This month marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the six o’clock swill in Victoria.
Laws to close pubs at 6pm had been introduced in most states as a temporary measure during the First World War on the basis of helping the war effort. However, as with so many temporary regulations, it stayed in place even after the original rationale had passed. Arguments by the temperance movement for tighter restrictions on the operating hours of hotels had been gathering strength from the 1890s and, once early closing had been implemented, the wowsers fought hard to keep it.
Of course, in practice six o’clock closing did not reduce the amount of alcohol being consumed. It just meant that large quantities of beer were drunk in an unnaturally short period of time, hardly an ideal way for alcohol to be consumed. For half a century, Australians would head straight to the pub as soon as they knocked off work and, standing several deep at the public bar, get through everyone’s shout by 6pm. It certainly made doing overtime a particularly unappealing proposition.
After the passing of the six o’clock swill, 10pm closing became the Australian norm until, in the 1980s, further liberalisation took place. However, we should not imagine that the swill is just a historic curiosity. Many of the same forces which fought to keep the swill can still be heard today, challenging the right to have a drink.