Women of the North

Celebrating the fascinating lives of women in the history of North Queensland

Female Publicans

In 1909 almost half of Townsville’s 43 hotels were run by women. It was a similar story in other North Queensland towns too. In Ingham, 46 per cent of the hotels were run by women, while in Charters Towers, 41 per cent of pubs had female licensees. Of Bowen’s 11 hotels, 7 were run by women and in Cairns, a third of the city’s 30 hotels had women publicans. Some women briefly took over a hotel license after the death of their husband and soon moved on, but many appear to have been astute businesswomen, who saw the potential for good earnings in providing accommodation and sustenance to thirsty workers in these towns.


Chart compiled by Trisha Fielding, from statistics in Queensland Government Gazette.

The Delaneys – Imperial Hotel, Ravenswood

Anne Delaney took over the license of the Imperial Hotel in Ravenswood after the death of her husband Jim in 1902. The following year, Ravenswood’s population hit its peak of 4,700 after which time, the gold mining town began to decline. Despite the town’s demise, Anne, together with her daughters, Tess and Jo, went on to run the Imperial Hotel for close to 90 years, and in the process, turned it into one of the most iconic pubs in Australia. The hotel’s dining room was apparently beautifully appointed, as one Ravenswood local told ABC local radio in 2009:

It was full of old silverware with the great dome meat trays and tea pots and white ironed table cloths… They starched table cloths and polished the silver, it was all elegant and very, very nice.

Imperial Hotel 2009 TF pic

Imperial Hotel, Ravenswood, 2009. Photo: Trisha Fielding

Annie Shanahan – Royal Oak Hotel, Townsville

Annie Shanahan was another long-running North Queensland female publican. According to her obituary, Annie ran the Royal Oak Hotel, Charters Towers Road, for over 40 years, until her death in 1950 at the age of 85. When Annie took over the license at the Royal Oak in 1909, it was still a modest, single-storeyed timber building. In 1927, Annie commissioned J.G. Rooney to design a new, two-storey brick hotel for her on the block in front of the old hotel. Although the original hotel remained standing for many more decades, the new hotel, which cost £5,000 to build, took the name Royal Oak. After Annie’s death, her daughter Mary Ellen took over the license and ran the hotel until her own death just over two years later, in September 1952. Annie Shanahan’s Royal Oak Hotel stood until the 1990s.

Royal Oak 1883

Royal Oak Hotel, Townsville, 1883. Photo: City Libraries Townsville. Annie Shanahan took over the license here in 1909. In 1927 she built a new Royal Oak Hotel on the block in front of the old one.

Isabella Fitzpatrick – Hotel Rollingstone, Rollingstone

Isabella Fitzpatrick (nee Wyatt) was born in Townsville in 1874. Her father, Charles Wyatt, was the licensee of the Court House Hotel, in Sturt Street, between 1887 and 1904. In 1907 the hotel was in the hands of Wyatt’s son-in-law, John Fitzpatrick. In 1912, after having changed the name of the hotel to Herbert in 1910, John transferred the license to his wife, Isabella. In 1913 Isabella purchased the hotel at Armidale (later known as Rollingstone), although it appears that initially, family members ran the hotel for her. In the early 1920s she took over the license. At some point she decided, quite shrewdly, to relocate the hotel to a site opposite the railway line. Isabella was also involved in civic affairs and agitating for a school at Rollingstone. She served as a councillor on the Thuringowa Shire Council in 1924, making her one of the first women to serve on a local government authority in Queensland. (The first woman to do so was Dr Ellen Kent Hughes Wilson, in 1923 in Kingaroy, Queensland).


Hotel Rollingstone, opening day, 1922. Photo source: Rollingstone Historical Society Inc.

Johanna Oldenburg – Empire Hotel, Townsville

Swedish-born Johanna Oldenburg (nee Johannson) emigrated to Australia in 1873 with her husband Anton and their two children. In 1885, Anton, who was a carpenter by trade, built the Great Britain Hotel on the corner of Dean and McIlwraith Streets in Townsville. He was a popular publican, and like others of that time, was very active in community affairs – in 1891-1892 he served as an Alderman of the Townsville Council. Johanna was probably involved in the day-to-day running of the hotel, because when Anton died in 1897, she took over the license and capably ran the hotel for the next two years before selling up. It is at this point that we might expect a publican’s widow to bow out of the hotel business, but instead, Johanna commissioned architects to design a new hotel for her. Johanna’s Empire Hotel opened in 1901 at the corner of McIlwraith and Plume Streets, South Townsville. She held the license until the following year and then after an absence of seven years, took over the hotel again in 1909, with a promise to “conduct the hotel in the manner which made her previous management so successful”. In later years, the Empire was renamed Republic, and although the building has been vacant for many years now, it is still standing in 2018.

Republic Hotel formerly Empire Hotel, T.Fielding, 2018

The Republic (formerly Empire) Hotel, built for Joanna Oldenburg in 1901. Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2018.

Lucie Varley – Pacific Resort Hotel, Yorkey’s Knob

Lucie Varley worked as a private nurse and midwife at Malanda, Mareeba and Kureen, in the Atherton Tablelands region of far north Queensland and from around 1920, ran the St. Helen’s Private Hospital and Sanitorium in Cooktown. After inheriting a “considerable fortune” from a relative overseas, Lucie decided to diversify and by the mid-1920s she had built, and was running, the Pacific Resort Hotel at Yorkey’s Knob, near Cairns. By this time she was actually Mrs L’Estrange, though she remained better known throughout the north as Matron Varley. Lucie and her husband bought up a large parcel of land at Yorkey’s Knob, subdivided some of it for residential blocks, and built the hotel on the remaining land. Whilst conducting her hotel, she continued her nursing and midwifery. In 1929 Matron Varley performed CPR on a man who had collapsed from a suspected heart attack in shallow water on the beach near her hotel. Along with another bystander, Matron Varley worked for over an hour to try and revive the man, unfortunately without success. Varley Street in Yorkey’s Knob, is named after Matron Varley.

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 1.00.41 pm.png

Advertisement for Lucie Varley’s Pacific Resort Hotel at Yorkey’s Knob, from Cairns Post, December 1928.

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8 replies

  1. Wonderful stories, very interesting in showing the inner strength of these women.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very clever topic and wonderful research to boot. I wonder, have you come across information about Jessie Margaret Paskin? I have been researching her as part of my genealogy research and see she was the publican for a number of hotels during the Second World War.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ashley, thanks for your comment! I haven’t come across Jessie Margaret Paskin yet, but I would be keen to hear more about your research on her. I imagine running a pub in Townsville during World War II she would have been seen some pretty rowdy crowds!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Trisha, my pleasure! Your chosen topics are always so interesting to North Queenslanders. Through Trove and the electoral rolls I have found Jessie Margaret Paskin mentioned as publican at Crown Hotel in the late 1920s, Fairfield Hotel in the early 1930s and the Shamrock in the mid to late 1930s. It looks like she and her husband had stopped running hotels before or during the Second World War – those crowds might have been too rowdy!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Isabella Fitzpatrick was not the first woman on a local government council in Queensland. Dr. Ellen Kent Hughes was the first – elected in a byelection to the Kingaroy Shire Council in 1923. She stood for election in March 1924 ( as Ellen Kent Hughes Wilson- her married name) but lost. Years later she was elected to the Armidale City Council in NSW and served 1937 – 1968. refer to Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Ellen Kent Hughes.


    • Hi Denise,
      Thank you for your comment, and for correcting an error in my post. I’ve now corrected it, to reflect that Isabella Fitzpatrick was not the first woman to serve on a local council in Queensland. It was, as you say, Dr Ellen Kent Hughes Wilson.
      Trisha Fielding


  4. Hi Trisha, I have just discovered your blog. I am researching my Grand Aunt, Elizabeth Kate Theresa Cue nee Graf, known as Bessie. She is listed as the licensee of the Grafton Hotel, Edmonton in the 1943 Electoral Rolls. I wonder do you have any information about her, how long she was the licensee etc. In talking to her niece, the last of her generation, she mentioned that she thought that her Aunt Bessie “got into a bit of trouble for selling ‘sly’ grog, but mum said she took the fall for the man” – whoever the man is? She has barmaid as her occupation for a number of years after her husband died in 1938. It seems to have been necessary for her to earn an income, as prior to his death, she was listed as HD in the rolls. I would be grateful if you were able to give me any information about her. Many thanks, Jennifer Webster


    • Hi Jennifer, I have checked through my records but unfortunately I don’t have any information on Bessie Graf. If I do any further research in this area and turn up anything about her, I’ll be sure to get in touch with you. Have you tried contacting the Cairns Historical Society? They may hold something relevant? Regards, Trisha


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