From illegal betting rings to buried miners and tragic deaths. The Heritage Hotel in Bulli celebrates a wealth of history and 130 years of serving beers. DESIREE SAVAGE reports.
Andy Bell is the current licensee of Bulli's Heritage Hotel on the Princes Highway, but he also has a far more important role - storyteller.
Bell may not have lived through the last 130 years since the heritage listed building opened, but he believes as publican it's his duty to preserve the history.
"I've kind of become a custodian," he said. "The history is in the stone, it's in the brick, and you have to treat it with utmost respect.
"I guess I've become like a surrogate, a keeper of the stories. You kind of have to absorb all the local tales ... and be the storyteller when people come through."
The three-storey pub, originally named the Bulli Family Hotel, has witnessed many things, said Bell. From ladies of the night, to an illegal betting ring, the ghost of Old Ted and a tragic death during one of the Illawarra's biggest natural disasters.
The hotel itself was initially constructed by William Croft, who commissioned architect William Kenwood, from the firm Kenwood & Kirle, to design it. Kenwood & Kirle were responsible for other notable pubs in the region such as Bellambi Hotel as well as Bulli Hospital.
"Its high level of architectural significance is based on it being deemed one of the best examples of this type of Victorian period hotel in Australia," according to the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
It officially opened in September of 1889, though was only a corner hotel. In the early 1900's the hotel "virtually doubled in size", according to pub historian Mick Roberts.
It had been sold to Frank Snudden who undertook the additions to the southern side including extra bedrooms, a large brick entrance porch, a lounge bar and squat tower.
There is an urban legend that the bodies of those killed during the 1887 Bulli mine disaster were either buried in the cellar of the hotel, or spent time in the cellar before being identified. But Roberts said it would be impossible as builders and architects weren't engaged until 1888.
"The only other reason I can think where that came from is there were a couple of old hotels still in 1887 operating ... up that end of town, but they've disappeared over the years," he said.
Roberts, a former Illawarra journalist, began researching pubs of Australia after delving into his own family history. He discovered one of his forefathers built the Denmark Hotel, which still stands as a derelict cream building further up the road near the railway bridge.
Roberts' said six generations of his family have sat at the bar of the Heritage, some of them still regulars today.
"There's been a lot of characters at the pub over the years and I've drank with a lot of them .. some great working class local people," he said.
"It had a reputation of being fairly rowdy back in the day ... [but] when it reopened in 1983 the Bulli mine had already closed and it wasn't a coal miners pub anymore."
Over the years the Heritage has been owned by several entities including Resch's Brewery and later Tooth & Company (now Tooheys).
In 1976 the Heritage officially closed its doors and was soon condemned. The run down building was sold and restored by the Blain family and reopened as a pub in 1983.
Another urban legend passed down was it was used as an illegal two-up school or gambling den during the time of those renovations, though there is no confirmation.
"I've heard this a bit," Roberts said. "It usually comes from a few old fellas sitting around the bar but they won't tell you much more than that."
Like many historic pubs around the country it comes with a good ghost story. Old Ted has surprised and frightened many - including Bell the current licensee - by moving trays of glasses, moans and groans, or distinctly tapping people on the shoulder three times.
Edward "Ted" Cullen was a former publican who tragically hanged himself in an upstairs bathroom in 1930.
The 51-year-old was said to be an avid gambler which may have brought himself and the hotel into financial difficulties, according to Roberts.
When Bell began working at the Heritage no-one dared tell him of the mysterious house-guest he and his family would share the corridors with.
The Bell's live on the third floor at the pub, with the publican's main office situated directly above the second-floor bathroom.
"I was up late at night, having a glass of wine, on the computer ... and I felt - and I also heard - three taps on my left shoulder," Bell said.
He turned around thinking it was his wife Kate, but she was sound asleep and put it down to his "mind playing tricks".
"I let it go until it happened another two weeks later, exactly the same thing," Bell said.
After a sleepless night Bell sat behind the bar telling his regulars what had happened and soon was made privy about Ted. He was "gobsmacked".
"After my shift I stood in the middle of my apartment (my wife and child were not there) and I said 'Ted, leave me the f*** alone'," he recalled.
"I had a bit of a heart to heart with Ted ... ever since then he's more or less left me alone.
"I've heard moans and groans throughout the place but I try to not think about it ... if I think about it too much i'll probably have to find another job."
Old Ted is not the first to meet his maker in the hotel. One of the most notable deaths made the Mercury front page in 1998.
The night of the devastating Wollongong floods on August 17, 28-year-old Joanne Doyle plunged seven metres to her death from the second floor verandah.
According to reports at the time, the girlfriend of former Steelers' player Dave Wonson was chatting with Cameron Sprott around 11:30pm when she fell. Ms Doyle grabbed the man as she toppled, bringing him with her.
She suffered head and internal injuries, and was pronounced dead on arrival to Wollongong Hospital. Sprott survived, sustaining minor injuries.
Roberts was there on the night, "trapped" from the torrential rain, and remembers hearing the drama unfold.
"We're all sitting in the bar and all of a sudden you could here screaming and going on and yelling," he said.
"My boss, manager of the Bulli Times at the time (I was sitting having a beer with him) and he's raced outside and said 'oh my God, someone's fallen off the balcony, her head's opened up all over the footpath'."
No charges were laid over the incident which was treated as a tragic accident.
Nowadays the pub is renowned for it's music acts, after the parlour was transformed into a band room.
Musicians are often offered to stay in one of the 17 rooms on the second floor if they wish, though some choose not too.
The rooms are quite basic, but as you walk through the corridors on the hard wood floors you can't help but feel Old Ted is watching. Lace curtains, cracked walls and an old doll house in a disused room do leave you with an eerie feeling.
As part of the milestone birthday celebrations the Heritage will get a makeover this year including a new outdoor courtyard and some much needed maintenance.
Next time you visit the pub take note of the beautiful stained glass windows, pressed metal ceilings and its grand, wooden stairwell.
And don't forget to ask the bar staff for a story or two.