When Kath Byer and her late husband Sidney bought the Notting Hill Hotel in 1936, it was a quiet little country pub.
Ferntree Gully Road was a gravel track.
The all-male clientele were farmers from the surrounding market gardens, and labourers from the abattoir and brickworks who drank Melbourne Bitter, Carlton Draught and Abbotsford Stout.
Mrs Byer, 85, still presides as publican at “the Nott” and still pulls a mean Carlton Draught. Her pub has sprawled over 0.8 hectares, with three bars, two beer gardens, two bistros, a TAB and a bottle shop.
Today Notting Hill is a busy suburb sandwiched between Clayton and Mount Waverley. A third of the hotel’s customers are now women. Office workers and students from nearby Monash University – drinking wine and designer beers – mingle with factory workers and tradesmen. But Mrs Byer said it was still a country pub. She coos over the great-grandchildren of the original punters who come with relatives for Sunday counter lunch, and jokes with burly drinkers whose families are dear friends.
One day in the early 1990s a man came with a jackhammer to install poker machines but she sent him packing.
“I told him to ring his boss and tell him he’d got the wrong pub,” Mrs Byer recalled. “I just said no, I didn’t want them. It would have spoiled this pub. It’s more of a family pub.”
Mrs Byer is included in a new book called Beyond the Ladies’ Lounge: the Intoxicating History of Australia’s Female Publicans. To be released by Melbourne University Publishing on October 6, it is the result of 12 years’ research by Melbourne historian Clare Wright.
Dr Wright said the hundreds of women she spoke to changed her assumptions. “I went into it with a very orthodox feminist view of the pub, which was that hotels were places that oppressed women,” she said. “But they (the women publicans) told me a story of opportunity and empowerment. They were places where they could raise their families and work at the same time. They had economic independence, they had social status, they had independent careers.”
The women publicans told Dr Wright that male drinkers respected them and often looked on them as surrogate mothers.
“Whereas they might not accept advice or direction from their wives, they will from their mothers. So, if a woman publican says, ‘I think you’ve had enough, it’s probably time to get home to Gladys’, a man will listen to her.”
Dr Wright’s book draws on licensing laws, court reports, trade journals and newspapers, and 19th-century folk ballads “that talk about these women as being indomitable, fearless, the heart and soul of the community”.
Notting Hill Hotel customers say Mrs Byer is such a woman. She has driven home drinkers who are over the limit or given them a bed upstairs, and discreetly helped locals who were struggling financially or needed bailing out of police custody.
Mrs Byer is working at 8am and seldom goes to her residence upstairs before 11pm. Retirement is not on the cards. “Not till I die, dear.”