The 1948 beer strike left Sydney dry and thirsty

tooheys standard brewery surry hills

Toohey’s Standard brewery extending along Elizabeth Street and Albion Street, Surry Hills, Sydney.


beer strike cartoon

Beer strike cartoon in the Newcastle Sun (NSW), Thursday April 15 1948.

A STRIKE of brewery maintenance workers in 1948, just as Sydney was showing some signs of recovery from beer shortages and rationing during and after World War II, had a profound impact on the working class who enjoyed their glass.

The great NSW beer drought began on February 28 1948 when maintenance men at three of Sydney’s largest breweries, supplying most of the state’s drinkers with their beloved amber nectar, moved to extend their wages dispute by stopping production.

The strikers decided to ask members of the Liquor Trades Union employed at the breweries to join their campaign for improved pay and working conditions, which focused on improved pay and leave. The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on Saturday March 13 1948:

Beer Vats Full

Production May Stop Soon

SYDNEY, Friday. – Three Sydney breweries involved in the brewery strike would probably stop making beer early next week. Their storage vats are full. This was stated at a mass meeting to-day of brewery maintenance workers, who have been on strike at Tooths, Tooheys and Waverley breweries since February 28.

The strike is not likely to end before the latter part of next week at the earliest.

To-day’s meeting unanimously recommended that a black ban be placed on all products from the three breweries to force a settlement of the strike.

The recommendation will be considered by the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council Disputes Committee, probably on Tuesday.

The Disputes Committee will also consider a similar proposal made at last night’s meeting of the Trades and Labour Council.


In spite of the beer strike in New South Wales, performing horse, Narvik, of Wirth’s Circus, has a glass of beer each day. Trainer Werner de Benroff won’t say where he gets it. – Queensland Times (Ipswich Qld), Monday 12 April 1948.

The meeting also appointed a committee of six to meet representatives of the Brewers’ Association on Monday afternoon for further negotiations for a settlement.

A resolution that the maintenance men be allowed to seek other employment during the strike was stood over pending the outcome of negotiations. To-day’s meeting was largely attended.

Deliveries Denied

The Secretary of the Liquor Trades Employees’ Union (Mr. F. Connor) to-day denied that beer was being sent from Sydney breweries affected by the strike to Newcastle and Wollongong.

“No beer has left the breweries since the last deliveries on Monday week,” he said.

Members of the Liquor Trades Union are not involved in the strike. They are still making beer at the breweries.

The maintenance men on strike are demanding extended annual leave, protective clothing, improved penalty rates and compensations rates for abnormal conditions, among other claims. No beer would be available to-morrow at Rosehill races or any other sporting fixtures. Spirits and a limited supply of soft drinks should be obtainable.

By March 4 fewer than 20 hotels in Sydney were pulling beers, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. Although, some beer made its way to the few Sydney pubs that weren’t tied to the big breweries.

The manager of British Breweries, Ltd., Marcus Miller told the newspapers in March that his brewery was not involved in the strike, and was continuing production normally. British Breweries, at Petersham, supplied 16 city and suburban pubs at the time. The Herald reported:

There is no chance of extra beer supplies from Mudgee and Lithgow (breweries). The general manager of Tooths Ltd., Mr. T. Watson, would not say yesterday if production of beer was continuing at the brewery. To all questions he replied: “I will not make any statement.” A spokesman for the U.L.V.A. said most hotels would remain open for the sale of wines and spirits. There had been a rush on bottle departments for liquors other than beer.

Taking advantage of the beer drought, a number of publicans in the Sydney metropolitan area locked up their bars and left for holidays. The Sydney Truth reported that a number of summonses, including two in the Mascot area were issued to licensees for failing to keep their bars open from the required 10am to 6pm as required by law.

It was impossible to obtain beer in city or suburban hotels yesterday and the majority of publicans, with their stocks of spirits running low, either did not open their doors, or shut them early. Even if the strike of maintenance men is settled at next Thursday’s compulsory conference between brewery representatives and strikers, it is expected it will be at least two weeks before normal beer deliveries can be resumed.

The maintenance men, whose strike began nine days ago, are seeking recognition of a number of claims including provision of public telephones for use in emergency; one month’s annual leave; long service leave after 10 years; protective clothing in certain sections, and penalty rates for working under conditions of extreme heat and cold. It was stated by union officials on Friday that although breweries were still making beer, delivery would be impossible as the men who place the bungs in the casks are among the strikers. Some suburban hotel employees have been stood down and many Newcastle hotel men will start their holidays next week.

The consequences of the 10-week strike resulted not just in pubs running dry, and a lot of thirsty drinkers, but tragically the loss of jobs and even one reported case of a publican committing suicide due to the financial problems it caused him. The West Australian reported on Monday April 12:

TRAGIC RESULT OF BEER STRIKE SYDNEY, April 11: Cliff Henry Dowse (50), proprietor of the Club House Hotel, Yass, who had an obsession that he would lose his money through the present beer strike, was found dead in a bathroom of his hotel today. His throat had been slashed with a razor blade. Dowse’s hotel had been without beer since the strike started.


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One positive that came out of the strike though was a reported reduction in crime. The Daily News (Perth) stated on Thursday 18 March 1948:

Beer Strike Checks Thugs

SYDNEY, Thurs. – The number of crimes and accidents in Sydney has decreased since the beer strike began nearly three weeks ago. Police said today that the beer drought had reduced considerably the activities of thugs and pick pockets because there were now fewer drunks. Another reason for the decrease in crime was that many police normally required to watch hotels had been able to do other duties.

The beer strike was said to have cost the Commonwealth Government about £500,000, through the loss of excise duty estimated by the Customs department. The calculation was made on an estimate of the amount the Government would have collected on beer sold over the 10 weeks if the strike had not occurred. Excise on beer at the time was 4/5 a gallon.

Beer production in NSW was reported to be down by three million gallons during March as a result of the strike. Beer production in March when the strike was at its height— was only 8,400,000 gallons, a decrease of nearly 3,000,000 gallons on the previous month. However, the figure was still above the pre-war monthly average of 7,500,000 gallons. The record beer-production month was January 1948, when it totalled 12,000,000 gallons.

The strike spread, and by the end of March pubs all over NSW were drying-up. The North Western Courier in Narrabri reported on Thursday March 18 1948:

Even if talks today settle the beer strike, prospects of hotels receiving supplies before Easter are not too bright, because the brewery carters are on holidays until March 31. A mass meeting of strikers will tomorrow consider the results of today’s talks.

The beer drought was even impacting tourism with the Perth Sunday Times advising readers on how they could wet their whistle while visiting Sydney: The newspaper reported on Sunday 25 April 1948:


Beer Aplenty In ‘Beerless’ Sydney.

By Raymond Bowers

beer strike drinker

AND TWO TO GO. When beer was recently “on” in a Sydney hotel, this customer guarded against a sudden cutting-off of the supply by ordering three at a time

Provided you don’t mind having your pockets pillaged at some places with an efficiency that would horrify the shade, of Cromwell, there is no beer shortage in Sydney, although a beer strike’s been on there for many weeks.

You can get as much as you want, almost when ever you want it – if you want it at 1/6 a glass.

And by a glass I don’t mean a schooner. I mean a glass. One gulp or 2 sips and back to the wallet.

Last year when I went to Sydney I got the impression that it had a martyr complex. I was verbally pummelled about cigarette, clothing and liquor shortages which, when it came to the touch-rather an expensive touch, I admit were gluts.

This year Sydney hadn’t changed. The martyr complex was so strong that locals with beer on their breath greeted me with tidings of a drought. There was no beer in Sydney. I should have stayed in Perth.

Maybe I should have at that, but if the strike’s still on and you like beer, don’t cancel any visit you’re planning. It’s there all light. Vats of it. Beer violent and various. Beer labelled in distant lands, sweet and bitter, in brown bottles and white. Where do you get it?

Don’t ask a Sydneysider. He thinks there’s none. Tip him off when you find out for yourself. And to do that, just keep on dropping in to places until you hit it. You will.

For a start I can recommend some of the night clubs.

There is scarcely such a thing as Sydney beer. That’s true. Once in a moon a trickle arrives at an isolated pub and is sopped up by the first wriggle of the rush.

You can’t get Sydney beer at the shady joints either, for the simple reason that the  

shortage of the local product is a grim and a factual short-age indeed.

But there is in Sydney to-day an assortment of foreign potions fit to topple the sturdiest toper.

Some of the night clubs now close at 9.20 p.m., or there abouts. Dinner and dance stuff. You can get your beer at some of these.

You can get it at most of the nightspots. In fact, you can get it at almost any hole in the wall frequented by saps willing to be slugged.

That the man in the street is not getting his beer is true. But the glamor bugs can souse their antenna in as much as they like.

Mostly it’s Adelaide beer.

But, dyspeptic from the sweetness of Melbourne and Adelaide brews, I remember anchoring with nostalgic pangs at an hotel where they had a beer which tasted like the draft in Perth.

The beer was Allsop’s.

The origin was Britain.

The price was 1/6 a glass.

Not just one glass, or 2. But as many glasses as one liked.

I arrived at 2 a.m. It is quite wrong that you have to thirst after 6 o’clock closing.

You can go to this hotel and pauperise yourself unto the dawn. Or you can phone some of the night clubs, order a table and ask for half a dozen to be set up when you arrive. Or a dozen. Don’t stint yourself.

AND don’t ask me the price per bottle. After paying 2/6 for a grimy night club whisky – the merest anointment of the lips girt by a thimble – I lost all capacity for absorbing facts.

What a bottle of beer costs when you can get it I do not know. I have paid, I have sorrowed, and I have forgotten.

But the dimensions of this price are sufficient to appal even the leather-tongued beerless of Sydney. Only the very rich, or the willing sucker tarries long beside the amber pricelessness that is available.

For each man who drinks, hundreds don’t. And many Sydney men – I swear this -have the appearance of addicts suddenly deprived of their drug.

Always loosely fleshed as a type, compared with the Western male, many sag today, ginned and whiskied to the gills.

And they have taken to drinking milk with such a desperation that there is now a milk shortage in Sydney too.

Even so, if you have an academic interest in the shortest time between the crest of your roll and the bottom of your pocket, go to Sydney and drink your head off in the most versatile stockpile of beers a lost weekender could imagine.

The beer began to flow again in Sydney pubs on May 14 1948, slowly trickling out to regional and country areas over the following weeks. The maintenance men agreed to go back to work and abide by a decision of the Federal Arbitration Court, which in June granted most of the men’s demands. The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on May 14:

SYDNEY May 13 – Beer will be on in Sydney hotels to-morrow for the first time in 10 weeks. Additional police have been placed on duty in anticipation of any orgies. The beer drought was caused by a strike of 257 maintenance men in the two main Sydney breweries.

The Barrier Miner reported on Thursday May 13 1948 that 500 people gathered outside a Penrith hotel to cheer the arrival of the first beer for 70 days. Penrith was the first town near the metropolitan area to get beer since the beer strike ended. By 4 pm a “reception committee” had assembled round the hotel, and cars were parked for a quarter of a mile in both directions.

When the beer drought in Sydney ended, ironically crowds of men reportedly took the afternoon off work to celebrate the return of beer to the hotels, to find their favourite beverage severely rationed.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019

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