27 November 2023

North Goulburn’s unforgettable hotel matriarch

| John Thistleton
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Jean Bowerman behind the bar at the Hotel Gordon.

In her happy place, Jean Bowerman behind the bar at the Hotel Gordon. Photo: Bowerman family collection.

Remember Jean Bowerman? Hair in a bun, pearls, wide-rimmed glasses framing all-seeing eyes and a ready smile behind the bar of the Hotel Gordon. Make no mistake, Jean was the matriarch. Step outside the bounds of good behaviour in her pub and she would put you back.

But come anywhere near her pub in need and her kindness knew no bounds.

Before random breath testing, parents drinking into the night while their children waited outside in cars troubled Jean. She regularly brought two youngsters inside out of the cold or rain at about 9 o’clock. “Still in their school uniforms and they hadn’t had any dinner,” her daughter Nerida said. “She would heat up some soup or whatever – one little one had no idea how to eat soup.”

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Jean’s other daughter Narelle remembers Billy, a man who lived in a humpy on the Sydney Road drinking muscat in their pub. “In winter mum would bring him soup and toast and say, ‘Billy, this is much better in your stomach than that stuff you’re drinking now.’”

She had no time for mean-spirited people. “Mean! He was so mean, if he had the ocean, he would not give you a wave,” she would say in one of her many one-liners. But this generous and much-loved publican was not always a soft touch, sending two managers in succession on their way soon after Jean lost her husband Bill in 1972.

“She would say to the boys (in the bar) if they were swearing, ‘That’s enough of that son. There is a gutter out there if you would like to sit out there and use that language. I have ladies working behind the bar’,” Narelle said.

Jean was 15 when her parents Robert and Kate Gordon sold the Chatsbury Hotel near Taralga and bought and renamed the de-licensed Prince of Wales Hotel in 1927. She never left until her death 64 years later.

She met Bill Bowerman at the Gordon and they married in 1943. They ran the Argyle Inn at Taralga from 1949 before taking over the Hotel Gordon in 1955.

Thirsty workers from engineering and smash repair shops, Goulburn Jail and Kenmore Hospital called in at various times of the day and night. Some nights you could hardly find standing space.

“You could nearly tell what time of day it was by the people sitting around the bar area,” Nerida said. “If you worked at the jail you drank under the big clock against a wall. Kenmore workers stood around the fireplace.”

Whether it was his military background, or being a police sergeant’s son, Bill ran a well-controlled pub. But in February 1972, when he was only 55, he died two weeks after open-heart surgery. Jean became the licensee, sacked her first two managers and settled on Robert, her son.

A technician with the PMG’s coaxial cable project between Sydney and Melbourne, Robert offered to give Jean a break and manage the pub while on long service leave. An immediate success, he remained manager for the next 17 years.

Jean with husband Bill Bowerman on their wedding day, holding a bouquet made by the Sisters of St Joseph.

Jean with husband Bill Bowerman on their wedding day, holding a bouquet made by the Sisters of St Joseph. Photo: Bowerman family collection.

Nerida remembers the respect her mother had earned. “She would get in amongst a fight and break it up,” she said. “She was quietly involved when Robert took over, preparing the tills every morning for him.”

Nerida’s husband Steve and their close friends called Jean ‘Missy B’. Setting her long hair in a bun each morning she would begin a long day’s work. “She would get on her morning clothes, yard clothes as she called them and then after lunch have a lie-down for an hour or so, or read the paper,” Nerida said. “Then she would get up, get dressed and have the pearls on.”

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Educated at St Joseph’s Catholic School in North Goulburn, Jean grew to love the nuns, some of whom had been her classmates. Narelle remembers Jean telling a newly arrived priest his persistent cough sounded awful. Ah, it was nothing a drop of rum couldn’t cure, he said.

“Underproof or overproof?” asked Jean.

“Overproof,” he said. And a bottle of overproof rum labelled ‘cough medicine’ arrived for him.

The Gordon Hotel.

Best known today as the Gordon Hotel, many of its patrons hold great memories of Jean Bowerman and her son, Robert ‘Gopher’ Gordon. Photo: John Thistleton.

Twice winning the lottery, she shared the second one worth about $60,000 with one of her barmen, Russell Corby. “It was nothing for Mum to spend $100 on raffle tickets – whatever she won she gave away,” Nerida said.

In later years emphysema made it difficult for Jean to climb the stairs of her beloved hotel. She died at the age of 78 in 1991 and the hotel changed hands the following year.

Remember her? We will never forget her.

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