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The Dead House

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(c) W. Fahey 2014


Nineteenth century bush workers, and that was the majority of our workforce up to around 1880, generally liked a drink. They worked hard and played harder. It was not uncommon for shearers or drovers in receipt of a fat cheque from a season’s work to knock it down in the first pub they found. Most had good intention of going to the ‘big smoke’, as they called the city, or heading straight to their loved ones at home but, far too often, they fell victim to their own thirst. Things changed once the railway linked the country but for a man on horseback, Cobb & Co. coach or ‘shank’s pony’, travel was a daunting prospect and something best considered after a few drinks. It wasn’t unusual for a man to hit a shanty pub and hand his hard-earned cheque to the landlord with instructions to “let me know when I’ve cut out three days”. After three days of non-stop boozing the man was typically thrown into a sobering-up room at the back of the establishment. This room was known as the ‘dead-house’. The local constabulary had a responsibility to look in on these hotels and to discourage drunken behavior. After sobering-up they ‘settled up’ for the remainder of their cheque or, more likely than not, returned to the bar for another round of excessive drinking. Many landlords, eager not to lose their catch, enticed the poor devil with a ‘few drinks for the road’. It was a vicious cycle.


In its pre-election pitch the current New South Wales government announced a plan to introduce sobering-up rooms for ‘drunken yobs’. Barry O’Farrell said the ‘centres, likely to be based in police stations, would give police an additional way of dealing with drunks’.
It didn’t work back then and skeptics are saying it won’t work now.


In the colonial era it was obligatory for designated hotels, especially large rural establishments, to maintain a room exclusively to hold dead bodies until the police determined the cause of death and where the body should be sent. These temporary morgues appear to be the origin of the boozer’s ‘dead-house’. Thousands of drunks were despatched to these mortuary rooms to sober up and I have heard stories of men waking from the dead to find real dead bodies lying next to them. Eventually proper public facilities were established for the dead however, by that time, in the late 19th century, the term ‘dead house’ had passed over to become the accepted term for the public house sobering-up room.


Oldtimers talked of commencing a heavy drinking spree as ‘to lamb down’ – no doubt inferring they were like lambs to the slaughter. It is probably no coincidence the shearing analogy entered our bush slanguage to describe such enthusiastic drinking. They also talked of being ‘lambed down’ which inferred that they had been taken advantage of by the landlord who encouraged their hard drinking and then took unfair if not criminal advantage to relieve the unfortunates of any remaining money.


An anonymous poem, simply titled ‘Lambing Down’ appeared in The Queenslander, 13 October 1894, and is typical of the songs and poems about the realisation that your cheque, often a year’s work, had jumped the bar. In this case the villain appeared to be the landlady who encouraged the poor devil by endless pouring of the bottle, joining in the shout and, when things fell flat, challenging the lushaholic to a gambling bet which, no doubt, always went in her favour.


I’m a broken-hearted shearer, I’m ashamed to show my face,
The way that I got lambed down is a sin and a disgrace;
I put a cheque together, and thought that it would do,
So I just slipped into Orange for to spend a week or two.
I thought I was no flat, so resolved to cut it fat;
I dressed myself up in my best, put a poultice round my hat;
I went to have a nobbler at a certain house in town,
Where the barmaid she was cautioned for to lamb a fellow down.
I would get up in the morning to have a glass of stout;
She cost me many a shilling, for she was in every shout.
She would toss me up at Yankee Grab, and keep me on the booze:
But somehow or the other I was always bound to lose.
My money getting short I resolved to know my fate;
I asked this pretty barmaid if she would be my mate,
When she said, ”Young man, on my feelings don’t encroach,
I’m a decent married woman, and my husband drives the coach.”
I had two-and-six in silver and half-a-bar of soap,
A box of Cockle’s pills and a pot of Holloway’s;
I thought to turn a farmer and grow pumpkins near the town,
But she squashed all my pumpkins when she had me lambed down.
I had two old shirts, but they were all in rags;
A pair of moleskin trousers and a hat without a crown.
This was my ten years’ gathering when clearing out of town;
But it’s nothing when you’re used to it to do a lambing down.


In 1973 I recorded the life story of a teamster named Clarrie Peters who told me about one particularly unsavory landlady who had her own method of lambing down innocent bush workers. She gladly accepted their season’s cheque and duly cut off the drink after three days, throwing the victim into the dead-house to sober up. When the poor man surfaced a day later, usually white as a ghost and with the shakes, she would hand him a cheque for the balance of his money. What he didn’t know was that she had baked the cheque in the oven. After riding a hundred miles or so the poor sod would look in his saddle bag to find nothing but dust. He’d been well and truly lambed down!



From The Bulletin.

From The Bulletin.
















Legendary bushman and shearer, Duke Tritton, composed a song in 1905 about being lambed down in a ‘blood house’, a hotel noted for fist fights.


I had one drink or maybe two, I’m sure it was no more,
And I came to in the dead house, feeling sick and sore.
It was the barmaid woke me, with the toe of her little shoe,
‘Get out!’ she said, ‘You drunken mug, three days is enough for you.’


Others milked the boozers dry with inferior liquor, often mixing rum, gin and bar slops with all manner of spurious ‘flavours’ including methylated spirits, boot polish, saltpetre and tobacco juice. Such evil concoctions were known as Mulga Rum or Death Adder Juice. Others ignored the accepted practice of ‘three days and then the dead-house’ and kept pouring the drink until the cheque was gone. It was not uncommon for such determined drinkers, when they had exhausted their funds and finally sobered-up, to discover their horse, saddle, bridle and even their dog had also ‘jumped the bar’ and were now the landlord’s property.


‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ll get my horse, tonight I’ll travel far.’
‘Oh no,’ she laughed, ‘You can’t do that, your horse has jumped the bar.’
and so he had. My saddle too; likewise my swag and dog.
No doubt she had me cornered like a possum up a log.


Reminiscing in The Chronicle (Adelaide) in January 1933 a reader observed, “When a bushman of the old school started out to ‘lamb down’ he generally did the job more thoroughly than any other. ‘Dead drunk’ was no meaningless term. For a man who was ‘dead drunk’ there was no better place than the dead-house — and most pubs of the time were equipped with these necessary buildings, where ‘Banjo’ or ‘Scottie,’ or ‘Bill the Nark’ could see snakes, and spiders, and other strange phenomena of alcoholic delirium without disturbing the more law-abiding section of the populace.”


Warren Fahey sings ‘Shickered’


Waking up in the dead-house must have been a horrifying experience, especially in summer. Typically they were a tin shed at the back of the hotel, often without a door. They would have stank of past inhabitants and echoed with the sound of blowflies repeatedly hitting the window to get out or get in. After dark they were joined by the whining of dive-bombing mossies. You would have been doing grand if there was a mattress.


Graphic stories of epic drinking followed by the delirium tremens, often known as the ‘horrors’ or ‘the shakes’, fueled many a campsite. According to a legend in a certain settlement one man swore off strong liquor for the rest of his life after seeing a frog hop out of the mug he had just raised lo his lips. He explained to the assembled that although he had in his time seen snakes with red hats and elephants in dress suits, he never before had seen a real live frog leap from his beer and scrabble along the bar counter.


It has been difficult to establish a date on the transition of the morgue dead-house to that of the boozer’s dead-house but the 1870s and 80s, also being the heydays of the itinerant bush worker, offers a few poignant newspaper references.


Sydney’s original mortuary dead-house was the old Water Police lock-up cells at Circular Quay and was, by all accounts, a most unsavory place.

A letter to the editor of The Empire Magazine (Sydney) December 1856, called for the coroner to to do something about “the filthy and disgraceful state of the dead-house at the old Water Police station”. The reader pointed out that “Dr. Mackellar had refused to make a post mortem examination of a body in the dead-house. It appears that some time ago Dr. Mackellar performed an operation of that kind in the dead-house, which he then found in such a disgustingly filthy and horrible condition, that he determined never again to enter it until some alteration had been effected. There was not even water there for him to wash his hands, and he was compelled to go out to the water side to wash them before he returned home. ” No power on earth,” be said, “should compel him to enter that charnel-house again.” One of the jurors remarked that there was then a body lying in the dead-house, but he would not go in to look at it for a thousand pound?.”


The earliest print reference to the use of dead-house as a sobering-up room appeared in The Argus 4th April 1865 when “Michael Conway pleaded ‘not guilty’ to a charge of him stealing a sum of money from the pocket of one John Riley, a labourer, in the neighbourhood of Lancefield, Victoria.
The prosecutor stated that on Sunday, the 5th March, he was with the prisoner at Whiteside’s public house. Prisoner asked him in the morning for half-a-crown, but prosecutor refused to give it to him. In the afternoon prosecutor had a drink in the bar, and afterwards went into the “dead-house.”
Mr. Adamson (Magistrate).- What is the dead-house?
Prosecutor.-It is a place where they put people to sleep, and they call it the dead house. (Laughter.) I went and lay down on one of the stretchers that are kept there.
Mr, Adamson.- What state were you in when you went into the dead-house?
Prosecutor (coolly).-I was what they call drunk. (Laughter.) When I woke up, I found that some of my money was gone. The money was wrapped in a piece of rag.
A witness named George Sampson, a servant in the house, proved that he saw the prisoner abstract the rag and take a pound note of it. The prosecutor told the prisoner afterwards that he had been robbed, and the latter said it served him right.
Alter two other witnesses ‘had been examined, the jury found the prisoner ” Guilty.”
Sentence-Six months’ imprisonment, with hard labour.
Another court report, this time from The Inquirer & Commercial News (Perth) 24 Jan. 1883,
When hearing the Victoria Plains murder case, the Chief Justice appeared to be some what surprised at one of the witnesses, the landlord of the hotel, speaking of the ‘ Dead House,’ and enquired what such a building was. ‘ It’s the place,’ replied the witness, ‘ where we put men in when they’re dead drunk until they get up sober. ‘ Upon hearing this His Honor smiled rather grimly, and suggested that the proper name for such a place would be the ‘Resurrection Room.’