Death of the last Publican
Ros Macdonald’s passing at the end of last year was not widely known until a simple death notice appeared on January 9.
“Macdonald, Ros. (Publican Queens Ferry, QF Taverns).
"On December 29, 2012, suddenly.
"Dearly loved husband, mate and honey of Merle. Much loved brother-in-law of Ray and Jean (deceased), Fay and Alan, Wyn and Bob (deceased).
"Ros will be missed by Mac and all his mates.
"In accordance with his wishes a private service has been held.”
Seven days later a notice appeared from Ros’s daughters of a previous marriage, Nichola and Amanda, and other family members.
It was Ros and Merle’s way. After more than 20 colourful years in the Auckland hotel trade a couple known to thousands wanted no fuss.
Ros and Merle were on holiday in Norfolk Island when Ros succumbed to a suspected stroke. Flown urgently back to Auckland, a man some regarded as indestructable held out for only a few days.
Aged about 70, his passing closed the final chapter on what is fondly regarded by patrons as the life and times of Auckland’s last city publican.
With only one or two exceptions, the hustle and bustle of many Auckland bars these days is all arrogant managers, short-term staff, squawking kids and a universal disdain of loyal patronage.
But for 20 years leaseholders Ros and Merle Macdonald upheld the best traditions of the public bar at their beloved Queen's Ferry Tavern in Vulcan Lane.
From precarious beginnings and the cleaning out of gang members, the couple worked hard to build a legendary central-city haven for legions of drinkers – mainly men – who thrived on the pub’s gritty bonhommie.
Frequented daily by lawyers, cops, journalists, insurance brokers, gentlemen from the other side of the law careful to mind their p’s and q’s, and other folk of indeterminate occupation, the Queen's Ferry was the melting pot of local gossip.
Prominent Auckland crime barrister Roger Chambers – whose legal chambers are conveniently positioned directly across Vulcan Lane from the Queen’s Ferry – was one of Ros’s mates and a long-time patron.
“I started drinking in the Queen’s Ferry in 1959,” Mr Chambers told NBR ONLINE over ales and gin.
“When Ros took over the lease in 1975 the police refused to issue a permanent licence until he cleaned the pub up – that meant turfing out gang members and other folk deemed undesireable.”
Regulars in those days included Mr Asia drugs kingpin Terry Clark, crime characters Two Fats Smith and the Beagle Boys, along with courtesans Cardigan Kate, Tugboat Annie and Hairy Mary – all now long gone from the neighbourhood.
These and other colourful characters mingled cheek by jowl with a cavalcade of Auckland Star journalists including Gordon McLauchlin, Graeme Kennedy and Fred Gebbie, insurance salesmen, cops (and their fizzes), the resident bookie and lawyers – including occasional tippler Muir Chilwell, who would later become a knighted High Court judge.
Popular social club
Under Ros and Merle’s reign, the Queen's Ferry developed an active and popular social club, with patrons keen to “play away” at a range of well supported sporting events.
Ros kept up his love of rugby by organising a few mates to join him in Sydney on Bledisloe Cup pilgrimages.
Sometimes these stalwarts made it to the game.
It was on these jaunts Ros became known as The Great Helmsman – a nickname which stuck in recognition of his uncanny ability to get everyone lost while seeking out some yet-to-be-sampled Aussie boozer.
Young ladies were always welcome at the Queen’s Ferry – especially those keen on dancing on beer barrels.
Students were not. On pub crawl days Ros formidably filled the pub’s front door, arms folded and a with face of thunder no student dared challenge.
Ros was one of the first publicans to change his trading hours to suit the drinking patterns of the inner city – early opening and no late nights.
Lawyers tell of refreshing themselves with an early morning whisky and milk before soldiering up to the old Magistrate’s Court.
On the move
After more than 20 years, a change of ownership of the building meant the pub lease was not renewed.
Ros and Merle – and their patrons – were bitterly disappointed as the shutters came down on a grand corner of traditional Auckland.
But it did not take the hard-working couple long to find alternative space in the ground floor of the then BNZ Tower in Queen St – where they opened their new QF Tavern a few metres from Vulcan Lane.
Droves of loyal customers followed them.
After a few years at the QF and nearly 30 years of daily driving to and from their lifestyle farm home in the Bombay Hills, where Ros raised dry stock and ostriches, the couple retired and sold out of the pub game.
Ros Macdonald – who was said to never shout because he reckoned his prices were already the lowest around – will be remembered by many as the last of the true publicans.
Back to Roger Chambers: “Under Ros and Merle the Queen's Ferry was a place of fun and laughter.
"There was rarely, if ever, any aggro. What there was was quickly nipped in the bud and the transgressor never set foot in the place again.
"We will miss Ros.
"By the way, isn’t it your shout?”