Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel: the history of Sporties


Brisbane's Sportsman Hotel
Image: State Library of Queensland

In 2022, Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel – Sporties – remains a much-loved community hub. For decades, the LGBTIQ+ communities have regarded Sporties as their home away from home. Besides the public bar, showroom and other facilities, it’s somewhere that community groups have assembled, rallied, and organised. They’ve also collected monies for good causes, fundraising for community resources – and gathered together on sombre occasions to farewell those lost to the community.

QNews is much indebted to the research of John Prpic. Check out more about Brisbane’s historic buildings at Passing Time, Facebook.

John Prpic’s research indicates that Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel – Sporties – underwent a couple of name changes in its early years. The first hotel on the site was there by 1866 and called the Sir John Young Hotel. The name came from a Governor of NSW who the Queensland Times described as ‘universally and justly popular’.

Around 1902, the name changed to the Royal Arthur Hotel, probably a tribute to Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Arthur of Connaught. Like many Australians, including some from Spring Hill, the British prince recently served in the Boer War. The name ‘Royal Arthur Hotel’ shows on the Leichhardt Street side of the hotel in the above pic.

SUNDAYS: PUBS VS CHURCHES

However, it appears Robert Milroy disliked the name. When he took over in 1904, he changed it to the Sportsman’s Arms. Like many other publicans of the era, Milroy copped a fine in 1905 for serving liquor on a Sunday.

Churches, then as now, worried about dwindling congregations. So, they lobbied the government to disallow other activities on the Sabbath. Parsons addressed council meetings to shame aldermen into refusing the use of council-owned lands for Sunday sporting fixtures. They lobbied the transport department to restrict the number of Sunday train services.

Couldn’t allow potential congregants to escape to the beach!

And they ensured police actively enforced the Sunday trading provisions of the Liquor Act. Queensland hotels could only serve bona fide travellers and in-house guests on the Lord’s Day.

Joseph Tritton, who took over Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel at the beginning of WWI, had even less respect for the Sunday trading laws than most. He was charged way back in 1906 for selling booze on a Sunday at the Newmarket Hotel that he then owned.

Joseph’s defence?

He “did not think any person could hear the beer pump working from outside the hotel.”

Seems like a lousy argument, but Tritton’s lawyer nevertheless ran with it, rubbishing the constable who laid the charge.

“Bennett’s mind was filled with the idea of bells ringing, beer engines working, and cash registers going. He probably thought he could hear those things every time he looked at a hotel door.”

The defence failed, and Joseph copped another in a long line of fines for infractions of the Liquor Act.

A few years later, two constables’ ears pricked up when they heard a piano playing in the hotel on a Sunday. They found two men drinking inside but no sign of a barman. The men claimed they were still finishing their drinks from the night before.

FROM SPORTSMAN’S ARMS TO SPORTSMAN

By 1912, the hotel lost ‘Arms’ from its name and newspaper advertisements referred to the establishment as simply the Sportsman’s. The following year, it lost even the apostrophe S and became simply the Sportsman.

Basically, an inner-city neighbourhood pub, the Sportsman attracted little attention over the following years except for occasional licencing infractions.

Sometime between 1960 and 1964, the building pictured above was demolished, and the current erection rose like a phoenix from the rubble. Current owner Neil McLucas took over as licensee in 1989.

NEIL MCLUCAS

Neil McLucas already played a prominent role in the then gay community. The local theatrical personality was an early member of the Camp Club opened in George Street in 1971. He also hosted Sunday afternoon gay sessions at the Story Bridge Hotel.

Neil attired the waiters in football guernseys with the number 69 prominently displayed and skimpy white footy shorts.

In the 1970s, he and his partners operated the CBD’s historic Old Rowes Restaurant. During the days, the downstairs venue hosted Brisbane’s ladies who lunched. Who knows if the society matrons ever looked up from their Devonshire Teas to the venue’s ceiling? If so, they would have noticed a somewhat incongruous mirror ball dangling above their heads.

Because at night, Old Rowes transformed into one of Brisbane’s first gay discos.

Later, when demolition threatened the site, Neil and his partners opened Fortitude Valley’s Terminus Restaurant.

Queensland liquor laws then made no provision for nightclubs. Clubs operated as late-night eateries. Instead of background music, they featured bands, DJs and dancefloors.

Also, at least in Neil’s case, drag queens. The law required patrons to eat, so cover charges included a cheap meal which got plonked in front of them to either eat or utilise as an ashtray.

In 1991, the Sportsman and 60 other hotels went up for auction.

Neil McLucas wanted that hotel. He knew he faced a battle. A few years before, the Bjelke Peterson government introduced legislation to ban homosexuals from licenced premises.

But times had changed. The Fitzgerald Inquiry exposed government and police corruption, and the Nationals subsequently lost office to the Goss Labour Government. But Queensland remained a notoriously conservative state.

GAY – Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel

Neil told John Prpic he thought to himself, “How can I stop this hotel from being sold to someone else?”

He grabbed a can of pink paint and graffitied ‘GAY’ on the sign outside the pub advertising the auction. When the auctioneer opened bids for the hotel, he stood up and asked, “Is that the hotel on Leichhardt Street with ‘gay’ written on the sign?”

Told to sit down, he repeated his question. “Are you sure it’s not that place up on the hill with ‘gay’ on the sign?”

The auction of the pub never proceeded that day, so Neil turned up at the realtor’s office later with a cheque for $40,000 less than the asking price. Ten minutes later, the Sportsman Hotel was his.

Neil told QNews that Sporties was most important to him as a place that provided a safe place for the LGBTIQ+ communities at a time when those were hard to find.

“People ostracised from birth families could find their own family at Sporties and know they were safe and valued inside our walls.”

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.s

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2 Comments

  1. David sommerfeld
    23 January 2022
    Reply

    God bless ol Nelly…. Camp club made me accept myself….terminus gave me life long friends…the sporties now is my comfort zone when im in Brisbane…I now live in Neil’s home town of roma. Thanks for the life you helped with nil

    • Malcolm Green
      27 January 2022
      Reply

      David Sommerfeld is a name from the past. I’m wondering if you’re the David I knew? I’m Malcolm Green. Go to a Facebook site ‘Lost Gay Brisbane’ if you’re interested and look me up.

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