As New Zealand’s parliament prepares to debate new licensing hours, Neil Miller looks back at the infamous days of the ‘six o’clock swill’.
Published Autumn 2011
The intent of six o’clock closing was simple. A man would finish work, walk to a city bar and enjoy a quiet beer with his mates. When last drinks were called less than an hour later, he would say a hearty “good evening”, drive safely home and spend the evening with his loving family in the largely dry suburbs.
It never quite worked out like that – even though New Zealand had the regime in place for 50 years, longer than any Australian state except South Australia. Men would indeed finish work at five but the next hour became the infamous “six o’clock swill” as they attempted to drink as much alcohol as possible. Many still chose to drive home. The outcome was the reverse of what was intended when the law was introduced as a temporary wartime measure in 1917.
Looking back, six o’clock closing was a well-meaning experiment which utterly failed. It encouraged reckless consumption, damaged the beer industry and helped forge an antisocial drinking culture many believe we are still grappling with today. Tasmania wisely abandoned the policy thirty years before New Zealand. However, while six o’clock closing is now generally considered a dark episode in our history, it was actually popular for a long time. The country came close to full Prohibition on several occasions in the early 20th Century with the “wowsers” often winning the popular ballot but failing to achieve the three-fifths parliamentary majority needed. Prohibition was popular in the 1920s and many accepted six o’clock closing as a way to placate the Prohibitionist lobby. In a 1949 referendum New Zealanders voted three to one to keep six o’clock closing.
Only as drinking habits began to changein the1960s did the calls for reform gain traction. The law was quickly dumped after a referendum in 1967. But the damage had largely been done; every step of the beer chain – breweries, pubs and drinkers – had changed. Breweries focused on economy and efficiency. The aim was to produce beer cheaply and sell it in huge quantities. Roads were fi lled with beer tankers and many pubs installed underground tanks like those at service stations. Flavour was regarded as a needless luxury and stripped out of the beer.
Pubs became “booze barns”. In order to fit more men in and allow them to focus solely on the business of swilling, distractions such as seats, tables, food, games and music were often thrown out. Hoses with pistol grips could fill up jugs in a matter of seconds. The Kiwi drinking culture became more macho and focussed on mass consumption.
Despite ending in 1967, many argue Kiwis are still struggling with the legacy of the six o’clock swill. Young binge drinkers who have never heard of it may have been affected by the behaviour of their elders.
In 2011, parliament will again debate legislation to restrict the opening hours of both pubs and off-licence premises. Their intentions may be as worthy as the original promoters of six o’clock closing, but the results, unfortunately, may be similar.