Launceston’s Royal Oak Hotel for sale after 41 years

Bruce Potter has spent more than four decades as the caretaker of Launceston’s Royal Oak Hotel.

The role is more than an owner or manager, it’s about maintaining the tradition that belongs to an establishment first licensed in 1851.

Mr Potter took ownership of the pub in 1977 and after 41 years, he has decided that it is finally time to retire.

The Royal Oak will soon be put up for sale but the memories it holds for Mr Potter, and all those who have been staff or patrons, will remain.

Reflecting on his life as the business owner was difficult for Mr Potter. He says he could talk for hours about the experiences from the past four decades. There are probably enough stories to fill a book, maybe two.

“I don't know where you start on all these sort of things. I never really thought about it but there's so many things that sort of happen along the way and it's a bit hard to keep track of,” Mr Potter said.

“I kept files [of The Examiner clippings] right from the word go. So I've still got hard copy files up there, which go back to the sort of late ‘70s, early ‘80s.”

Three key pieces of memorabilia sit on the bar: an old staff photograph from sometime in the 1990s, a sketched image of the pub with ABC Studio 08 adoring the walls, and a Huon pine plaque awarded to “The Greatest Boss in the World”.

Mr Potter brought the items out at The Examiner’s request but said there was almost a centimetre of dust collecting on them, despite the fact they hold some of his most cherished memories.

The dust is thanks to his long hours; not regular shifts of 9am until 5pm, but late at night and into the early hours of the morning.

He has really owned the bar for closer to 60 years, he says, due to all those extra hours.

So just how did a man who worked in a hardware store in Hobart end up at the Royal Oak Hotel in Launceston? Partly, it is due to a passion for history and all things nautical.

The name Royal Oak goes back to the legend of Charles II in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester, the last battle of the English Civil Wars.

“There used to be a lot of English ships, particularly fighting ships, and they all sort of exemplified an English characteristic, which goes back to Charles II,” Mr Potter said.

Charles II, a fugitive in the 1600s, evaded Oliver Cromwell’s troops by hiding in the houses of loyal subjects, disguising himself as a woman and by climbing an oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire.

“That was where it all started and then various sailing battle ships were called that and they use the name for modern day ships ... there’s always a Royal Oak somewhere.

The Royal Oak was not a symbol of defeat, but instead one of defiance and loyalty to the kingdom.

Today, the Launceston hotel is kept in the traditional English style and is littered with nods to its seafaring connections.

Boats, oars and imagery of ships adorn the walls and ceilings, so it is of little surprise that one of the prized possessions Mr Potter has to show is a photo of his staff in the boat shed.

It's a special sort of a business that’s a very personal, intimate thing where you've got a relationship with customers and staff.

Bruce Potter

A group of smiling faces look into the camera, piled into a boat that is still at the Oak today.

“It was sort of a collage that was put together but it was in the boat shed. So it has to be after ‘88 … but there's no way that the Hispaniola, which was the name of the vessel, would support that number of staff now,” Mr Potter said with a laugh.

He never imagined so much of his life would be spent in Launceston.

In the first three years of living in the city, he never bothered to learn any street names.

“In actual fact, when I left Hobart I had a desire, at that stage, of getting a boat and doing a round-the-world trip,” Mr Potter said.

“I still haven't done that, but I had an enjoyable 20 years with The Rhona H, but I came to Launceston with ... I think the original lease was three years with an option for another three. It was $72,000 dollars, which was a lot of money in those days.”

He lived upstairs from time to time, and very rarely crossed George Street.

But when the nature of the business partnership changed in 1984, he was faced with the choice to stay or go, and the rest is history. The introduction of the blood-alcohol limits and random breath testing were also “defining moments” for a lot of hotels in those early years, he says.

The sketch of the Royal Oak, from the ABC, was a play on the original requirement of 0.08 BAC.

The pub was considered almost an “extra studio” as it became a favourite watering hole for the city’s journalists.

It is the patrons and staff that Mr Potter will miss most, he says.

While he does not do much bar work now, aside from during the odd folk or blues sessions, there was an enduring rapport built between him and his customers.

“It's a special sort of a business that’s a very personal, intimate thing where you've got a relationship with customers and staff,” Mr Potter said.

“You can have a business and you can have an owner that’s not involved with it and he can actually lease it to someone and I started looking at those options about 1992.

“But lots of things happened round about then, I had a young family at that stage ... it's very hard to portray all the things that happened during that time. But there was always something happening and if you ever thought about doing anything something else would come along, the whole situation would change and it all went out the window.”

He thinks he might have stayed at the business “a little too long” but Mr Potter says he has no regrets about his 41 years at the Royal Oak.

“Who knows what's around the corner. There’s the old classic line ‘smell the roses’ [but] you know, I still wake up at three and four in the morning and this creeps back in.

“I sort of think come hell or high water, I've got to do it now … it’s pretty frightening but I think I will adjust fairly quickly.”

His ultimate goal is to find someone willing to take over the reins completely and continue with the traditions that have made the almost 170-year-old hotel what it is today.

“The Oak needs continuity, which it’s always had, as far as I know. To the best of my knowledge I don’t believe the doors have been shut,” Mr Potter said.

  • While the property is yet to go to market officially, any enquiries can be made to Marcus Douglas at Shepherd & Heap Commercial on 0429 820 820.