By Judy Chant

James, known as Jem, was the third of eleven children born to Peter Punch and Catherine (nee Hurley). He was their first to be born in the colony of New South Wales (prior to federation), following their migration from Cork, Ireland, in 1837. Jem was born at Brisbane Waters, just north of Sydney, but the family moved to Sydney the following year. As a teenager, Jem loved rowing and he won many races. His winnings grew and in 1859, he became a boatshed proprietor at Woolloomooloo Bay. He and fellow champion oarsman, Thomas McGrath, provided boats for hire. Long before ferries plied the harbour between Circular Quay and Manly, Jem would row Sydneysiders from Woolloomooloo Bay to Manly for a crown. An Australian crown was worth five shillings, or one quarter of £1.00.

As a young man, Jem lived life to the full but at 24 years of age, he entered the family business. He became a Publican. His seven brothers owned hotels, including the Captain Cook Hotel at Moore Park, the Denison Hotel and the Tea Gardens Hotel at Bondi, NSW. Jem owned Punch’s Hotel, on the corner of Pitt Street and King Street, Sydney, the Angel Hotel in Angel Place, Sydney and the Old Hope and Anchor Hotel on the corner of Druitt Street and Sussex Street, Sydney. Punch’s Hotel held a commanding position in the city centre. Commonly referred to as ‘The Corner’, many actors congregated there from the old Victoria and Prince of Wales theatres. The hotel also became a rendezvous for followers of rowing and politics, and an informal businessmen’s club. The structure was brick on a stone foundation, with a floor for accommodation, a floor for meeting rooms and billiard rooms, a floor for the large bar and two dining rooms and finally, a basement that contained four cellars. Meeting rooms held up to 200 people in a sitting and sport, public life and politics were widely and hotly debated.

Punch’s Hotel
Published in: Life and times of Jem Punch / by Richmond Thatcher, 1885

Jem was a prominent athlete, a promoter of professional rowing in New South Wales, a mentor and benefactor to aspiring sportsmen. Competition prize-giving was often held in the Long Room at Punch’s Hotel. Jem and his younger brother Francis (Frank) Punch, who became the first Mayor of the Borough of North Sydney, were keen scullers[1]. Competitive sculling was exceptionally popular in Sydney at this time, drawing enormous crowds on race days. Jem organised a public subscription for the Australian sculling champion, Edward (Ned) Trickett (1851-1916) to challenge for the World Sculling Championships title in England. As his financial backer, Jem escorted Ned to England, where on 25th June 1876, Ned defeated Englishman Joseph Sadler, winning Australia’s first world title for rowing on the Putney to Mortlake course on the Thames River, in the time of 24 minutes and 36 seconds. This event was described by the local press as a glorious victory and a national triumph. Ned was the first Australian to be recognized as a World Champion in any sport.

The victory led to the formation of several rowing (sculling) clubs along the Parramatta River in Sydney and began a Golden Age for Australian professional sculling. The world title was held by seven Australians for 22 of the 31 years between 1876 and 1907. Upon their return to Sydney, Jem and Ned were given a rousing welcome. The following evening, 25,000 people lined the streets to greet Punch and Trickett. Several bands led the enthusiastic torchlight procession to the reception at Punch’s Hotel. Skyrockets lit the evening sky and an “enormous electric searchlight on the GPO glared along George Street” (Gard 2014). Jem was seen as a ‘champion-maker’ and was presented with a ‘costly’ diamond ring by his supporters. He became a popular man, liked and esteemed across the social classes of Sydney society.


Scullers on the Parramatta River, 1870

At just 42 years of age, on 7th December 1880, Jem died at his hotel. Local press described him as a respected household name, a well-known aquatic sportsman, an honest man and the ‘father of rowing’. His funeral attracted a large attendance from all classes of the community. His untimely death was described in the Town and Country Journal (11th December 1880) as having one of the longest processions seen in Sydney, including a cortege of 145 vehicles. The procession stretched from Redfern Station to the Sydney Town Hall. The imposing pageant included politicians, prominent members of the business community, family, friends and spectators, who lined the streets to farewell this remarkable person. Four Roman Catholic priests followed the cortege. Jem was initially buried at Petersham Cemetery but in 1926, his remains were relocated to the Rookwood Necropolis.

The year after Jem’s death, Frank Punch took over as proprietor of Punch’s hotel, ‘The Corner’. That same year, Frank sponsored a sculling prize, known as the Frank Punch Trophy, which was awarded for rowing races on the Parramatta River. The prize money was initially £300.00, but soon rose to £500.00, which was distributed as 1st prize £300.00, 2nd prize £150.00 and 3rd prize £50.00. Four years after Jem’s death, Richmond Thatcher wrote a small book on Jem’s life, ‘The Life and Times of Jem Punch’ (1885) and seen as “an account of the life of a worthy, brave-hearted citizen”. More recently, a chapter in Stephen Gard’s ‘Port Jackson Pullers’ (2014) has been devoted to Jem Punch.

In memory of Jem Punch, the following poem was written in his honour and published in the Sydney Punch (NSW), dated 11 December 1880 (Unnamed author):

James Punch

Another stalwart swimmer spent, and still life’s tide rolls on;

Another sweep of Death’s keen scythe, and one more friend is gone.

Another face, familiar once, now passed beyond our sight

Through the dark portals of the tomb, into the farther light.


The strong old tree is bowed at last — nipped by the ” killing frost’;

Jim Punch hath pulled his final heat, with stern, pale Death, and lost.

His nerveless fingers drop the sculls, upon the farther shore;

Defeated! he, who never pulled a losing race before.


His boat hath drifted o’er a stream, which one and all must cross;

Nay, mourn not friends, his is the gain, and our’s, yes our’s, the loss.

The race is o’er, his sculls are shipped, his boat is moored at last —

Safe from the rollers of Life’s sea- out of the bitter blast.


We shall not find his stalwart form, where it was wont to stand,

Nor see his bluff and honest face, nor grip his brawny hand.

But shall they be forgot — his skill, his pluck in days of yore?

Never while Sydney rowing men have strength to grasp an oar!


Speak of his faults, ye faultless ones, ay, ye, and ye alone!

Speak of his failings, ye who have no follies to condone!

Bid him farewell once more, fear not, he’ll get his mead of grace ;

He was as honest as the day, and never sold a race.