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Liquor, temperance and legislation: The origins of six o'clock closing in Victoria during WWI


Liquor legislation in Victoria has always been a lively area of the law and it was particularly the case during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Long before the start of the First World War, various groups promoting abstinence from alcohol had brought pressure to bear on the Victorian Parliament. Numerous temperance organisations, churches and social reformers waged tireless campaigns against alcohol consumption, having some success but never achieving a total prohibition on alcohol at federal or state level in Australia.[footnote 1] Over the years, a number of state parliamentarians were also prominent in the temperance debates. In 1915, the Parliament legislated to change the closing times of Victorian hotels from 11.30pm to 9.30pm, and then to the earlier closing time of 6pm in 1916. The six o'clock closing time was made permanent after the war in 1919 and it remained that way in Victoria for 50 years, until 1966.

Early liquor legislation and temperance interests

The control of liquor licences and trading hours in Victoria has been an issue of enduring concern to the Parliament. Since separation from New South Wales in 1851, Victoria has amended, reviewed and rewritten its liquor laws many times. Trading hours were an area of interest as early as 1854, when an Act was passed to impose licence fees of £100 and to end Sunday trading (with the exception of sales to hotel lodgers) in Victoria. Ten years later, the Wines, Beer and Spirits Sale Act 1864 introduced a wide range of licence types and allowed publicans to trade from 6am until midnight,[footnote 2] effectively deregulating the licensing laws in Victoria.[footnote 3] The power to grant and transfer licences was then held by justices of the peace.[footnote 4]

Temperance organisations appeared in Australia in the 1830s, initially with the aim of moderating excessive alcohol consumption in society. By the turn of the century the temperance groups generally campaigned for total abstinence from all alcoholic beverages.[footnote 5] Over a period of many years, temperance interests sought to influence Victorian liquor laws, with mixed success. One of the earliest temperance groups established in Melbourne was the Total Abstinence Society, founded in 1842. The Society embarked on its work for 'the prevention and cure of intemperance',[footnote 6] with 'ceaseless activity' in its promotion of the cause of national sobriety.[footnote 7]

The Temperance League of Victoria was established in 1857 by the 'fervent believer in temperance' and Victorian Member of Parliament for East Bourke, Richard Heales. Mr Heales had been active in the Total Abstinence Society and later travelled overseas, returning to find that the burgeoning drinking culture of the Victorian gold fields was in the ascendancy. The rapid influx of gold-seekers to Victoria dramatically increased beer and spirit consumption; drinking peaked along with the economy.[footnote 8] Mr Heales set up the Temperance League to co-ordinate the work of the existing temperance societies and went to the rescue of Temperance Hall in Russell Street, which he had helped to build and was experiencing financial troubles.[footnote 9] When Mr Heales died at the age of 42 in 1864, The Argus newspaper noted the passing of one of the 'most zealous and industrious' of public men.[footnote 10]

A Victorian Royal Commission in 1867 reported on the operation of the 1864 Wines Act, finding that the Act had 'operated most perniciously' and that the regulation of the liquor trade needed to be improved.[footnote 11] The Commission's recommendations were translated into amending legislation in 1870. The 1870 Act (The Wines Beer and Spirits Sale Statute 1864 Amendment Act 1870) disallowed several types of licence, including night and grocers' licences, but still permitted the sale of alcohol between 6am and midnight. It also allowed for the possible restriction of licences by considering objections (from Councils on behalf of ratepayers and other licensees) which could cause new licence applications to be refused.[footnote 12] During the same period, the organised temperance movement in Victoria began to grow large enough to exert some influence on the public debate over liquor.[footnote 13]

Local option and the temperance resurgence

In the early 1870s, several Members of Parliament promoted 'Permissive' Bills, most notably James Casey (the Member for Mandurang) and George Higinbotham (the Member for East Bourke Buroughs and later Chief Justice of Victoria). The Bills were based on the British model of local option arrangements, which gave ratepayers the chance to close neighbourhood licensed premises by way of a majority vote.[footnote 14] At a Permissive Bill Association meeting in June 1873, it was noted that two previous attempts to pass the legislation had not fared well in the Victorian Legislative Council, but that Mr Casey would sponsor the Bill again. Association President, Mr Higinbotham, said it was for the people 'to say whether or not intoxicating drinks should be sold in their districts' and the legislature should enable that to happen.[footnote 15] Two Permissive Liquors Sale Bills were introduced by Mr Casey in the Legislative Assembly in 1873; the first was eventually withdrawn and the second was to be considered further in committee but the order lapsed in November that year.[footnote 16]

The tightening of licensing conditions did continue with the Licensing Act 1876, which required any new licences to be approved by the majority of municipal ratepayers in a licensing district.[footnote 17] The 1876 Act responded to the interests of both the temperance movement and the publicans (represented by the Licensed Victuallers' Association) who had organised a joint conference in 1874. As an editorial in The Age newspaper noted, the two groups had some major points of agreement with more restrictive legislation: the teetotallers hoped to reduce drunkenness and the publicans were anxious to keep the liquor trade 'in as few hands as possible'.[footnote 18] Opportunities to buy alcohol were certainly plentiful. In 1878, with a total population of just under 880,000 people,[footnote 19] Victoria 'boasted 4,320 hotels, 334 licensed grocers, 113 wine saloons, 500 spirit merchants and 104 brewers.'[footnote 20]

An international temperance conference, claimed to be the first in Australia, was held in Melbourne in 1880.[footnote 21] The Victorian Alliance group was formed the following year to co-ordinate and progress temperance objectives. Its inaugural meeting was attended by several Members of the Victorian Parliament. James Munro, at that time the Member for Carlton, chaired the meeting and Alfred Deakin, the Member for West Bourke (and future Prime Minister of Australia), moved a resolution stating that 'the traffic in intoxicating liquors for consumption as beverages is detrimental to the best interests of society, and retards its progress, physically, morally, and religiously.'[footnote 22] Not all members of the Alliance were total abstainers but the majority pledged to give up all alcohol as they vigorously pursued their goal of local option legislation.[footnote 23]

The economic boom years of the 1880s saw the opening of temperance hotels, or 'coffee palaces', where travellers could stay without being tempted by alcohol.[footnote 24] Mr Munro was prominent among the coffee palace developers and he was involved with a number of temperance establishments, notably the Federal, the Victoria and The Grand (renamed the Windsor Hotel in 1920). He was also a member of 'every notable temperance organisation' active in Melbourne at the time.[footnote 25] Mr Munro's many speculative business dealings were somewhat profitable during the boom but ran aground during the financial crisis of the early 1890s,[footnote 26] which coincided with his term as Premier.

Temperance groups sprang up all over Victoria and numerous churches took a prominent role in the promotion of abstinence. A number of religious denominations, particularly the Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers, were actively involved in the movement.[footnote 27] The Blue Ribbon movement, also known as 'gospel temperance',[footnote 28] formalised its presence in Victoria in 1883. Based on an organisation in the United States, the movement issued blue ribbons to those who took the pledge and committed to being 'thorough and total' abstainers.[footnote 29] A lead children's temperance organisation, the Victorian Band of Hope Union, was set up in Melbourne in 1884 to coordinate the efforts of existing groups based in church Sunday schools, and to build their membership.[footnote 30] Friendly societies such as the Independent Order of Rechabites and the Independent Order of Good Templars were also strongly in favour of the temperance cause.[footnote 31]

Women's involvement

Women became heavily involved in the temperance issue, at first by contributing to the women's committees of existing temperance groups and later through their own organisations.[footnote 32] In January 1885, The Age newspaper remarked that a temperance meeting of an 'unusually interesting character' was to be held in the Temperance Hall. It was considered unusual because the platform was to be occupied, and the meeting conducted, entirely 'by ladies'.[footnote 33] A report after the event said that the women were appearing in public because 'their fellow women were the greatest sufferers' from the evils of strong drink. They further commented that the speakers' anecdotes were more effective as they came from women's personal experiences of dealing with the miseries caused by overindulgence in alcohol.[footnote 34]

The Victorian branch of the United States-based Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) held its first conference in 1887, seeking to engage women with the principle of total abstinence.[footnote 35] The WCTU declared its badge to be a 'bow of pure white ribbon' and, in addition to the temperance cause, it aimed to campaign for the extermination of the opium and tobacco trades, as well as gambling.[footnote 36] Local temperance groups held regular meetings and were further motivated by international guest lecturers who toured Australia. Temperance organisations also proved to be very supportive of women's suffrage, anticipating the advantages for the temperance movement if women gained the vote (achieved in Victoria in 1908).[footnote 37]

Temperance advocates experienced a measure of success for their local option campaign with Parliament's introduction of the Licensing Act 1885. During the course of debate on the 1885 Bill, several petitions were presented to Parliament. The largest was a petition in favour of the proposed local option legislation, signed by 44,501 women and presented in the Legislative Assembly by Alfred Deakin on 8 September 1885. It was reported that Mr Deakin staggered under the weight of the 'gigantic scroll nearly as large as a cart-wheel', which was one-third of a mile long.[footnote 38] The petition had been organised by the women's committee of the Victorian Alliance and it had travelled all over Victoria in the previous 12 months, gathering the signatures of women over 16 years of age.[footnote 39] The petitioners regarded the 'traffic in intoxicating liquors' in the colony as the source of 'manifold evils to society at large'.[footnote 40]

The 1885 Act prohibited liquor trading after 11.30pm, a provision which remained in operation for 30 years. It curbed the granting of liquor licences by introducing a complex system of local option polls, allowing municipal ratepayers, within designated districts, the right to vote to close surplus licensed premises (calculated against a statutory limit based on population).[footnote 41] District licensing courts were set up and compensation was payable to the owners and licensees of any hotels that were closed. Licence fees under the new Act were to be charged on a graduated scale, from £15 to £50, depending on the value of the licensed premises.[footnote 42] In the following years, two government inquiries examined the negative aspects of alcohol and the trade itself, reviewing the treatment of 'habitual drunkards' and the conduct of hotels. The findings of both inquiries bolstered the temperance cause.[footnote 43]

The liquor industry actively lobbied for amendments to a proposed licensing Bill introduced in 1906 and won some concessions, including the postponement of the local option provisions until 1917 (later delayed to 1920, when Camberwell and Nunawading were the only districts that voted to close all their hotels and became 'dry' areas).[footnote 44] The Licensing Act 1906 established the Licences Reduction Board, with powers to reduce the number of hotels in the licensing districts and award compensation from a new fund. From 1907 to 1916, the Board closed 1,054 Victorian hotels for a compensation amount of £540,851.[footnote 45] Although the Board was undeniably the 'most effective hotel-killing machine',[footnote 46] there were also economic and industry pressures that made a number of the closures desirable.[footnote 47]

Trading hours under pressure

Well before shop trading hours were standardised in Victoria in 1905, the temperance movement had been calling for earlier closing hours for hotels. Hotel closing times had been fixed at 11.30pm by the Parliament in 1885. In 1901, a WCTU representative complained in a newspaper column that the liquor trade was 'allowed to continue its business up to a late hour'.[footnote 48] Six o'clock became the general closing time for metropolitan shops in Melbourne, effective from early March 1906.[footnote 49] However, it was not until 1911 that the six o'clock hotel closing movement made a more concerted effort to press its case with the Victorian Parliament.[footnote 50]

Methodist reformer and lay preacher, William Judkins, fought against many 'social evils' (including gambling, racing, drinking and dancing) and he had campaigned vigorously for local option in 1906.[footnote 51] In 1911, he led the Institute of Social Service and Reform Bureau into another battle, working towards standardising hotel and wine shop hours to match those of ordinary businesses.[footnote 52] He was part of a large temperance deputation that met with the Premier, John Murray, in February 1911. Premier Murray was quoted as saying that there was no reason why hotels should be allowed to stay open after shops were closed and that a 'wave of public opinion' was needed to sweep such evils away.[footnote 53] Despite the Premier's support, there were no substantial changes made at the time.

Other temperance organisations continued to work towards their common goal in the lead up to World War One. Resolutions were carried at WCTU branch meetings in 1911 regarding the 'desirability of bringing the hours of hotels into line with those of other trades' and local Rechabite groups were of the same opinion.[footnote 54] The WCTU gathered signatures for another petition in favour of earlier closing hours for hotels.[footnote 55] The resulting petition was presented to Parliament by the Water Supply Minister, William Hutchinson, in July 1914. The petition carried 51,670 signatures and was thought to be the largest petition ever presented to the Parliament.[footnote 56] It was then only a matter of weeks until the start of the war.

Wartime measures and patriotic abstinence

From the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, newly enlisted Victorian soldiers were stationed at the Broadmeadows training camp. There they found that a 'wet' canteen (as opposed to a 'dry', or teetotal, canteen) had been established, supplying beer and Australian wine. The Argus newspaper reported that the decision to run a wet canteen had 'won the enthusiasm of the men' and the 'undisguised appreciation of many of the senior officers'.[footnote 57] However, by early October, the Minister for Defence, Senator George Pearce, announced that wet canteens would cease to exist after the departure of the First Expeditionary Force.[footnote 58] The Age newspaper protested that there had been minimal problems related to alcohol, noting only 'four cases of intemperance in three weeks' during hot weather.[footnote 59]

Temperance groups tried to press the liquor issue during the Victorian state election campaign in late 1914. The state president of the WCTU, Cecilia Downing, used her speech at a WCTU convention in October to say that the 'liquor question should be dealt with', particularly when the 'money spent on drink could equip several additional contingents'.[footnote 60] Mrs Downing thought the approaching state election should be used for 'ventilating social reform matters', with the ballot box being an effective way to 'fight the drink foe'.[footnote 61]

The Victorian Alliance, under the direction of its president, Samuel Mauger (briefly the state Member for Footscray before becoming a federal Member), issued circulars to all Members of the Legislative Assembly. The circular asked Members whether they would stand firm to continue the local option provisions of the Licensing Act.[footnote 62] The election resulted in the return of the Liberal administration, headed by Premier Sir Alexander Peacock, who had promised not to interfere with the licensing law.[footnote 63] In early 1915, the Brighton branch of the WCTU urged all patriotic citizens to help the Empire by working towards shorter hours for the sale of liquor until the end of the war.[footnote 64]

On 17 February 1915, a large deputation of temperance representatives met with Premier Peacock at the Treasury offices, led by the Member for Bendigo West, David Smith. The group urged the Premier to act on earlier closing hours for hotels in the interests of the troops. Samuel Mauger said that 'public opinion was ripe for the change', with 'helplessly drunk' soldiers having been found that morning in Swanston Street.[footnote 65] The Premier replied that Cabinet was aware of the matter and that they would do all that the law allowed. The Premier thought that only a small percentage of the troops had misbehaved and that much of the drink-related trouble with soldiers was due to the abolition of the wet canteens. Nevertheless, he made an undertaking to give the deputation's request careful consideration, in consultation with the police and the federal Minister for Defence.[footnote 66]

Events outside Victoria impacted on the public debate about alcohol, adding fuel to the temperance arguments. It was reported that the Czar of Russia had abolished the sale of vodka, foregoing over £90 million in revenue, and that the number of states declaring prohibition in the United States of America had grown.[footnote 67] King George V banned all wines, beers and spirits from the Royal Household in April 1915.[footnote 68] In doing so, the King followed the lead of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, who had declared that the three enemies of Great Britain and the Allies were Germany, Austria and drink.[footnote 69] Keen observers noted that the King's example of abstinence (and that of Lord Kitchener) was quickly echoed by many in Australia, including the Governor-General and several state Governors.[footnote 70] Pressure for change was also increased by the result of the South Australian referendum on hotel closing hours, which produced a clear majority vote for six o'clock closing.[footnote 71]

Reviewing the proposed legislative program for the new Parliament, The Age noted that the new Government had no licensing Bills listed, but that the combined weight of public opinion, representations from delegations, resolutions from public meetings and the result of the vote in South Australia were likely to make it reconsider.[footnote 72] A deputation of women, representing several organisations, met with the Premier on 30 April 1915. They presented him with a petition signed by 1,278 leaders of city business firms, urging legislation for the earlier closing of hotels. Premier Peacock committed to raise the issue in Cabinet.[footnote 73] A large public meeting was held at the Town Hall on 3 May 1915, chaired by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Lowther Clarke, to address the drink problem. After a number of speakers, a motion for the earlier closing of hotels during the war was put to the vote, with those in favour winning a narrow majority.[footnote 74]

Closing hours referendum?

By 18 May 1915, the Government had determined to act. In response to a question about public houses asked by James Rouget, the Member for Evelyn, the Premier said the Chief Secretary would introduce a Bill to provide 'for a curtailment of the hours of trading during the war'. He added that the Government did not intend to take the question of earlier closing to a referendum.[footnote 75] The Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Bill 1915 was introduced the next day, with a proposal to change hotel opening times from 6am to 9am, and the closing times from 11.30pm to 9.30pm.

Chief Secretary John Murray (the Member for Warrnambool) said that the Government had introduced the Bill due to the 'demand … made by public opinion', by the people who were neither the 'extreme teetotal party' nor the 'licensed victuallers of the trade'. He acknowledged that the liquor traders would have to make sacrifices and that the legislation did not go as far as the temperance cause would like.[footnote 76] The Bill was debated at length and, despite a show of protest by the Member for East Melbourne, Alfred Farthing (who asserted that the teetotal party had 'unfairly seized on the tense feeling caused by the war' to achieve their aims),[footnote 77] it eventually passed and came into force on 6 July 1915.

The Government's moderate approach to limiting hotel closing hours did not last very long. Events in other states moved relatively quickly; a six o'clock referendum achieved a majority vote in Tasmania in late March 1916.[footnote 78] By early April, it was reported that the Victorian State Cabinet had discussed the possibility of a referendum.[footnote 79] A Council of Churches deputation made a presentation to Premier Peacock on 12 April 1916, advancing the case for a referendum on early closing.[footnote 80] Within a week, a 300-strong liquor trade deputation had also made its argument to the Premier against earlier closing hours, contending that a referendum should not be decided in favour of early closing unless it had at least a 'three-fifths majority'.[footnote 81] On 30 May, a meeting of the Victorian Alliance resolved that its branches should form themselves into six o'clock closing leagues with the central council leading the movement.[footnote 82]

On 6 June 1916, the Victorian State Cabinet announced its decision to hold a referendum in October on the issue of hotel closing hours.[footnote 83] Within a matter of days, the early closing referendum held in New South Wales resulted in a 62 per cent vote in favour of six o'clock closing.[footnote 84] The battle lines for a Victorian referendum campaign were drawn. Mr Mauger of the Victorian Alliance vowed to 'fight fairly and above board', certain that temperance advocates were supported by 'all the forces of righteousness, the leaders of science, and chief exponents of education'.[footnote 85] Mr Farthing described the six o'clock closing agitation as a 'wave of Puritanism sweeping across Australia', saying that the social reformers of the movement had 'reached the stage of hysteria'.[footnote 86] James Farrer, the Member for Barwon, expressed his disapproval of the referendum, remarking that Parliament should accept responsibility for the matter.[footnote 87]

Premier Peacock introduced the Liquor Referendum Bill on 9 August 1916 and moved the second reading on 23 August. Just before the Premier spoke, Mr Farthing presented a petition with 135,000 signatures, requesting that there be no further restriction of the trading hours of liquor bars.[footnote 88] The Premier proceeded with his speech, stating that there was a strong popular demand for the liquor referendum and the community recognised the importance of restricting trading hours during war time. The Premier said that 'over-indulgence in alcohol' militated against 'the efficiency of the citizen'.[footnote 89] When James Menzies, the Member for Lowan, asked whether the parliamentary bar might be an exception to early closing, the Premier replied that it was 'a matter for consideration by the Refreshment Room Committee'.[footnote 90] A lengthy debate on the broader questions of the referendum ensued.[footnote 91]

'Temporary' six o'clock closing begins

On 5 September 1916, however, the Premier announced that the Liquor Referendum Bill would be postponed due to the federal government's announcement that a national conscription referendum was to be held on 28 October. Australian casualty figures had climbed on the Western Front and recruiting numbers were too low to adequately supply reinforcements.[footnote 92] Premier Peacock thought it would be 'quite out of place' for the liquor question to be considered alongside the conscription issue, which must take priority during 'the greatest war the world has ever seen'.[footnote 93] The Victorian government instead chose a more direct course of action. The next day the Premier gave notice that a new Bill was to be introduced, providing for six o'clock closing for all hotels and clubs throughout Victoria. The new provisions were intended to last until the completion of the session of Parliament following the end of the war.[footnote 94]

On the eve of the new regime, the final 9.30pm closing time was marked at city hotels by 'much hilarity', with young men at one pub joining hands to sing 'Auld Lang Syne' before being pushed out into the street by the licensee.[footnote 95] The Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act 1916 commenced operation on 25 October 1916. At the end of October, a large crowd gathered at the Temperance Hall to celebrate the victory for six o'clock closing and the 'good effect' it was already having on the community. Victorian Alliance President, Mr Mauger, stressed that 'the trench the Temperance party had now won must never be yielded to the enemy again'.[footnote 96]

The Argus newspaper assessed Melbourne's drinking habits in November 1916, deciding that the quantity of 'liquor consumed by the excessive drinker has not been diminished' and, by 'speeding up' their intake, 'inebriates' still managed to get their customary drinking done in the available hours. They also found a proliferation of 'sly grog shops' around the city and suburbs.[footnote 97] Billiard rooms and temperance bars, which were allowed to stay open later than 6pm, were thought to conduct illicit sales of alcohol.[footnote 98] Women had written to the Police Commissioner complaining that their husbands had suddenly become billiards enthusiasts after six o'clock closing began.[footnote 99] By the following January, The Age newspaper reported that police had made 87 prosecutions for licensing offences since the start of six o'clock closing.[footnote 100]

In December 1916, Parliament passed a major Bill that substantially changed the Victorian licensing law. The Licensing Act 1916 constituted the Licences Reduction Board as the Licensing Court of Victoria, with its duties greatly extended to cover the full gamut of granting, renewing and cancelling licences and assessing fees and compensation. Victoria was divided into 217 licensing districts with each one overseen by a licensing inspector. A new system of percentage licence fees was introduced, varying according to the volume of liquor business conducted. The Act regulated the conditions under which liquor could be served with meals on licensed premises, increased the penalties for violating the liquor laws, and provided for the registration of barmaids.[footnote 101] Much to the dismay of the temperance organisations, local option voting was postponed until after the war, prompting them to launch a campaign for complete national prohibition under a new organisation: the Australian Alliance Prohibition Council.[footnote 102]

In January 1918, the federal Senate agreed to a motion to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the effects of intoxicating liquor on departing and returning soldiers, but its final report was not tabled until shortly after the war had ended.[footnote 103] Temperance groups kept the liquor issue alive in the public arena. On 21 May 1918, a 'Strength of Empire' movement was launched at a meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall, following the lead of similar organisations overseas, with their objectives being 'prohibition and purity'.[footnote 104] William Edgar, the Member for East Yarra, chaired the meeting and the Member for Boroondara, Edmund Greenwood, was prominent among the other church and temperance society speakers. Mr Greenwood said the movement stood for federal war-time prohibition and permanent state prohibition (as well as effective measures to deal with venereal diseases).[footnote 105]

Six o'clock closing continues for decades

The Victorian Premier, Harry Lawson, delivered a policy speech at Castlemaine in June 1918 that would have encouraged, if not completely satisfied, the temperance campaigners. He said the government intended to ensure that six o'clock closing was enforced and made permanent, with extra measures to ensure that the illicit sale of alcohol was stopped.[footnote 106] Accordingly, one year after Armistice Day, the Licensing Bill was introduced into the Legislative Assembly in November 1919. Chief Secretary Major Matthew Baird (Member for Ballarat West), confirmed that the Bill was to make permanent the previously temporary war-time restrictions on the sale of liquor.

Major Baird said that six o'clock closing would be 'in the interests of the community as a whole' and could no longer be regarded as a measure taken against soldiers. The new law was to apply to liquor bars, temperance bars and billiard rooms.[footnote 107] Luke Clough, the Member for Bendigo East, questioned whether early closing had so far achieved its aims, quoting statistics from the Victorian Year Book to show that the output of beer from the breweries had increased along with the phenomenon of home drinking.[footnote 108] William Beckett, the Member for Melbourne North in the Legislative Council, argued against making six o'clock closing permanent, saying that the 'usual wowser crowd are never satisfied while the mass of the people are having any enjoyment.'[footnote 109]

After a lengthy and wide-ranging debate through both houses, the Bill received Royal Assent on 19 December 1919. Hotel hours in Victoria were fixed from 9am to 6pm, restrictions on Sunday trading and during prohibited hours were increased and licensed premises had to be kept locked while closed.[footnote 110] Six o'clock closing was to remain in place in Victoria for another 50 years.

Moves towards liberalisation of licensing laws

Tasmania legislated to change its hotel closing times back to ten o'clock in 1937 and New South Wales did the same in 1955, following the Maxwell Royal Commission.[footnote 111] However, Victoria's early closing hours endured and the 'six o'clock swill' later became shorthand for the frenzied drinking habits which had become entrenched since 1916.[footnote 112] It was said that early closing laws made Australian drinking 'thoroughly uncivilised', with the majority of beer drinking taking place in jostling crowds during the after work rush hour between five and six o'clock each evening.[footnote 113]

Following the first Victorian local option vote conducted in 1920, which created two 'dry' areas, only two more rounds of local option voting took place (in 1930 and 1938). The provision for further local option polls was removed from the Act in 1946, in the wake of a 1944 Royal Commission with limited terms of reference.[footnote 114] In March 1950, an Age newspaper editorial demanded action, stating that real liquor reform could no longer be shirked, with 'mass drinking and swilling' producing 'a disgusting, sordid spectacle'.[footnote 115]

After the privations of the Depression, the Second World War and reconstruction, the 1950s ushered in a period of growing economic prosperity.[footnote 116] The influence of the temperance movement had declined and attitudes towards alcohol had become a little more relaxed. In Melbourne the shift in attitude was assisted by a post-war surge in European migrants who opened new styles of cafes and coffee bars.[footnote 117] The Licensing (Amendment) Act 1953 removed restrictions on the number of liquor licences and created a single licensing district for the entire state. The permits that had allowed drinking with meals until 8pm were extended until 10pm, with limited hours on Sundays and public holidays. Provisions were also made for rules regarding sanitation, hygiene, ventilation and fire prevention in licensed premises.[footnote 118] The government was still 'pro-restriction' regarding the sale of alcohol but began to focus on the task of 'civilising Victorians' drinking habits'.[footnote 119]

When Melbourne was selected as the host city for the 1956 Olympic Games, one former Member of Parliament was reported to have said that it was 'an international plot to alter the Licensing Act.'[footnote 120] John Hipworth, the Member for Swan Hill, thought that Victoria's antiquated liquor laws needed to be modernised so that the state did not 'become the laughing stock of the world' when the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne.[footnote 121] However, the referendum held in March 1956 to extend hotel hours until ten o'clock was defeated, with only six of Victoria's 66 electorates voting in favour of ten o'clock closing.[footnote 122] Victorian Premier Henry Bolte favoured the liberalisation of licensing laws but had to bide his time and work behind the scenes to remove the Liberal Party's requirement for a referendum on the issue.[footnote 123]

In 1960, the chair of the Victorian Licensing Court, Judge Archibald Fraser, embarked on an overseas trip to gather intelligence on the operation of hotels, cafes and restaurants in the United States and Europe, to see how they compared with Victoria. When Judge Fraser returned, he summed up Australia's drinking habits as being unique – 'unique in the sense that they are deplorable'.[footnote 124] In Europe he had noted the leisurely attitude towards drinking in restaurants and street cafes, as well as the absence of clock watching. His recommendations included three licence types: the victualler's (hotelkeeper's) licence and new tavern and restaurant licences. He also proposed ten o'clock closing, but action on most of his recommendations was deferred.[footnote 125]

Phillips Royal Commission and the end of the six o'clock swill

In October 1963, the Victorian Government issued Letters Patent for a Royal Commission to inquire into the sale, supply, consumption and disposal of liquor in Victoria. The wide ranging inquiry was chaired by Mr Philip Phillips QC and the report was tabled in 1965.[footnote 126] As well as conducting hearings, the Royal Commission took the unusual step of staging an elaborate dinner party to prove the wisdom of the unhurried consumption of alcohol with food.[footnote 127]

The Inquiry also succeeded in changing the mind of Reverend John Westerman, who was secretary of the Victorian Temperance Alliance and represented a number of churches at the Commission.[footnote 128] Reverend Westerman retreated from his advocacy of six o'clock closing, telling the Commission that he agreed with changes to hotel hours if the consequences were neutral in effect but increased human freedom.[footnote 129]

In the second reading speech for the Licensing Bill 1965, Chief Secretary Arthur Rylah (the Member for Kew) praised the Royal Commission for its thorough investigation into every aspect of intoxicating liquor and described the current Licensing Act as 'archaic and obsolete'.[footnote 130] The 1965 Bill was not intended to deal with the full range of the Royal Commission recommendations, which were to be addressed by later legislation. When it was passed in December, the Licensing Act 1965 introduced theatre and cabaret licences and it finally extended the opening hours of hotels in Victoria to 10pm. Ten o'clock closing came into force on 1 February 1966. Blood alcohol testing (with a 0.05 limit) was introduced at the same time by the Motor Car (Driving Offence) Act 1965, which has been described as a compromise measure 'satisfying both the liberals and the wowsers'.[footnote 131]

Despite predictions of mayhem and disorder arising from the start of ten o'clock closing, the response in Melbourne was fairly subdued. It was reported that city hotels were quiet whereas suburban hotels did a lively trade, especially those that provided entertainment and offered more facilities than basic stand-up bars.[footnote 132] Five months later, an annual report for the Victorian Licensing Court noted that the novelty of ten o'clock closing had worn off after the first week and the changed hours had not created any problems for police.[footnote 133] South Australia was the last state to abolish six o'clock closing in 1967, when new legislation allowed the longest hotel opening hours (9am to 10pm) in Australia.[footnote 134]

As well as ending six o'clock closing, the recommendations of the Phillips Royal Commission also laid the foundations for a major rewrite of Victoria's licensing laws. The Liquor Control Bill was introduced by Mr Rylah in April 1968, who stated that beer drinking should be 'free of the old emotional prejudices that the consumption of liquor is of itself a social evil'.[footnote 135] In the following years, Victoria's liquor laws continued to evolve, undergoing major reviews (notably by Dr John Nieuwenhuysen in 1986) and further reform. Hotel trading to midnight and beyond became possible from the 1980s and 1990s,[footnote 136] presenting new challenges. Licensing issues will no doubt continue to generate a great deal of debate. Nevertheless, in the one hundred years since the end of six o'clock closing, Victoria has developed a unique and vibrant bar culture; a far cry from 'drinking against the clock' during the six o'clock swill.



Debra Reeves, Research & Loans Officer

Parliamentary Library & Information Service,

Department of Parliamentary Services

Parliament House, Spring St, East Melbourne

Telephone: (03) 9651 8640


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[footnote 1] A. Blainey (1999) 'The prohibition and total abstinence movement in Australia, 1880-1910', in R. Dare (1999) Food, power and community: Essays in the history of food and drink, Kent Town, Wakefield Press, p. 142.

[footnote 2] J. D. Davies (1978) Report of the Board of Inquiry into the operation of the Liquor Control Act 1968, Melbourne, F.D. Atkinson, Volume 1, p. 16.

[footnote 3] J. Nieuwenhuysen (1986) Review of the Liquor Control Act 1968, Melbourne, Government Printer, Volume 1: Report, p. 68.

[footnote 4] ibid.

[footnote 5] Blainey (1999) op. cit., p. 142.

[footnote 6] (1847) 'Temperance Hall', The Argus, 29 December, p. 2.

[footnote 7] J. Meaden (1892) 'The Victorian Temperance Jubilee, 1842-1892', Ballarat Star, 20 February, p. 2.

[footnote 8] A. E. Dingle (1980) ''The truly magnificent thirst': An historical survey of Australian drinking habits', Historical Studies, 19 (75) pp. 233-234.

[footnote 9] M. Beever (1972) 'Heales, Richard (1821-1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography online.

[footnote 10] (1864) 'Death of Mr Richard Heales', The Argus, 20 June, p. 5.

[footnote 11] (1867) Report of the Royal Commission Appointed by His Excellency to Enquire into and Report Upon the Operation and Effect of the Wine and Spirits Sale Statute, Melbourne, John Ferres, Government Printer, p. 6.

[footnote 12] Nieuwenhuysen (1986) op. cit., p. 70.

[footnote 13] ibid., p. 71.

[footnote 14] R. Fitzgerald & T. L. Jordan (2009) Under the influence: A history of alcohol in Australia, Sydney, ABC Books, pp. 155-156.

[footnote 15] (1873) 'The Permissive Bill', The Age, 17 June, p. 3.

[footnote 16] (1873) 'The work of the session', The Argus, 26 November, p. 6.

[footnote 17] Davies (1978) op. cit., p. 17.

[footnote 18] (1874) Editorial, The Age, 25 July, p. 4.

[footnote 19] H. H. Heyter, Government Statist of Victoria (1879) Victorian Year-Book for 1878-9, Melbourne, John Ferres, Government Printer, Statistical Summary of Victoria, Folding sheet No. 1.

[footnote 20] M. Harden (2009) Melbourne: the making of a drinking and eating capital, Melbourne, Hardie Grant Books, p. 4.

[footnote 21] (1880) 'International Temperance Conference', The Argus, 12 November, p. 3.

[footnote 22] (1881) 'The Victorian Alliance', The Argus, 24 August, p. 7.

[footnote 23] Fitzgerald & Jordan (2009) op. cit., pp. 155- 156.

[footnote 24] M. Cannon (1995) The land boomers: The complete illustrated history, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, p. 244.

[footnote 25] A. Mitchell (1974) 'Munro, James (1832-1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography online.

[footnote 26] ibid.

[footnote 27] Fitzgerald & Jordan (2009) op. cit., p. 157.

[footnote 28] ibid., p. 149.

[footnote 29] (1883) 'The Blue Ribbon Army', The Argus, 20 April, p. 6.

[footnote 30] Meaden (1892) op. cit., p. 2.

[footnote 31] ibid.

[footnote 32] Fitzgerald & Jordan (2009) op cit., pp. 160-161.

[footnote 33] (1885) 'News of the day', The Age, 20 January, p. 5.

[footnote 34] (1885) 'Ladies on the platform', Hamilton Spectator, 24 January, p. 4.

[footnote 35] WCTU Australia (2015) 'WCTU – Our History', WCTU website.

[footnote 36] B. Harrison Lee (1887) 'The new temperance movement', Independent, 3 December, p. 3.

[footnote 37] Fitzgerald & Jordan (2009) op cit., pp. 164-165.

[footnote 38] (1885) 'The women's petition against intemperance', Weekly Times, 12 September, p. 15.

[footnote 39] Fitzgerald & Jordan (2009) op cit., pp. 160-161.

[footnote 40] (1885) 'The Ladies and the Licensing Bill', The Age, 9 September, p. 6.

[footnote 41] Nieuwenhuysen (1986) op. cit., p. 71.

[footnote 42] Davies (1978) op. cit., p. 17.

[footnote 43] D. Merrett (1978) 'The Victorian Licensing Court, 1906-1968: A study of role and impact', Monash Papers in Economic History, No. 5, pp. 3-4.

[footnote 44] ibid., pp. 4-7.

[footnote 45] A. M. Laughton, Government Statist (1918) Statistical Register of the State of Victoria for the year 1916: Part VIII: Social Condition, Melbourne, Albert J. Mullet, Government Printer, p. 50.

[footnote 46] K. Dunstan (1968) Wowsers, North Melbourne, Cassell Australia, p. 106.

[footnote 47] Nieuwenhuysen (1986) op. cit., pp. 72-73.

[footnote 48] WCTU (1901) 'Temperance notes: Early closing', Ballarat Star, 26 March, p. 4.

[footnote 49] (1906) 'Early Closing Act', The Age, 2 March, p. 5.

[footnote 50] W. Phillips (1980) 'Six o'clock swill: The introduction of early closing of hotel bars in Australia', Historical Studies, 19 (75) p. 251.

[footnote 51] G. Davison and K. Dunstan (1983) 'Judkins, William Henry (1869-1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography online.

[footnote 52] (1911) 'The liquor trade', The Argus, 12 June, p. 9.

[footnote 53] (1911) 'Cleansing society', The Age, 22 February, p. 11.

[footnote 54] (1911) 'Hotel trading hours', The Age, 16 June, p. 8.

[footnote 55] W. Hutchinson (1914) Minister of Water Supply, 'Petition', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 21 July, p. 480.

[footnote 56] ibid.

[footnote 57] (1914) 'In Australia: Expeditionary Force: The Broadmeadows camp', The Argus, 25 August, p. 8.

[footnote 58] (1914) ''Wet' canteens', The Argus, 3 October, p. 14.

[footnote 59] (1914) 'The canteen question', The Age, 9 October, p. 8.

[footnote 60] (1914) 'The liquor question: W.C.T.U. Convention', The Age, 28 October, p. 12.

[footnote 61] ibid.

[footnote 62] (1914) 'Local option defended', Weekly Times, 17 October, p. 34.

[footnote 63] (1914) 'Ministerial policy: Speech by the Premier', The Argus, 9 November, p. 13.

[footnote 64] (1915) 'Soldiers and liquor', The Age, 11 February, p. 6.

[footnote 65] (1915) 'Hotels and soldiers: Early closing advocated', The Age, 18 February, p. 7.

[footnote 66] (1915) 'Save soldiers from the perils of drink and vice', Geelong Advertiser, 18 February, p. 3.

[footnote 67] (1914) 'The war on alcohol', The Age, 19 November, p. 8.

[footnote 68] (1915) 'The anti-liquor wave: King George sets example', The Age, 3 April, p. 9.

[footnote 69] (1915) Editorial, Coleraine Albion and Western Advertiser, 12 April, p. 2.

[footnote 70] (1915) 'Abstinence from alcohol', Avoca Mail, 30 April, p. 2.

[footnote 71] (1915) 'Why 6 o'clock won: Views of temperance leaders', Adelaide Advertiser, 30 March, p. 6.

[footnote 72] (1915) 'State Parliament: Opening today', The Age, 20 April, p. 7.

[footnote 73] (1915) 'Liquor reform: Women's deputation', Weekly Times, 8 May, p. 23.

[footnote 74] (1915) 'Drink and the war', The Argus, 4 May, p. 8.

[footnote 75] A. Peacock (1915) Premier, 'Trading Hours of Public Houses', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 18 May, p. 298.

[footnote 76] J. Murray (1915) 'Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 20 May, p. 363.

[footnote 77] A. A. Farthing (1915) 'Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 20 May, p. 398.

[footnote 78] (1916) 'Tasmania and six o'clock', Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March, p. 8.

[footnote 79] (1916) 'Hotel hours', The Age, 5 April, p. 10.

[footnote 80] (1916) 'Earlier closing of hotels', The Age, 13 April, p. 9.

[footnote 81] (1916) 'Earlier closing', The Argus, 20 April, p. 8.

[footnote 82] (1916) 'Six o'clock closing: The reform campaign', The Age, 31 May, p. 11.

[footnote 83] (1916) 'Hotel trading hours', The Argus, 7 June, p. 8.

[footnote 84] W. Phillips (1980) op. cit., p. 264.

[footnote 85] (1916) 'Hotel closing hours', The Argus, 19 June, p. 6.

[footnote 86] (1916) 'Wave of Puritanism', The Argus, 19 June, p. 6.

[footnote 87] ibid.

[footnote 88] (1916) 'Liquor referendum', The Argus, 24 August, p. 8.

[footnote 89] A. Peacock (1916) 'Liquor Referendum Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 23 August, pp. 932-934.

[footnote 90] ibid., p. 935.

[footnote 91] See Victorian Legislative Assembly Debates volume 143 for the continuation of the Liquor Referendum Bill discussions, pp. 936, 993, 1039, 1084.

[footnote 92] (1916) 'Conscription: Government's policy announced', The Age, 31 August, pp. 7-8.

[footnote 93] A. Peacock (1916) 'Liquor Referendum Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 5 September, pp. 1166-1167.

[footnote 94] (1916) 'Liquor trading hours', The Argus, 7 September, p. 6.

[footnote 95] (1916) 'The last lap: Closing scenes', The Argus, 25 October, p. 6.

[footnote 96] (1916) 'Six o'clock closing', The Age, 1 November, p. 8.

[footnote 97] (1916) 'Restricted hotel hours', The Argus, 9 November, p. 11.

[footnote 98] (1917) 'Six o'clock closing: Loopholes for evasion', The Age, 20 January, p. 18.

[footnote 99] ibid.

[footnote 100] ibid.

[footnote 101] J. Quick (1920) The Victorian liquor licence and local option laws: Abridged and consolidated, Melbourne, Charles F. Maxwell, pp. 7-9.

[footnote 102] (1916) 'Prohibition urged', The Argus, 22 November, p. 11.

[footnote 103] (1918) 'Soldiers and drink: Discussion in Senate', The Argus, 11 January, p. 6.

[footnote 104] (1918) 'Strength of Empire', The Argus, 22 May, p. 8.

[footnote 105] ibid.

[footnote 106] (1918) 'State policy: The Premier's speech', The Argus, 28 June, p. 5.

[footnote 107] M. Baird (1919) 'Licensing Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 20 November, pp. 2484-2486.

[footnote 108] L. Clough (1919) 'Licensing Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 20 November, pp. 2603-2605.

[footnote 109] W. J. Beckett (1919) 'Licensing Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Council, 16 December, p. 3417; The term 'wowser', meaning a killjoy or prudish teetotaller, possibly originated around 1900 when used by Australian journalist and NSW politician John Norton. See K. Dunstan (1968) op. cit., p. 2.

[footnote 110] Quick (1920) op. cit., pp. 9-10; Davies (1978) op. cit., pp. 18-19.

[footnote 111] K. Dunstan (1968) op. cit., pp. 123-124.

[footnote 112] Harden (2009) op. cit., p. 12.

[footnote 113] W. Phillips (1980) op. cit., pp. 250-251.

[footnote 114] Merrett (1978) op. cit., p. 7; (1946) 'Overhauling the liquor laws', The Age, 10 April, p. 2.

[footnote 115] (1950) 'Real liquor reform cannot be shirked', The Age, 13 March, p. 2.

[footnote 116] Nieuwenhuysen (1986) op. cit., p. 74.

[footnote 117] Harden (2009) op. cit., p. 42.

[footnote 118] Davies (1978) op. cit., p. 19.

[footnote 119] Harden (2009) op. cit., p. 17.

[footnote 120] (1950) 'Premier hits out at sites bickering', The Age, 27 April, p. 14.

[footnote 121] (1952) 'M.L.A. will ask for liquor reform inquiry', The Age, 14 August, p. 1.

[footnote 122] Merrett (1978) op. cit., p. 7; (1956) 'No late drinks for the Games', The Argus, 26 March, p. 1; The 'No' vote against ten o'clock closing was 804,524 and the 'Yes' vote was 529,899.

[footnote 123] D. Dunstan (2006) 'Henry Bolte: The lucky developer', in P. Strangio and B. Costar (eds.) The Victorian Premiers 1856-2006, Annandale, Federation Press, pp. 283-285.

[footnote 124] Harden (2009) op. cit., p. 17.

[footnote 125] Nieuwenhuysen (1986) op. cit., pp. 76-77.

[footnote 126] ibid., p. 77.

[footnote 127] K. Dunstan (1968) op. cit., pp. 126-127.

[footnote 128] P. Phillips (1965) Report of Royal Commission into the Sale, Supply, Disposal or Consumption of Liquor in the State of Victoria, Melbourne, A.C. Brooks, Part II, pp. 11-13.

[footnote 129] ibid.

[footnote 130] A. Rylah (1965) Chief Secretary, 'Licensing Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 19 October, pp. 850-851.

[footnote 131] T. Luckins (2005) ''Time, Gentlemen, Please': The end of six o'clock closing and the 'post-swill' pub', in S. O'Hanlon and T. Luckins (eds.) (2005) Go! Melbourne: Melbourne in the Sixties, Beaconsfield, circa, p. 176.

[footnote 132] ibid., pp. 175-177.

[footnote 133] Victorian Licensing Court and Licences Reduction Board (1966) Report and Statement of Accounts for year ending 30th June, 1966, Melbourne, A.C. Brooks, pp. 3-4.

[footnote 134] K. Dunstan (1968) op. cit., p. 128.

[footnote 135] A. Rylah (1968) Chief Secretary, 'Liquor Control Bill', Debates, Victorian Legislative Assembly, 9 April, pp. 4162-4163.

[footnote 136] C. Kermond (1998) 'Victoria's liquor laws', The Age, 12 October, p. 8.