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September 4, 2014

Moments in time #1 – The six o’clock swill

Our city has a history. Sure, it’s not an especially long or hugely interesting history – but it has its moments. These are them.

  • Words and pictures: Owen Lindsay

In March 1916, South Australia became the first state in the country to impose a law that closed all public bars at 6pm every evening. Other states soon followed, for some reason.

As best as your correspondent can tell, the law was part of some strange magical ritual that was intended to promote social civility at home, thereby somehow winning the war against the Hun abroad (???). In any case, the ban was a long-cherished goal of the temperance movement, which arose in the late 1800s under the indescribably horrid banner of ‘moderation and abstinence’. The ‘temps’ hoped that, by closing bars early, the evils of alcohol would eventually be purged from society once and for all.

6pmswill 2

Instead, what happened was that the hour from the 5pm end of work until the 6pm close of bars became a manic scramble for every able-bodied man in town to dump as much grog into his stomach, gizzards, lungs, oesophagus and mouth as he was physically able. The men guzzled booze with single-minded frenzy, and at 6pm they were hustled back out into the streets like alternate universe Cinderellas, to drunkenly shamble about the city looking for those hula-hoops on sticks that seemed to be all the rage back then (though this part is pure speculation).

To accommodate the sloshing tide of spilled beer, vomit and blood that inevitably accumulated inside, bars were built with hard, tiled surfaces that could be easily hosed down by the publican at closing time. This is literally the same principle used with hog feeding troughs, incidentally.

It took over 50 years for the 6pm closing edict to be repealed. In fact, South Australia was the last state in the country to finally retract the law, in September 1967. Even then, the ban was only abolished thanks to the pluck and common sense of recently-installed State Premier Don Dunstan.

Along with the lifting of the 6 o’clock close came another important piece of liberalising legislation: women were now legally allowed to drink in the front bar of pubs. Yes, until 1967 it was illegal for a female human to be present in the front bar. Read all of the above information once again, and this time keep in mind that the described state of affairs represents ‘the glory days’ for some people.

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