In colonial times most visitors to Parramatta would have had to choose between stopping over at one of its two most famous inns, The ‘Red Cow’ or the ‘Woolpack’. The first of these stood at the rear of the site of the present Commercial Bank in George street. While the name ‘Red Cow’ seems a little prosaic it was actually a very literal reference to the many red cows grazing in the pastures around the newly formed town. The earliest reference I could find to the inn was an 1803 advertisement posted by John Williams, a draper, who advertised his shop as being ‘… opposite the RED COW.’ One of its earliest functions was a supper held within its walls in October, 1814, to celebrate the victories of Wellington over the Napoleonic forces in Spain.
By 1817 there were 12 licenses for inn’s in Parramatta and we can see from the list below Charles Walker held the licence for the ‘Red Cow.
1. James Larra… Freemason’s Arms
2. John Piesley… Thatched House
3. Andrew Nash… Hawkesbury Settler
4. Charles Walker… Red Cow
5. Robert Cable.. Lord Nelson
6. John Ellison… Bird in Hand
7. Thomas Barber
8. William Sherwin
9. John Lacy…. The Struggler
10. Thomas Pierce… Rose and Crown
11. John Stephenson… Glasgow Arms
12. Elizabeth Powell … Halfway House to Parram.
The Royal Agricultural Society formally took its place in the colony at a magnificent dinner held in the historic Red Cow on July 10, 1822. This occasion was graced by the Sir Thomas Brisbane, the Rev. Samuel Marsden, William Cox, and Hannibal Macarthur, while Sir John Jamison presided over a gathering that could well be designated the promoters of Australia’s pastoral and agricultural industry. Of this unique event it is recorded: “Eighty gentlemen of the first rank and opulence in the colony sat down at 6 o’clock to a splendid dinner.”
Over the next 20 years the importance of the inn continued to grow and this was exemplified in 1827 by the ‘Red Cow’s’ snaffling of the mail coach trade away from Andrew Nash’s in the ‘Hawkesbury Settler’. According to C. P. Dolan it was … a long-roofed building that stood back from the alignment of George-street, possessing ample yard space and stables and many horses and vehicles. A large open verandah surrounded the old inn, while its garden was said to be one of the sights of the town. This low-roofed building, which contained the bar, was more often than not known as the “Cow,” while, separated from it by a drive, was a substantial two-storied building, the upper portion of which was known as the “Red Cow Hall” or “Assembly Room.” Here revelry often reigned till the early hours of the morning.
After Charles Walker died in 1826 the ‘Red Cow’ was run for many years by his widow Hannah Walker. And during this period many famous figures from Australia’s past visited the hotel on a regular basis. This period saw the inn’s ‘Long House’ serve as both a function centre and a community hall. In fact by 1831 it was so embedded in the structure of the town that a local meeting at the courthouse to petition the King about land sale regulations was reconvened by the sheriff to … Mrs. Walker’s long room, adjoining that most comfortable of temporary domiciles for man and beast, to wit, the Red Cow Inn, where some about 145 persons crowded in and enjoyed the luxury of a “boiling alive” for some hours after.
The hotel’s sprawling design enabled it to combine functions like the one mentioned above with a very personal and intimate touch. In 1889 ‘The Illustrated Sydney News’ quoted one visitor’s impressions of the residence and gardens,
As to the ‘ Woolpack’s ‘ companion Inn, the ‘ Red Cow,’ the following notice occurs of it in its best days: ‘After passing a particularly pretty garden, in which stood a long, low house with a spacious piazza in front, I was surprised by my husband’s driving up to the door, and still more so on finding that this was our inn where we had engaged rooms. My belief, that it was a private residence was natural enough, for the sign of the “Red Cow” on the roof had escaped my notice; but we were most comfortably accommodated in every way.
The garden was full of beautiful flowers particularly the bright scarlet blossoms of the pomegranate, the soft and fragrant oleander, the quantities of pink and crimson China roses. An enormous prickly-pear (I think it “must be twenty feet high) grew near the house, and was full of yellow blossoms and dark red fruit, in picking up some of which to taste, I stuck my gloves so full of the fine, penetrating prickles that it was some days before I extracted them all from my hands. Two beautiful birds were living tame in the garden, they were called curlew, but I doubt if correctly; and several of the native parrots were caged in the verandah.’
Later owners were Messrs. V. Carr and P. Hayes, who erected a bakery at the rear of the inn. He was a big contractor supplying all the Government institutions with bread and turning out, it is said, two thousand loaves daily.
The final owner of the property before it was sold to the Commercial Banking Company in 1873 was J. Fulton. By this time however it had seen its day and was more a venerable relic of the early years of the colony rather than a viable business.The ‘Red Cow’ was eventually demolished to make way for the Commercial Bank Building.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 2 April 1803, p. 4
Dolan, C P, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September, 1936, p.13
Illustrated Sydney News, Sydney, 17 October, 1889, p.27
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 April 1817, p.1
The Australian, 27 July, 1827, p.2
The Australian, 2 December, 1831, p.3