Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Six O'Clock Swill

You knock off work at 5pm.

It's been a long day and you decide to go to a bar for a drink with some of your workmates.

It's a mixed group, men and women, and you split up at the entrance. The girls go into the ladies lounge, and the blokes go in via a separate door to the public bar.

Inside, the bar is hot, crowded and smokey. The main area is crammed, wall to wall, with the heaving bodies of the city's workers. Everyone is drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

You push your way to the bar and order a couple of beers. You and your mates take it in turns getting the rounds in.

People yell and argue, and a few scuffles break out. You can barely hear yourself talk. You are jostled constantly, and beer slops on your clothes. There is beer all over the floor, and your shoes are damp.

At ten to six, the barman rings a bell, and all hell breaks loose. The atmosphere, already boiling, erupts into a mad frenzy. 

As one, every punter in the place makes a lunge for the bar, everyone shouting for five beers each. They snatch the schooners up as they are poured, and start chugging them down as quickly as they can, gulping the beer in huge, breathless gasps. 

The Six O'Clock Swill has begun.

Melbourne beer ad, prior to WWI.

In 1910, Melbourne was a city with a powerful thirst.

With one bar for every 120 people (the current ratio is more than three times this), alcohol was one of the city's most popular, and lucrative, past times. Stopping at the pub on the way home from work was a daily ritual for a majority of the city's workers, and the industry had expanded to meet this enormous demand.

Alcohol was cheap, readily available, and heavy drinking an accepted part of everyday life.

Temperance movement, anti alcohol poster.

The downside to was as you would expect; high rates of alcoholism, and alcohol related health problems. Also claimed, although not universally accepted, was that the level of drinking had lead to increased property crime and domestic violence.

Campaigning for more moderate alcohol consumption and stricter government control, the local Temperance movement became prominent in Australia's major cities, Temperance Halls were established, where serving alcohol was prohibited, and regular anti-booze demonstrations organised.

During World War I, the Temperance movement would reach the height of their influence.

Prohibition poster from the US, during World War I
A pro six 6 o'clock closing poster.

As Australia sent soldiers off to Europe to fight and die in their thousands, and the war dragged on year after year, a mood of austerity gripped the nation.

On the home front, public drunken-ness was viewed more than ever as improper, and consuming alcohol as an indulgence. Australia's troops were prohibited from drinking on duty, and many people back home saw it as their patriotic duty to observe the same restrictions.

The Temperance movement seized their opportunity.

In Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide they began to campaign aggressively for a sharp reduction in alcohol trading hours. Most pubs at this time stayed open till 10 or 11pm, and the Temperance movement now demanded this be reduced to 6pm, allowing only one hour of drinking time at the end of the work day.

Large demonstrations were held across Australia, and petitions with thousands of names collected.

A now vintage pub sign marks the change.

The campaign was successful enough that several state governments agreed to hold a referendum. South Australia voted first, in late 1915, and the 6 o'clock closing option was approved by a small majority. 

The new regulations were introduced in SA in March 1916, and by the end of the same year voters in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania had also approved the change (WA would move to 8pm closing in 1923, and Queensland never altered its laws).

The Temperance movement appeared to have won a decisive victory.

A 1920's speakeasy.

But as the dour mood of the war years gave way to the Roaring Twenties, alcohol came roaring back.

With drinking hours now severely restricted, illicit cafes and bars, also known as speak-easy's, began to operate after 6pm. And found plenty of customers willing to break the law.

As in America during Prohibition (also in force by this time), these enterprises were often run by shady characters, who flouted the rules and made themselves rich in the process, charging a premium to serve a thirsty public.

But with after hours booze prohibitively expensive for many, the rest of the adult population had to try and make do with the one hour of drinking time they had available to them.

The Six O'Clock Swill was born.

A rural Victorian beer, named after the 6 o'clock close.

And it was not a pretty picture:


The six o'clock swill was commemorated in one the most famous of Victorian paintings; 'The Bar', by John Brack:

In the end, perhaps the most remarkable thing about 6 o'clock closing is that it lasted as long as it did; persisting for five decades.

There very various attempts to wind back the law after it was enacted. As Melbourne became more open to the wider world, and more of a tourist destination, our restrictive drinking regulations were much remarked on by tourists and visitors. Opponents of six o'clock closing claimed that this gave Melbourne a provincial, or even unwelcoming, atmosphere.

But anti-drinking advocates continued to lobby against any changes.

Rally against changes to 6 o'clock closing laws.

But, eventually, one by one, the states that enacted six o'clock closing began to rescind it. 

In Tasmania, the regulations did not even last through to World War II, and were reversed in 1937. Although it was not for another 18 years before another state would follow; New South Wales relaxing the laws in 1955.

In 1960, the head of Victoria's Liquor Licensing Board, Judge Archibald Fraser, authored a report on the state of Victoria's liquor laws. Judge Fraser had undertaken a fact finding tour of America and Europe, analysing their liquor regulations, and now compared these unfavourably to Victoria's.

'Deplorable' was Fraser's verdict.

It took another six years, but Fraser's report was the catalyst for change. 6 o'clock closing was finally repealed in February, 1966. From this date, bars in Melbourne were permitted to remain open till 10pm.

When it finally came, the change was not as dramatic as many had predicted: