The Hargreaves family have been publicans in Surry Hills since 1975, first at the Shakespeare and now including the Strawberry Hills. Urban Village’s Lachlan Colquhoun sat down with Kelly Hargreaves, proprietor at the iconic “Shakey”, to talk about the pub’s past, and its future.
“The Shakespeare is an absolute gem, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.”
On any given day in Surry Hills there might be three generations of the Hargreaves family working in the neighbourhood’s pubs.
Down at the Straawberry Hills on Elizabeth Street, matriarch Margaret Hargreaves runs the show, but you might have your drink poured by one of her grandchildren.
Up the hill a little on Devonshire Street, Margaret’s daughter Kelly is the boss at the Shakespeare, where she’s not averse to wandering the bar and picking up the empty glasses as she chats with the drinkers.
The Shakespeare was the family’s first foray into pubs, and under their ownership it has become a Surry Hills and Sydney icon, hosting a unique clientele of actors, journalists, skaters launching a new magazine, locals from the public housing and a new wave of start up entrepreneurs, all of them drinking happily together.
“It was the 1975 recession which started it,” explains Kelly.
“My father’s real estate business had been badly hit for a time, and we had some relatives in the hotel business in the city and when the Shakespeare came up for sale they knew about it and suggested that it might be something for us.”
Not only do the Hargreaves family run the Shakespeare, but they have also lived there.
After buying the pub the family, including all four kids, lived upstairs for a period as they rode out the worst of the recession and Margaret threw herself into a new role as publican.
“Surry Hills was pretty rough back in 1975, it was still very working class and there were a lot of warehouses and factories,” says Kelly.
“So Mum has taken this place through so many different permutations, and they’ve changed with the area, but the pub is still in many ways the same as it was when it first opened its doors in 1879.
“When we moved in there was still a “Ladies Lounge” and a Swiss chalet hut kind of thing, while the frontbar didn’t quite have sawdust on the floor but it had that rough feel.”
“The pub is still in many ways the same as it was when it first opened its doors in 1879”
The late Ray Hughes, the revered gallery owner from Devonshire Street, used the Shakespeare as an extension of his office for many years, famously holding court in the front bar.
Actors from Belvoir Street are regulars, sharing bar space with locals such as 93 year old Jack from the public housing across the road, who celebrated his 93rd birthday at the Shakespeare recently, complete with birthday cake.
Mel Gibson dropped by the other day, and Geoffrey Rush has been known to dine upstairs. Little wonder that another well known, and well heeled, thespian wanted to buy the place and asked Margaret to name her price, but she wouldn’t sell.
“It’s an incredible mix of people,” says Kelly.
“You might be a tradie or live in the public housing and you might be sitting next to someone from a tech start up, but everyone has a conversation and everyone is treated with respect.”
Kelly attributes the fact that there “is never any trouble” at the Shakey to the strong female presence not only of her mother Margaret, but Nora the barmaid who has been there for around 40 years.
“Nora was an Irish slip of a girl in her 20s when she started with us, and she’s now become so closely identified with the place,” says Kelly.
“She could write a book from what she’s seen here. But she keeps the whole place under control, she knows everybody’s name and everybody’s drinks and some people come here just to say hello to her.”
The Hargreaves family added to their portfolio in 1994, when they bought the Strawberry Hills “sight unseen” and matriarch Margaret moved down the road as publican, leaving her daughters in charge at the Shakespeare.
Kelly lived overseas with her family for around 20 years, but decided to step into the family business when she came back to Sydney and has been at the Shakespeare for nine years.
“We feel very optimistic about Surry Hills, and we think its only going to get better”
Around 2010, the Strawberry was closed for 18 months or so as it underwent a major $6 million renovation, realising Margaret’s vision of creating one of Sydney’s great destination pubs.
Not many people who go to the Strawberry, however, would know that the carpet is a replica of the design at the State Theatre in Market Street.
“We heard there was some fantastic carpet at the State Theatre,” says Kelly.
“So one day we drove by and Mum circled the block in the car while I ran inside and took a photo of the carpet, and we sent off to some carpet makers and they had it made up for us.”
As for the Shakey, Kelly has just overseen a renovation of the upstairs dining areas, with new paint over the Joe Furlonger mural of naked men, painted in the 1990s.
She sees the current disruption as the “calm before the storm” and says its an opportunity to prepare for the future.
“We feel very optimistic about Surry Hills, and we think its only going to get better,” she says.
“We hope its going to get a real boost from the light rail, but at the same time retain its X factor.
“That is why we are investing in the pub now. We are focussing on ge
tting ready so when the construction of the light rail is over we are g
ood to go, ready and open for the new business we hope will come.”
On the family dynasty, Kelly Hargreaves is equally passionate. Her dream is t
hat members of the third generation of the family will take over both the Shakespeare and the Strawberry Hills, and continue to family’s near half century of history in Surry Hills.
“Mum will never retire, and I am also incredibly passionate about this,” she says.
“The Shakespeare is an absolute gem, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
“Mum would never sell it. It would be like selling the loungeroom of our house, and we just wouldn’t do it.”
Her hope is that the next generation of Hargreaves feels the same way, and the family tradition can continue.