Sunday, July 23, 2017

Drinking in 1960s Melbourne: the six o’clock swill, swanky cocktail bars and booze-free gigs

"Like most workers we managed to get away from the office at 5.30 p.m. Imagine the scene: a large room, lavatory-like atmosphere, filled with pushing men, no seats, no tables, everything stripped for action. There is a large clock on the wall, invariably set fast, because the police come around at 6 p.m. 
"There is a big staff on for swill time: skilled barmen and barmaids, all equipped with the latest pluto taps on plastic hoses, designed for dispensing beer at frightening speed. Time moves past so quickly. It is twenty to six, now ten to six, the bar is 10-deep with crushing bodies, all thrusting handfuls of glasses towards the barmaids: 'Here', 'Here', 'For Chrissake here!' It is like penetrating the crowd behind the goals at a football match. Getting the precious cargo back to your possie is incredibly hazardous. Your mates help, of course, and you try to pass the glasses overhead. Beer rains."
Keith Dunstan, describing the ‘six o’clock swill’ at a Melbourne pub in the 1960s

When I first visited Melbourne on holiday in the 90s, I was gob-smacked to discover that there were one or two establishments where you could buy booze around the clock. As in 24 hours a day. For a Perthie like myself, at the height of her gleefully irresponsible drinking days, this seemed like some amazing sci-fi Utopia. Little did I know then that my home state had its own alcohol-related claim to fame: resisting the temperance movement’s push for heavily restricted pub opening hours early last century, even as most other states around the country fell into line with a supposedly more civilised six-o’clock closing time. 

Victoria was one of the first states to start closing its pubs early, in 1916—and one of the last to return to later opening hours. It wasn’t until February 1966 that Victoria reinstated the 10pm closing time, ending the notorious phenomenon known as the six o'clock swill more than 10 years after its perennial rival New South Wales (and almost 30 years after Tasmania!). 
Swill time at an unidentified Melbourne pub. Look at that smashed old codger to the right!! (Photo: Herald Sun.) 
These days, a night out at the pub with your mates is practically a sacred tradition in Melbourne, where there’s a pub to cater for every kind of punter—from hipsters to bar-flies, families to foodies, sports nuts to rock’n’roll fans—which makes it hard to process the fact that the city was once so far behind the curve when it came to licensing laws. And this in a decade when it led the country in so many other respects.
More Melbourne swilling. Who'd be a barmaid? (Photo: Herald Sun)
Meanwhile, pub-goers continued spewing out (spewing being the operative word) into the city’s early-evening streets until 1966, in what journalist Reg Leonard called a “daily demonstration of piggery”.

Not quite the Prohibition (but not pretty, either)

As the opening quote from local journalist Keith Dunstan* describes so vividly, the six o’clock swill occurred when men would rush straight to the pub after work to knock back as many beers as they could stomach in the hour or so before closing time. Not surprisingly, the consequences of all these pushing, shoving hordes sculling beer like it was about to go extinct were a little unsavoury!
 “At 6.15 p.m. we are all out on the footpath. Two characters over yonder are chundering into the gutter. Constitutions that have not known food for five hours need to be strong to handle five beers in 20 minutes.”
So much for temperance and moderation. The six o’clock swill was an excuse for high-speed, drunken debauchery.

Civilised sipping

Of course, people's tippling options weren’t completely cut off once the clock struck six. Folks could drink in restaurants, on the sly in some Italian-run cafes, and – if these gorgeous photos are anything to go by – in hotel cocktail bars. 
Drinks at the Bar, Savoy Plaza Hotel, Spencer Street, Melbourne, 1965. Photo: Wolfgang Sievers
Cocktail bar at Menzies Hotel, Melbourne, Australia, 1965. Photo: Wolfgang Sievers (copyright NLA)
Note the presence of women in these pics: being banned from drinking in pubs around Australia until the 1970s (except in specially designated ‘ladies’ lounges,’ and only then if they were accompanied by a man...unless they were willing to risk their reputation), they clearly found other ways to partake. 
So groovy! Cocktail bar of the Southern Cross Hotel (not sure who the photographer was)

Liquor-free live music

Although pubs are one of the main places to catch a band in Melbourne nowadays, this has only been a thing since the 1970s (the golden era of pub rock). Back in the 60s, gig-going was a teetotal experience, with bands performing in wholesome suburban town halls and unlicensed clubs. As inconceivable as this sounds now, I reckon it would've been fine.

I mean, who needs booze when you’re being treated to acts like The Spinning Wheels, The Pink Finks, Normie Rowe, The Mystrys, The Strangers et al? I suppose some punters might’ve smuggled hipflasks in, or done their drinking beforehand (or indulged in another kind of intoxicant), but hell, the music itself would’ve been like a contact high! 
The Spinning Wheels were busy! (ads taken from an old copy of The Livin' End)
More booze-free good times

Post script

No system is perfect, of course, and extended drinking hours at pubs and clubs have been linked to a spate of horrifying late-night coward-punch attacks in recent years. Fact is, Australia’s had a chequered relationship with liquor since the earliest days of European settlement, when rum was traded as currency. But with Aussies’ booze consumption currently on a downward trajectory, maybe the problem will solve itself? 

*(Incidentally, in 1968 Dunstan authored the tellingly-titled book, Wowsers: being an account of the prudery exhibited by certain outstanding men and women in such matters as drinking, smoking, prostitution, censorship and gambling)

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  1. Love your work, Sam!
    Rock on, PBoy

    1. Thanks PBoy - glad you enjoyed it! (by the way, does the P stand for Perth or Potato??)

  2. oh I don't know where to start - it's all wonderful.
    that Menzies photo has Ian Jones in it [bearded TV producer married vocalist Joan Bilcaux], Patti McGrath [red hair, married Bert Newton], Jackie Holmes [blue suit] a NZ model who married Billy Thorpe, and Carolle Clements a model who married Charles Marawood a folksinger.

    All those men in the 6 o'clock swill pics would have had JOBS.

    1. Oh wow, iODyne - I always love getting your additional insights into my posts! I have to say, you've surpassed yourself here, being able to identify and name all those models! Bert Newton's and Billy Thorpe's future brides in the one photo - that's history right there. Thanks so much for the info! x

    2. PS So gross about those men! Their poor wives...