Cann family on back veranda of the Blackwood Hotel, Rebecca third from left. SOURCE: Margot Hitchcock, Blackwood & District Historical Society

The ‘calming domesticity’ of women licensees

The ‘calming domesticity’ of women licensees

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good inn,” remarked the famous English man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson, and according to the Bacchus Marsh Express, Cann’s Family Hotel was a very good inn.

John and Rebecca Cann took over the Blackwood Hotel in December 1877. The fire was always going, good meals were served and there were ten rooms available for guests, the remaining six being taken by the Cann family and servants. One of the latter rooms was reserved for autopsies, a legal requirement for public houses at the time. The guest rooms were an essential adjunct to the Cobb and Co mail coach, which ran daily to and from Ballan and Kyneton. The Canns held a victuallers licence, a billiard licence and distributed the Royal mail. Public notices were displayed outside. The hotel truly was the beating heart of the Mt Blackwood goldfield.

Bridget Cruise, the licensee prior to the Canns, had lost her husband Joseph not long before building the hotel. Bridget was left with four young children, having lost three other children in infancy. Their graves are some of the earliest in the Blackwood Cemetery. Bridget mortgaged herself heavily to build the hotel and had to battle in court to fight off her husband’s creditors.

When John Cann died in 1895, Rebecca applied for the transfer of the licence and became the second female licensee of the hotel.The operation of a public house was an attractive occupation for women as it allowed them to earn an income while raising a family – although many states banned young and unmarried women from becoming licensees, as noted by historian Clare Wright in Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Female Publicans. Perversely, however, married women and older women, widows and the occasional spinster, could apply for licenses on the grounds that they possessed a “matronly spirit,” which would give a public house a sense of “calming domesticity.”

Wright cites Victoria as the key state for this approach, actively shaping its licensing laws to ensure female licensees acted as ‘moral guardians.’ In 1876, 22% of Victoria’s pubs had a female licensee with this increasing to 50% by the end of the century. Calming domesticity was called for in the struggling goldmining town of Blackwood where men far outnumbered women. While Rebecca Cann fitted the bill, down at Golden Point the licensee of the Royal Mail Hotel, Mrs Linnehan, was far from calm when she pushed a patron, who used ‘obscene language,’ out through the bar door onto the street in November 1893. And obscene language was the rationale behind the refusal of an hotel licence to Mary Anne Maher at nearby Barry’s Reef in 1876.

Following the death of her husband, Rebecca held the hotel’s victuallers licence for another 20 years, working the hotel together with her son Bill. In April 1899, Rebecca Cann added the deep verandas on the two sides facing the street allowing people to linger in the shade or shelter from the rain. And without any grand designs, the Blackwood pub has remained a focal point of the area’s social life for over 150 years.