Joseph Knight Smith was among the colourful characters of our city during its early years. He is best known as the licensee of the Hotel Willoughby, but he also served as an alderman on the local council and held extensive property interests in the area.
Born at Windsor in 1868, Smith was a well-known athlete in a range of sports as a young man. His spirit of adventure took him to the goldfields of northern Queensland at the age of 19 and he also tried his luck on the Western Australian goldfields in 1892. He moved onto the Klondyke in northwestern Canada during 1897. He didn’t achieve success as a miner, but his leadership qualities among miners resulted in his becoming an honorary magistrate for the entire Yukon area.
Moving onto England in 1899, Joseph Smith formed the YGM Company there before returning to the Klondyke as its consulting engineer. His exciting 600 mile journey from Lake Bennett to Dawson City through snow blizzards and temperatures down to 70 five dogs at this time was the subject of much retelling over the years.
His time back in the Yukon was short, however, and Knight Smith returned to England where he volunteered for service in the Boer War. He enlisted with the Prince of Wales Light Horse unit and served throughout the war this cavalry corps, returning to Australia when his unit was disbanded.
Soon after his return, Joseph Knight Smith purchased the licence of the Hotel Willoughby, the transfer formally taking place on 1 May 1902. By all accounts he was a generous host to his patrons and he managed the hotel to become a highly prosperous business.
From this base, Smith prospered and he was soon engaged in a range of local projects. In 1905 he built the first public swimming baths in the municipality at Beauty Point, Castlecrag. He put on a lavish opening ceremony attended by a large number of local dignitaries, including CG Wade, MLA, Attorney General and member for the district, and Alderman TE Creswell, MLA for St Leonards. Champagne and oysters were liberally served with numerous toasts and speeches. In response to the mayor’s speech and formal opening of the baths, Knight Smith responded that:
“he could assure them that he was not seeking a profit in the venture, but he had always been a bit of a sport, and he felt the want of a baths in the district, so, having the piece of land idle, he had indulged in what may be called a gamble, and he had sunk a good round sum in the baths and there was still more to be done to complete them in detail. But from the prices charged—sixpence to be driven there and back, and swim included—it would be obvious that his desire was not to make a huge profit out of it, but to be a good citizen and do what he can for his fellow man”
Joseph Knight Smith was selected as an employers’ representative on the Trades, Labour, Hotel, Club & Restaurant Board in 1908 and he was elected to the Willoughby Municipal Council in 1911 as a representative of Middle Harbour Ward. He served in this capacity until 1918. There was an embarrassing event in January 1915, however, when Smith was fined 20s, with professional costs of 42s, and court costs 6s, in default 14 days imprisonment, at the North Sydney Police Court for neglecting to inform the Willoughby Council of particulars connected with an outhouse he had erected.
An astute businessman, Knight Smith built up a large holding of property in the local area between 1911 and 1924. In the 1920s he purchased the run-down Willoughby Assembly Hall next to the hotel from Tooth & Company and built two shops with a billiard room and ‘sports rendezvous’ behind. In 1924 he erected the Victoria Buildings in Victoria Avenue opposite Macquarie Street,
while Willoughby’s Royal Theatre was later built on land he had previously owned.
In 1928 and now aged 60, Joseph Smith decided to withdraw from his business interests in Willoughby. The local Suburban Herald covered his retirement in detail, stating he was “one of the best citizens this Municipality has ever had. His name should live on forever in Willoughby”.
Smith’s licence to the Willoughby Hotel was transferred to George Bernor in June 1931. It seems he missed the hotel trade, however, as he took up the licence for the Brooklyn Hotel in George Street, Sydney, on 1 May 1932.
1 Leslie, Esther, and Michaelides, Jean, Willoughby: The suburb and its people, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, p 214-216.
2 Weekly Dispatch, 1905, quoted by Leslie, Esther, Castlecrag: A community history, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, p 62.
3 Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 31 August 1908, p 5; Tuesday 26 January 1915, p 8, Alderman fined.
5 Suburban Herald, quoted by Leslie, Esther, and Michaelides, Jean, 1988, as above, p.216.
5 Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1931, p.8, ‘Licences transferred’; 2 May 1933, p 5, ‘Licences transferred’.