16 Aug 2017

The last days of the 'six o’clock swill'

From Afternoons, 1:38 pm on 16 August 2017

50 years ago this October NZ’s infamous hour of binge-drinking – the ‘6 o’clock swill’ – came to an end, and pub closing was moved from 6pm to 10pm.

A six pm closing time for pubs was introduced in 1917 as a temporary measure but endured for a further 50 years.

Sarah Johnston from Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision plays audio recordings from the period.

It was believed pubs closing at six o'clock would strengthen New Zealand's war effort, with sober workers would be better able to focus on the war effort.

Six pm closing had strong support for many years. As late as 1949,  almost two-thirds of voters in a referendum opted to keep it.

But in the 1950s, the arrival of migrants from Europe brought a more relaxed approach to alcohol here, more New Zealanders were travelling and restaurants became more commonplace.

People began to flout the law and there was increasing pressure for reform.

“Once we got to the ‘50s, the writing was on the wall for the old six o’clock swill,” Johnston, says.

In a 1957 referendum – with the slogan ‘Vote now, Drink later’ – 64% of people voted in favour of a move to ten o'clock closing.

RNZ received a huge amount of correspondence about this story. Here is some of it:

In 1958 at age 23 I was working on a Mamaku farm Each day at 5pm we would knock off and drive the heavy truck to the Tirau pub hitting around 70mph to have a half hour's drinking before 6 Your usual consumption was 3 jugs or about 3 litres in metric You then, glassy eyed, drove even faster toward home near Karapiro (The sole traffic cop drank in the private bar so he was never a threat). If you were late you had to endure a tirade from the womenfolk - none of whom drank at all.

Hi Jesse, re six o'clock swill. At the beer garden of the THC Wairaki hotel, New Years time, we'd all order a jug (or two) just before six pm and would have 15 minutes to drink them. They'd then turn the fire hoses on to those "dragging the chain" leaving. How sophisticated was that ??? Cheers Rufus

I remember my mum bemoaning the end of the 6 oclock swill, saying us kids would "never see your father again". Mike of Dunedin

Not a good memory. My mother packing me and two younger siblings in the car.  Waiting outside the tavern door. Dad stumbling out. Going home - Mum and Dad arguing loudly :'(

Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

Hi Jessie - I grew up on the outskirts of Palmerston North in 40s/50s. Almost all men in our street (remember women never worked - their place in society was to obey husbands bear children, cook and clean) had pushbikes and drank afterwork at the Princess Hotel Terrace End . I vividly remember men at 6:30 weaving down the road on push bikes frequently falling off ( especially Friday evening) I use to help milk cows and often the cows would have walked into their bales awaiting leg rope and back chain - standing there letting down their milk which pooled on the floor while the drunk farmer was trying to untangle himself from his fall off his pushbike at the farmgate !!! Cheers David - Gisborne - ps the police often arrested men for being drunk in-charge of a bike !