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Running battle spawned the 6 o’clock swill

13 February 2016 No Comment

As well as being Valentine’s Day and the showing in Sydney of Tropfest, the world’s biggest short-film festival, Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the adoption of decimal currency in Australia.

But less famously, February 14 is the centenary of one of the most disgraceful events in Australian military history.

During World War I, there was a strong push by the anti-liquor movement and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to limit alcohol consumption in Australia. This was because male drunkenness was seen to be the root cause of many social problems, including poverty and domestic violence.

Because our soldiers on the frontline were not allowed to drink on duty, it also was seen as a form of patriotism to limit alcohol consumption back home.

The views of the supporters of temperance, which most often meant the advocacy of total abstinence from alcohol, were to receive a considerable boost from the events of February 14, 1916. This was when, at the Casula army camp near Liverpool in Sydney, a large body of drunken Australian troops mutinied.

This was triggered by the imposition of a significantly extended training program that meant 27 hours at a stretch for many of these soldiers who were in training before they were sent overseas to fight.

Consequently, on February 14, 1916, the disgruntled troops commandeered a train to Sydney’s Central Station, where they continued rioting in front of Toohey’s Brewery, drinking several nearby pubs dry. The incident developed into ugly scenes involving a drunken rampage by thousands of intoxicated soldiers. This involved looting hotels and shops, and attacking suspected foreigners. Passers-by were forced to flee into churches for safety.

The infamous incident became known as the Battle of Central Station. One soldier was shot dead, many were jailed and about 1000 were later court-martialled. But publicity was muted because the drunken rampage was rightly judged to be detrimental to the war effort. Unsurprisingly, press coverage was discouraged.

However, outraged members of the public, convinced that ­alcohol was the prime cause of the incident, demanded action from legislators in NSW. As a consequence, a referendum on hotel trading hours was proposed for the middle of the year.

Up until that time, 11pm was the official closing time in Sydney. In response to public outcry, the alarmed liquor industry proposed a reduction of two hours, back to a 9pm closing.

However, on June 10, 1916, in a referendum, the people of NSW voted for a much bigger reduction and a 6 o’clock closing time for hotels was proclaimed.

This was to remain in force in NSW until 1955.

The June 1916 referendum outlined a choice of six possible closing times and invited voters to nominate their preferences in order.

The results were as follows:

6pm: 347,494

7pm: 4830

8pm: 21,134

9pm: 178,842

10pm: 1405

11pm: 3193

Total formal: 556,898

Informal: 22,208

Total votes: 579,106

Approved — 6pm closing time.

Six o’clock closing of hotels was the most significant attempt to limit the consumption of alcohol in NSW since the days of the Rum Corps and the overthrow of governor William Bligh more than 100 years before.

But six o’clock closing created several unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances. These especially included the so-called “six o’clock swill — where shortly before closing time men ordered a large number of drinks, which they then guzzled down. Some swillers urinated, and occasionally vomited, where they stood.

As well as such unsavoury incidents, the six o’clock closing of hotels led to the burgeoning of sly grogging, especially in Sydney. Practitioners could legally purchase large amounts of alcohol during normal trading hours, but then were able to resell liquor after 6pm at huge mark-up prices.

This arrangement made Kate Leigh (1881-1964) — a notorious underworld matriarch, madam, and sly grogger based in Surry Hills in Sydney — a very wealthy woman.

Indeed, for almost four decades after 6pm closing was introduced, Leigh — who also sold cocaine — engaged in a running battle with NSW police and especially with several well-known Sydney detectives.

In Sydney’s notorious razor gang wars, the flamboyant Leigh also battled for underworld ­supremacy with her younger rival, London-born Tilly Devine, whose criminal activities were based in nearby Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Weekend Australian, February 13-14, 2016, Inquirer online. See p.24

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