07 November 2015

Sexist and gross alcoholic behaviour in pubs: The Six O'Clock Swill.

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, most hotels in Australia closed no earlier than 11 pm. Support for making hotel closing times earlier came from the Temperance Movement, which hoped that implem­enting restrictions on the sale of beer would lead to its reduction and then its ban. Morals campaigns covered sins other than alcohol, of course. But from the 1880s on, religiously-motivated temperance activists targeted a] drunk men and b] loose women who chose to work behind a pub bar.

Prominent groups in this movement were the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Rechabites. Their demonstrations at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century were made more urgent with the outbreak of war in 1914. It was forcibly argued that a "well-ordered, self-disciplined and morally upright home front was a precondition for the successful prosecution of the war."

The temperance argument worked. Six PM closing was introduced into Australian pubs during WW1 as an austerity measure. [But surely the public morality argument was more compelling to the temperance movement]. The first state to introduce early clos­ing was South Australia in March 1916, after a referendum to support the sold­iers. Six PM closing was adopted in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania later in 1916. And in New Zealand in Dec 1917. Only Western Australia and Queensland maintained their old legislation.

The 1916 vote in NSW was influenced by a riot involv­ing drunken soldiers. Troops had mutinied against conditions at one of the military camps. So the soldiers raided hotels in Liverpool before travelling by train to Sydney, where one man was shot dead in a riot at Central Railway station.

Last 6 o'clock swill 
Porirua Tavern Wellington
October 1967.
Photo credit: Evening Post. 

Clearly the 6 PM closing law was intended to reduce drunken mayhem and alcohol consumption, but perversely it encouraged them. This was because of the short time men had to consume alcohol leaving work and 6 pm. This became known as the Six O'clock Swill, the last-minute rush to buy drinks at a hotel bar before it closed. Hotels catered for this short, heavy drinking period after work by tiling the walls for easy hosing down of vomit and spillages. Not surprisingly men were said to drive home from the pub “pissed as a newt”. Car crashes and assaults by men on defence­less wives and children were said to be at their highest after 6 PM.

Six o'clock closing often fuelled an hour-long speed-drinking session, as men raced to get as drunk as possible in the limited time available. Just as the last call came for drinks, “time gentlemen, please”, the bartender carried a pistol-shaped spigot hitched to a long tube and filled each glass full quickly. So 6 PM closing times were not successful; they did not reduce beer consumpt­ion and they probably promoted the buying of beer at bottle shops, to consume at home after 6 PM.

Wives waited outside a Dunedin hotel at 6pm,
to help their drunk husbands home in 1952.
Photo credit: Te Ara – Encyclopedia of New Zealand

I was not allowed in pubs in the 1950s, but I certainly remember my mother and grandmother were horrified by drunken men lurching around outside suburban pubs. The women in my family believed that the only civilised way of drinking alcohol was pouring wine, in crystal glasses, at the family’s dinner table every Friday night.

Bar closing times were re-extended back to 10 pm in Tasmania in 1937. It took until 1954 before a NSW refer­en­dum succeeded, and closing hours were extended in that state to 10 pm. Hours were extended in Victoria in 1966, with country Warrnambool celebrating on the first night of late closing with a carnival atmosphere in the main streets. But the Victorian state government was taking no chances; it introduced a .05 blood-alcohol rule on the very same day that late closing was introduced. South Australia was the last state to abol­ish six o'clock closing with legislation introduced by everyone’s hero premier Don Dunstan in Sept 1967. And bar closing times were extended to 10 pm in New Zealand in October 1967, also after a referendum.


The drinking ritual was a gendered experience since women were excluded from public bars. Excessive drinking in this all-male environment became the definition of Australian masculinity. The Australian way of life celeb­rated a suburban ideal that positioned wives at home, cooking the tea.

The main bar of the typical Australian pub was Public Bar where, until the 1970s, only men were permitted to drink. Most pubs did include a Ladies' Lounge, where women and men could drink together or loose women could drink alone.

Women barmaids were frowned upon but they worked hard in the all-male public bar.
Bondi pub, Sydney, 1951.
Photo credit: The Australian

In March 1965 two academics were refused service at the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane because they were women. In protest, they chained themselves to the foot rail that ran around the bar. The protest failed then, but now the beautifully renovated Regatta Hotel is heritage protected and very proud of its involvement in women's rights.

Sexual segregation in pubs persisted. In fact separate drinking only started to break down after women's rights activists continued to publicly challenge the convention. Even as late as January 1973 a group of feminist activists had to stage a protest against the rule in the Public Bar of the Hotel Manly in Sydney. When they entered and ordered drinks they were refused service by the publican. Only then did the long-standing sexist convention disappear, eventually backed up by state and federal anti-discrimination legislation.

I particularly enjoyed The Temperance Triangle and the Six O’Clock Swill in Melbourne Circle.


Student of History said...

My father came home smelling of spilled beer and cigarettes. He looked like rubbish.

Anonymous said...

Pubs were pretty disgusting places to be outside at 6pm. Barmaids were usually brilliant people and paid far less than their true worth. They could prevent or stop fights without being physical, they were everyone's friend and often a confident to many men whose wives just 'did not understand them'.

Joseph said...

My father did not drink beer himself, but thought the temperance movement would never be victorious in Australia. This has always been a hard drinking nation.

Hels said...


the smells must have been horrible. A long day's work, often physical, followed by an hour of intensive smoking and boozing :(

I know a lot of women used to get their husbands directly into the shower at home, after the pubs emptied.

Hels said...


since women weren't allowed in the public bars, you would have thought barmaids would have been a welcome addition to the pub scene. The drinkers certainly liked them.

But look at this. "A barmaid spends her time in serving out intoxicants which weaken people's moral restraints... Can this possibly be fit business for any pure minded girl? Again, a pretty girl is frequently engaged to attract soft young men, and keep them hanging about the bar, and when nature’s bloom has left her cheek, paint is often used. May the day soon arrive when no fair Australian girl shall be allowed, or even be willing, to help gild the wine cup or beer glass with her attractive, and, alas! her most dangerous presence." (Archdeacon Francis Boyce: The Drink Problem in Australia: 1893).

Oh for goodness sake! "Weaken people's moral restraints"???

Hels said...


the beer per capita drinking rate by country alters a tad each year, but basically the top nations were always: Germany, Czechoslovakia (as it was), Australia and Ireland. Our proud history as beer drinkers probably started in the early 19th century. The Temperance Movement had zero chance of achieving their goal.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The temperance movement in America had similar bad results--it did not lessen the desire for drink; by forcing drinkers and moonshiners alike to evade the law, it diminished respect for the government; and it allowed organized crime to grow and become entrenched.

Write P.G. Wodehouse often included barmaids who were respectable, salt-of-the-earth type characters. He possibly was unaware of their inclination to paint.

Hels said...


the USA was on a hiding to nothing, as my late father used to say. No non-Islamic nation can ban the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcohol and not expect seismic results. A careful analysis before Prohibition started in 1920 would have seen at least some of the inevitable consequences eg criminals gangs were going to take the supply and distribution of alcohol into their own hands. So why didn't the Feds repeal a bad law as soon as possible? Why wait till 1933?

One innovative response to American Prohibition was in the cruise liner industry. As long as they sailed outside the USA's territorial waters, wealthy passengers could have a wonderful holiday and as much alcohol as they wanted.