Last week I posted an item about Arthur Stace, Mr Eternity, a simple man who has become an iconic part of Sydney’s history. Here is another story of the same kind. . .
Back in 1938 a man by the name of Harry Edwards opened a caravan cafe at the gates of the naval yard in Woolloomooloo.
For those not from Sydney, Woolloomooloo is a harbourside suburb of the city about 2 kilometres east of the CBD. Originally a poor, working class suburb that was noted for its docks and wharves, it has undergone gentrification with valuable redevelopment of its waterfront areas.
Back when Harry opened his cafe van, there were no late night eateries. Originally serving the workers from the naval dockyard (today known as Garden Island Naval Base Woolloomooloo), Harry’s fast food (notably his pie ‘n’ peas and his crumbed sausages) proved so popular that other night owls also began to make a stop – sailors, soldiers, taxi drivers, starlets and police officers. His business was simply called “Harry’s”.
In 1938 Harry enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces and served during World War 2, where his boxing abilities earned him the nickname “Tiger”.
Wounded and discharged in 1942, he drove a taxi and then a fruit truck upon returning home. He soon reopened his late night mobile cafe but this time using an old army ambulance which he parked at rugby league matches and other sporting events. In 1945 he swapped the ambulance for a home made caravan which he again parked outside the ‘Loo dockyard, much to the annoyance of the naval authorities.
Harry’s 1945 van, donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1985 by later owner Alex Kuronya
According to the Powerhouse Museum website:
Harry's typically Australian fast food, especially his classic pie 'n' pea floaters, captured the public's imagination and made the Cafe de Wheels a unique part of the city's nightlife. It attracted blue collar workers, sailors, taxi drivers and late night revellers from Kings Cross. It even became a tourist attraction. International celebrity visitors included Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum, Shirley Maclaine, Phyllis Diller, Colonel Sanders and Elton John. Local supporters included John Laws, Mike Walsh, Kerry Packer and Olivia Newton-John. Despite this glamorous patronage, Harry's maintained an egalitarian reputation. Musicians, streetwalkers, dancers, policemen and bookmakers could be seen late at night devouring meat pies, hot dogs and crumbed sausages alongside judges, politicians and society's well-to-do. With its romantic location between the 'Loo and the Cross, Harry's was a meeting place where social classes intersected. It represented something quintessential about the personality of Sydney.
The change of name from “Harry’s” to ”Harrys Cafe de Wheels” came about because of a Council regulation that required mobile food vans to move at least 12 inches (30 cm) daily.
At one stage the wheels mysteriously went missing and for the next few years wags referred to the van as “Harry’s Cafe de Axle.”
Harry’s was especially known for its pie floaters, an Oz delicacy whereby a meat pie is either covered in, or floating in, mushy peas or pea soup. It is often garnished with tomato sauce . . .
Harry’s Pie ‘n’ Peas
The Tiger Harry, as above but with mashed potato as well
In 1975 Harry retired (he died in 1979) and sold his van to Hungarian born refugee Alex Kuronya.
Kuronya, who had arrived in Australia in 1950 from Austria, was known for greeting customers with a friendly 'Hi ya handsome, what'll it be tonight?'
In 1988 Alex Kuronya sold the business to Michael Hannah, an ex Vietnam vet who had attended at Harry’s as a child with his father.
Under Hannah’s ownership, Harry’s was revitalised and became a favourite celebrity stop. In 1991, Rupert Murdoch had pies shipped to Los Angeles for an Australian themed Oscar’s party.
Today there are 10 franchise outlets in various locations negotiations taking currently taking place for expansion into Asia. It remains a gathering place for footpath diners but one noted change is that these days there are many more young people.
Colonel sanders of KFC fame ate 3 floaters at Harry's
In December 2004, Harry’s was classified by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and included on its Register. According to the National Trust of Australia, Harry’s is a “quintessential Sydney icon” and in the Trust’s opinion, falls within the following definition:
“Those places which are components of the natural or the cultural environment of Australia, that have aesthetic, historical, architectural, archaeological, scientific, or social significance or other special value for future generations, as well as for the present community.”