Letter: The law of Inns (2014)


The Long Tailor (Indya, 2014)

To Madeline, Good Health

The heart of a small Australian town is often divided between its formal and informal institutions: churches, schools, and shops. At sunset, a fierce rivalry emerges between hotels or pubs, as we call them down under.

There are still a fair few pubs - perhaps not so many as a hundred years ago. Back then, a Braidwood letter-writer complained that:
"We shall soon have as many inns as we have inhabitants, and the publicans will be obliged to nobble with each other, or else do no business at all."

Welcome to Bungendore, a small town in South East Australia: home to several pubs. Let us start at the Royal Hotel (which took over from the former Royal Terrace, reopened in its present pleasant location in 1880 as Macs Royal Hotel before settling into its current name in 1886). A block away is the Lake George Hotel, and another block and a highway away is the Carrington Inn.

Lake George Hotel

Tempting fare in the Lake George Hotel

As the day ends, traffic slows and stops. Patrons, men and women spill into the streets or gardens nearby. Kitchens prepare meals. Refreshment is sold from the tap. The sounds of laughter and live music can be heard.

Upstairs, cheap accommodation is available to restless travelers or workers from other towns, or those unwilling to walk or drive home (past, often entirely imagined, highway police who are just as likely to be sitting at a bar down the other end of town).

Patrons are a fickle crowd, often deserting one pub for another, without rhyme nor reason. So, there is  steady foot traffic between venues. Less frequently, a pub will get up and leave the town of its own accord. Such is the fate of the tiny hamlet of Hoskinstown, where the old stone Victoria Hotel (run by a Mrs. Walsh, and for that reason sometimes called Walsh's Victoria Hotel) got up one day one hundred years ago and walked off to Sydney town, leaving the village in the grip of two churches that glare at each other from different vantages (although, today, given falling attendances, it is more often a vacant stare).

Many years ago, I spent some time studying the ancient law of Inns. Doesn’t matter what you call them – an Inn or a Terrace or a Hotel or a Motel or a Pub. As in your country, and most of Europe, a little chunk of old Roman law still applies, just to them.

Inns are a fascinating subject – but I have forgotten more than I ever knew. Briefly, for a couple of hours at the end of a week, I gave up the practice of law and lectured on the subject of Inns at a local government training school, for fun rather than financial reward. I enjoyed the quiet Friday afternoons after work when students would become innkeep and teach me how to prepare different drinks and negotiate demanding customers.

Innkeepers got some bad press in Les Miserables:
“as for the rest, all of them crooks… seldom do you see, an honest man like me”.
Harsh words - but I am reminded of an account of an honest pub operated in the teeth of goldfield insanity (bushrangers and all), to the south of Braidwood. Our host was then Mick O'Connell, a man possessed of gentility, foresight and dreams about the future of the area, and the Jerrabatgully. One review opined:
"and we cannot imagine a more agreeable place for a day's gipsying; — we recommend our friends to pay a visit. The best accommodation and a hearty welcome will be met with at the Traveller's Home at Stoney Creek, the jolly landlord of which hostelrie appears to think that he cannot do enough for the comfort of guests." It is our loss that the inn no longer operates - the area is possessed of great natural beauty.

Still, the risks to travelers posed sufficient reason for first the Imperial Law, and then the Common Law and Continental Codes, to impose a sharp regime on inns and their ilk. These rules still exist quietly in the background. Civil lawyers like myself oft fall into the error of thinking that the law of contract or tort prevails everywhere – but when you cross the hearthstone of an Inn, you move back to an ancient legal regime of strict liability.

Some of the common law rules still attached to Inns may seem quaint. If you are being pursued by wolves or rogues, an Innkeeper is obliged to give you shelter at any time of night or day. In modern times the rule has been invoked to hold an Innkeeper liable when he ignored a call for help or shut up early with vacant rooms. An Innkeeper is obliged to take all comers, local or foreign, and offer succor. That out-of-date tub of long-life milk (still, perhaps more welcome than kidney of a horse and liver of a cat) distinguishes Inn accommodation from rental accommodation partly from habit but also the law.

An Innkeeper must welcome and keep your horses, carriages, and other goods safe. This liability is strict – and cannot be contracted away – although some jurisdictions allow an Innkeeper to reduce liability by providing a lockbox or complying with some other requirement (remember that long list on the back of your last hotel room?).

Some rules have waxed and waned. Others are quietly overlooked in the face of new technology and consumer indifference – like the rule that pre-payment of accommodation forestalled other inquiries (such as taking credit card details).

Some practices are simply in abeyance. An inn can be pressed into service as a courthouse or temporary prison. More frequently, it is an auditorium for lousy poetry and off-key songs, but then, sometimes for the emergence of great songsmiths and story writers and the movements that shaped our nations.



In reliance of the unspoken prerogative of a letter writer, I edit my letters from time to time (each time relaying the changes to those I write too), as my imperfect knowledge of events changes my view of the world. Here, particularly, I have come to respect Mick O'Connell, known to me only through his writing and actions - and particularly his humanity in the face of a drowning in the creek I live on. It might have been a century ago, but his kind actions should not be forgotten.

Just recently I have been creating 3D meshes and renders of the Braidwood inns dating to the 1860s - only to come to the unnerving conclusion that the claim of a Braidwood letter writer that "We shall soon have as many inns as we have inhabitants..." was probably a slight understatement of the state of affairs.  While the goldfields operated, the number of Braidwood inns and those folk they fed and housed was staggering.


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