Six o'clock swill
The six o'clock swill was an Australian and New Zealand slang term for the last-minute rush to buy drinks at a hotel bar before it closed. During a significant part of the 20th century, most Australian and New Zealand hotels shut their public bars at 6 p.m. A culture developed of heavy drinking during the hour between finishing work at 5 p.m. and the bars closing at this early hour.
The rush to drink
The six o'clock closing time was introduced partly in an attempt to improve public morals and get men home to their wives earlier. Instead, it often fuelled an hour-long speed-drinking session, as men raced to get as drunk as possible in the limited time available. An unintended consequence was that glasses were saved during the hour after quitting time until the last call came for drinks. Then, the emptied glasses could be refilled. "The bartender didn't carry your glass to the tap. He carried a pistol-shaped spigot hitched to a long tube and squirted your glass full where you stood."
Introduction of early closing
|Six o'clock closing|
Six o'clock closing was introduced during World War I. Before this reform, most hotels and public houses in Australia had closed at 11 or 11:30pm. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Rechabites campaigned successfully for limits on the sale of alcohol and beer. Although the temperance movement had been active since the late 1870s, it had been gaining ground since the 1900s following the introduction of 6 o'clock retail trade closing, which was first legislated in Western Australia in 1897. The argument that the movement gave questioned the grounds for public houses being "kept open while bakers' shops were shut". This agitation was augmented with the outbreak of war in 1914 where it was reasoned that a "well-ordered, self-disciplined and morally upright home front was a precondition for the successful prosecution of the war."
The first state to introduce early closing was South Australia in 1915 where the rationale was a war austerity measure. Six o'clock closing was adopted in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania in 1916. It was introduced in New Zealand in December 1917. Western Australia adopted a 9pm closing time, but Queensland retained the old closing times until it introduced eight o'clock closing in 1923.
The question of closing hours was put to New South Wales voters in June 1916. The question had previously been put to the vote in December 1913 when the results of the Local Option Poll were in favour of 11 o'clock closing. The 1916 vote was influenced by a recent riot involving soldiers. In February 1916, troops mutinied against conditions at the Casula Camp. They raided hotels in Liverpool before travelling by train to Sydney, where one soldier was shot dead in a riot at Central Railway station.
Although it was introduced as a temporary measure, in 1919, it was made a permanent measure in Victoria and South Australia. The New South Wales Government brought in temporary extensions and discussed putting the matter to a referendum. In 1923, however, without testing the matter by a popular vote, the government enacted 6 p.m. as the closing time.
Hotels catered for a short heavy drinking period after work before the early evening closing by extending their bars and tiling walls for easy cleaning. The phenomenon changed Australian pubs as rooms in the building were converted to bar space; billiard rooms disappeared and bars were knocked together.
The law was intended to reduce drunken mayhem and alcohol consumption but it encouraged them because of the short time men had to consume alcohol between "knock off time" and 6 p.m. Men often drove home from the pub extremely drunk. Car crashes and assaults by men upon their wives and children were at their highest between 6.30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
In any case, the law was a failure; sports and cosmopolitan workingmens clubs were considered private bars and were allowed to trade alcohol until very late and patrons would usually buy alcohol from off-licences to consume at home or at parties after the six o'clock swill. Early public house closing times did not have a significant effect on reducing alcohol consumption levels.
Extension of closing time
Closing time was extended to 10 p.m. in Tasmania from 1937. The issue of ending early closing was voted on in New South Wales in 1947, but the proposal was voted down, but a vote in 1954 narrowly won, and closing hours were extended to 10 p.m. in 1955. Hours were extended in Victoria in 1966, and South Australia was the last state to abolish six o'clock closing with legislation introduced by Don Dunstan in 1967 and the first legal after-six beer being drunk on 28 September.
Bar closing times were extended to 10 p.m. in New Zealand on 9 October 1967, three weeks after a referendum . An earlier referendum, in 1949, had voted three to one to retain six o'clock closing, but there was partial repeal of the law in 1961, which allowed restaurants to sell liquor until midnight but not hotel bars.
References in culture
Caddie, the Story of a Barmaid, an autobiography of a depression era barmaid, describes the six o'clock swill, at a time (1952) when it was presumed that the reader would be familiar with the concept.
- Binge drinking
- List of public house topics
- Longest bar in Australia
- Public house
- Australian pub
- Temperance movement in Australia
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- Dinkum Aussies: Events: The Six O'Clock Swill
- Literary quotes about six o'clock closing
- University of Technology Sydney: Journalism: Pubs and People
- State Library of New South Wales: Picture of patrons at the Northern Club Hotel toasting the introduction of 10 p.m. closing, 1 February 1955
- The Political Economy of Six O’Clock Closing (in New Zealand) Tim Mulcare. (Rich Text Format)
- A 1940s Lodge cartoon, the 6-o'clock swill