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The six o’clock swill

For 50 years, it was illegal to drink alcohol past 6 pm. While the evening cut-off was thanks to the growing Temperance Movement in Australia in 1916, it wasn’t until 1967 that every state and territory in Australia was able to enjoy a pint after the sun had set. 

Prior to 1916, pubs, hotels and other drinking establishments typically closed around 11 pm. But on 27 March 1916, South Australians voted in a referendum to enforce pub closures at 6 pm. By 1918, every state and territory in Australia had followed, with New Zealand also quickly adopting a similar law not long after. 

Many policymakers and voters saw the early closing times as somewhat of a temporary measure. Not only would the early closure times help to improve public morality at a time when the Temperance Movement – dedicated to alcohol abstinence – was in full swing, but it was also a means to reduce public spending during wartime chaos. As the Great War was ongoing, many parliamentarians saw the act of sobriety as a way to support Australia’s war efforts in Europe. Meanwhile, Temperance supporters suggested that the early closing times would help to reduce violence and promote healthier lifestyles.

What occurred, however, was half a century of binge drinking. At first, the 6 pm closing time saw police report a decrease in both public intoxication and general crime, but things quickly grew out of hand. With most men clocking off from work at around 5 pm, pubs and hotels would see swarms of workers downing as many drinks as possible prior to the cut-off time of 6 pm. With so many rushing to the bar, even ordering as many as 10–15 drinks at a time, violence wasn’t uncommon among the men scrambling to drink as much as possible before closing time. The chaotic hour was described as a ‘pig swill’ by many, with the phrase ‘six o’clock swill’ soon becoming popular.

Several decades later, many states and territories began to bring in new legislation, opting for a later closing time of 10 pm to avoid the mad rush. South Australia, who had initially led the way in introducing the 6 pm closing time, was the last to give it up. It wasn’t until 1967, 30 years after Tasmania was the first to abandon the 6 pm cut-off, that South Australia joined the rest of the country.

Many experts argue that the six o’clock swill helped to shape Australia and New Zealand’s binge drinking culture. Today, both Australia and New Zealand remain some of the largest consumers of alcohol worldwide, and according to the Global Drug Survey 2021, Australians got drunk almost twice as often as the global annual average.

Featured image: Quilpie Hotel, Queensland, circa 1921. Image courtesy of iStock

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