Now and then: Australia’s ‘six o’clock swill’

By Naomi Russo February 8, 2016
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Australians were forced to finish their drinks by 6pm for almost 40 years – and what a drinking culture it created!

ON 28 SEPTEMBER 1967 the clock struck one minute past 6pm and premier Don Dunstan raised a glass, as South Australians joined the rest of the nation in being able to legally continue drinking. It was the first time they had been able to do so after six o’clock since 1916, as legislation extending the closing times of licensed establishments for the first time in almost 40 years came into effect.

Early closing times had been introduced in 1916 as a war-time austerity measure, as well as in response to a growing temperance movement. Before the change most hotels and pubs had closed around 11pm.

Unfortunately for lawmakers, less time didn’t necessarily equate to less drinks. Workers who finished at 5pm rushed off to pubs, ordering as many drinks as they could before the bars closed an hour later. The resulting pushing, slopping and general raucousness led some to describe the drinking hour as a ‘pig swill’ and so the phrase ‘six o’clock swill’ was coined.

Journalist John Larkin described the six o’clock swill in visceral detail, writing “ankle deep at 5.30pm in a morass of cigarettes… a howling thirsty mass crawling over each other to demand fifteen beers each to drink in the last, desperate guzzling minutes.”

The culture of swill

Early closing times, combined with a state-mandated decrease in licensed establishments and the growth of disposable incomes allowed extreme drinking to flourish in Australian states during this time. The phenomenon was not only reported in newspapers, but made its way into high culture when Australian artist John Brack painted ‘The Bar’ in 1954. The painting, which shows a crowd of men gulping down drinks, later sold for 3.17 million Australian dollars.

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The Bar (1954) by John Brack

The ‘swill’ had become part of Australian culture, reported back in England by those who visited, and celebrated by some in the states as exemplifying Australian masculinity.

Despite this cultural resonance, as the years went on, the tide began to turn against the closing hours. Illegal drinking had continued throughout the time and many began to bemoan the fact they couldn’t enjoy a few quiet drinks. Newspapers that had previously rallied behind temperance began to align the early closing times with an assault upon the freedom of men.

With public perception of the laws continuing to worsen, Tasmanian lawmakers decided to extend bar closing times to 10pm in 1937. NSW followed suit some 17 years later in 1954 and Victoria in 1966. South Australia was last to do so, Western Australia and the Northern Territory never having substantially changed their laws.