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
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
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.
Still seeking a portrait of Joseph Knight Smith. The two shops on
Penshurst Streets adjacent to The Willoughby hotel still carry the
inscription ‘KNIGHTSMITH’S 1920 BUILDINGS’ though the ‘L’ had fallen
off in this May 2013 view.
||Leslie, Esther, and Michaelides, Jean, Willoughby: The suburb and
its people, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, p 214-216.
||Weekly Dispatch, 1905, quoted by Leslie, Esther, Castlecrag: A
community history, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988,
||Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 31 August 1908, p 5; Tuesday 26
January 1915, p 8, Alderman fined.
4. Suburban Herald, quoted by Leslie, Esther, and Michaelides, Jean,
1988, as above, p.216.
||Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1931, p.8, ‘Licences transferred’; 2
May 1933, p 5, ‘Licences transferred’.