This Monday, 24 February, sees the start of Sydney’s new CBD Hotel Lockout laws, where venues inside a designated area in the city, along Oxford Street and at Kings Cross will be required to lockout anyone turning up after 1.30am and stop trading at 3am.  Bottle shops will close at 10pm.

It’s a response to a seemingly increasing level of late night violence around some venues in the city and the reasoning that the booze is the cause.  But this is not the first time this has happened.

A temperance movement had been active in Sydney since the 1850s.  The consumption of alcohol in Sydney was a hot topic throughout the nineteenth century and by the 1890s temperance organisations boasted 70,000 members nationwide.

Their first significant victory came with the 1882 Liquor Act.  At this time there were about 1100 hotels in Sydney, a third of the all pubs in NSW; the majority of them being in the inner city suburbs.  Pubs were trading seven days a week, opening as early as 5 or 6am and closing at 11pm or later.  The Act made Sunday trading illegal and introduced the concept of a local option, which meant that voters in local government elections could vote against the granting of any new licences in their area.  In 1905 this was extended to allow voters to vote for a reduction of licences, as well as restricting new licences.

By June 1908 46 metropolitan hotels had been closed under the new law, with a total of 293 closed across NSW.  Of course plenty of hotels operated outside the law, with some employing private clubs, operating late and employing lookouts for licensing police.

In 1916 a bigger hit came.  A push for early closing of hotels had been building since 1900, when shops were forced to close at 6pm.  Temperance groups argued it was unfair for a shop, selling bread for a family, to be closed at 6, when a pub could trade on into the night.  But at first there was little support.

In February 1916 Australian soldiers training at Liverpool camp went on a rampage over extra training hours.  5000 broke up the camp and marched on Liverpool, where they were joined by an estimated 10,000 more.  After smashing up shops and hotels in Liverpool, the troops commandeered trains and went into the city where 1 was shot and killed and others injured.  A hastily convened Parliament ordered hotels immediately closed, sensing that booze was fueling the unrest.

drinkers at Auburn queue for last drinks, 1952.
drinkers at Auburn queue for last drinks, 1952.

For the temperance union it could not have come at a better time.  A state election was due in June 1916 with a referendum on early closing proposed. 62% voted for hotels to close at 6pm for the duration of the war.  Agitation by the temperance unions saw the closing time extended and then made permanent in 1923 and remained in place until 1954.

And so it was that the 6 o’clock swill entered our local vocabulary.  With most people finishing work at 5pm, anyone up for a beer after had 1 hour to get to the pub, order and finish.  Pubs were overrun with drinkers, especially later in the week, with men spilling out onto the footpath, and clambering over each other to get a last drink. Rounds of 4 beers each were not uncommon.

Pubs were rebuilt to cope, illegal grog shops sprang up everywhere to satisfy demand, and Sydney’s late-night drinking culture went underground.  Can we expect this again?