wollongong NSW. These feature articles also appear at his Looking Back website

Mick is always on the lookout for pub yarns, stories, information and old photos and can be contacted by email at or PO BOX 5148 Wollongong 2500.