Good riddance to the ‘six o’clock swill’!

tenpm closing sydney pub 1955
Scene in Sydney pub on the first day of 10pm closing, February 1 1955. Picture by R.L. Stewart. Fairfax Archives. Picture: Brian Yatman, Old Sydney Album, Facebook.


AN attempt to rid New South Wales of 6pm closing of pubs came in 1947 when the Government held a referendum. However the vote did not achieve the required number of votes to pass, and the frenzied drinking time, known as the ‘six o’clock swill’, endured for another seven years.

A second referendum, held in NSW during 1954 narrowly passed, and closing hours were extended from 6pm to 10pm the following year, effectively ending the infamous ‘swill’. Victorians had to wait until 1966 to see the back-end of the dreaded ‘swill’.

The “carnival atmosphere” of six o’clock closing in a Melbourne pub. Picture: The Melbourne Argus October 16 1956

Six o’clock closing of pubs was introduced in NSW and other states during the First World War as an attempt to improve public morality and partly as a war austerity measure. Queensland introduced 8pm closing of hotels in 1923, while Western Australia had the later time of 9pm. Before these reforms, most Australian pubs had called last drinks at 11 or 11.30pm.

The early closing of pubs was influenced by a drunken riot of soldiers in February 1916, when troops mutinied against conditions at the Casula Army Base, near Liverpool. Soldiers raided hotels in Liverpool before travelling by train into Sydney, where one soldier was shot dead in a riot at Central Railway Station.

A referendum was held in June 1916 with the people of NSW voting for the earliest option on the ballot paper – 6pm.

Earlier closing of pubs caused an hour-long speed-drinking session, with men scrambling to swallow as many glasses of beer as possible in the limited time available after they finished work.

One consequence of the frenzied drinking rush was that glasses were saved until the dreaded “time gents” and the taps went dry.

In many Sydney pubs, the barmaids and barmen didn’t carry your empty glass to the tap for a refill. They instead carried a pistol-shaped spigot hitched to a long tube and squirted the drinkers glass full of beer where they stood.

Men crammed eight deep at the bar, passing glasses over each others head, spilling large amounts of beer, onto the floor of a noisy, smoke filled room, littered with cigarette butts.

Most pubs were cleared of any obstacles that stood in the way of fast service, such as billiard tables, stools and furniture. The walls and floors of the bar-rooms were plastered with tiles, like a bathroom, to allow for an easy ‘hose-out’ after closing.

The following slide show features dramatic pictures captured of Sydney drinkers during the ‘swill’ were published by the newspaper, Smith’s Weekly on February 11 1950:

An outsider’s view of the ‘six-o’clock swill’ is given in Sydney Hart’s Pommie Immigrant: The Adventure of a British Emigrant ‘Down Under’, when he visited the Bulli Family Hotel, south of Sydney, in 1949:

It was my “shout”, and we were standing almost by the door; the big oblong bar was surrounded by a vast wrestling mass of humanity – all with a single ambition to get served. Licensed hours differ greatly in Australia from those at home. Here 6pm was closing time… and it was growing near the fatal moment. I heard the barmaid shout: “No more glasses!” Well, I thought, when in Rome – or Australia – do as the natives do. “Give me your empties,” I said to our party, and with these held above my head I hunched my shoulder muscles and joined the scrum. I pushed when the others pushed. Now I was almost at the bar. My unbuttoned coat-tail was three bodies away. A lucky man battled away from the bar with full glasses; with an extra tug at my entangled coat-tail I was in. I yelled out: “Four schooners, please”. The barmaid took the empty glasses away from me. Other customers were furious exclaiming: “We’ve been here 20 minutes waiting to get served and he gets in ahead of us!”. I forged triumphantly away from the bar with my brimming schooners, and so bought my first drinks in Australia’s “rush-hour”. No mean feat, I assure you.

Trading hours were extended from 6pm to 10pm in Tasmania in 1937, from 9pm to 10pm in Queensland in 1941 (See Time Gents’ story: Queensland’s sedated swill), NSW in 1955, Victoria in 1966, and South Australia was the last state to abolish ‘the swill’ in 1967.

While NSW drinkers raised their glasses to toast the demise of the ‘swill’ in 1955, Victorians had to wait another 11 years before more civilised hours were introduced in 1966. The variation in closing times was felt most in border communities, where pubs in Victorian towns like Wodonga shut at 6pm, while a couple of kilometres over the Murray River in NSW, Albury’s pubs closed at 10pm. The Melbourne Argus reported on February 2, 1955

Beer on till 10


Last night’s picturegram from Argus photographer Graham Southam, of Albury hotelkeeper Mr. Bob White shouting 150 drinkers to celebrate the first night of 10 o’clock closing.


Albury, Tuesday

HUNDREDS of Victorian drinkers from towns along the Murray rushed across the border tonight to join in the first night of 10 o’clock closing in New South Wales. And Albury tonight is making whoopee-free beer, bands playing and the lights of its 17 hotels blazing.

The bar doors are wide open. The crowds are swelling.

But there is no swilling. Everybody is happy.

This city’s 16,000 people are celebrating like a New Year’s Eve – a New Year’s Eve to end all other New Year’s Eves.

Among them are hundreds of Victorians. They came across the border by bus, bike, car, and taxi at nightfall.


And as they toasted each other and ate savories – freely supplied by many of the hotels – I went back across the Murray to Wodonga, three miles inside Victoria. It was 9pm and the town was deserted. From the living I had travelled to the dead.

Wodonga’s four hotels were in darkness. Inside one a publican squinted over an accounts book.

Said Mr. A. Watts, the Railway Hotel licensee: “Things are very quiet. But I’m not worried – I have a good regular trade.”

Mr. D. Washington, of the Terminus Hotel, said: “We will have to get late closing soon – that is, when our Government stops being so weak.”

So back I came to Albury where the streets are packed.

Mum, dad, and the kids are all out. You can’t find a space to park your car or put the family bike.

Albury Globe Hotel licensee, Bob White, who turned on free beer for an hour for 150 customers to mark the law’s debut, told me: “The only thing I can complain about is the ridiculous business of having to close our bar between 6.30 and 7.30, but that is going to be changed soon.”

Farther down the street, the plush £100,000 new Albury Hotel is doing it in style – free suppers, special cubicles in their main bars, and a grill room and barbecue to operate in a fortnight’s time.

Another licensee, Mr. John Markby, said: “I think it is great. This is what I call civilised drinking.”

At all the other hotels the story is the same. The Albion Hotel has 400 in its bars, a four-piece, band blaring jazz while mum, dad, sons and daughters drink and eat the free supper and beer.

Its manager, Mr. Harold McAnally. said: “Just wait till Saturday night. Things will boom in this town as they’ve never, done before.”

As I finish writing this, the minutes are crawling towards 10 o’clock.

The lights are still glittering, the streets are still full of families doing a legal night pub-crawl.


“Last drinks please” goes the call, and in the hotel in which I am sitting a voice yells: “Let’s drink to Victoria, the Cinderella State.”

Everyone laughs. But I haven’t got a drink. I am a Victorian.

And the same story comes from other towns along the border:

At COROWA two hotels were packed with Victorians from Rutherglen and Wahgunyah. Most of the Victorians arrived after dinner.

Mrs. M. Cosgrove, licensee of the Albion Hotel, Corowa, said: “We had big crowds to-night, but Friday and Saturday should be our busiest, when we expect the place to be jammed to capacity.”

At MOAMA, near Echuca, and GOL GOL, near Mildura, many Victorians were among the crowds in local hotels.

Queanbeyan hotels were crowded for the first night of 10pm closing.

Queanbeyan is only seven miles from Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory – a 900-square mile 10pm dry desert in the midst of plenty.

Canberra has not yet received the go-ahead for 10pm closing proposals recommended by the A.C.T. Advisory Council.

So at 6pm Canberra hotelkeepers shut off the beer, and watched many of their customers prepare to leave for Queanbeyan, just across the A.C.T. – N.S.W. border.

A check of cars outside Queanbeyan hotels showed that about one in three were from the A.C.T.

Canberra drivers who travelled the seven miles to Queanbeyan, had to pass two strong patrols of police, com-prising , two wireless patrol cars and two sets of motor-cycle pursuit police.

They found Queanbeyan’s main street, normally deserted after 8 p.m., crowded with men and women, but with several N.S.W. police stationed at street corners.

A woman’s view of the ‘swill’ and its demise is given in the Sydney Truth on Sunday November 28 1954:

pub bar
Down at the bar at The Bells, Jimmy and Myra on the job.

Andrea’s Page

TO get the lowdown on the possible effects of 10 o’clock closing of hotels, I decided to go to the source — Jimmy Carruthers* — mine host of the Bells Hotel in the ‘Loo [Woolloomooloo, Sydney]. I chose a bad time to invade — had ’em all on, and those darlings, the wharfies, gave me the lot— cat calls and wolf whistles followed me into the pub.

I found Jimmy and his pretty Myra were out for the afternoon. So I made a date for the next a.m. When I arrived at the Bells next morning, I was greeted by ‘Lady Jane,’ an adorable three-years-old moppet, a relative of the Carruthers. She sang me all the nursery rhymes on the calendar and danced.

Jimmy was in the bar! When the smiling little bantam appeared, shining; like a door nob, he couldn’t have been more friendly.

The reason he’s so popular is very obvious.

“How do you feel about 10 o’clock closing Jimmy?” I asked. “It’s the proper and civilized way to drink” was the young publican’s answer.

Carruthers has already built a posh beer garden —Mexican in influence — to meet the new era. He believes in service — Is going to introduce music and light entertainment and perhaps small “chow.” If energy, sweat and a fascinating wife go to make success then Jimmy can’t miss. But the ‘Loo, even with the lure of meeting the ex- world bantamweight champ, will be a tough proposition. It doesnt normally spell a night out, even for the denizens. They want the bright lights of the Cross. But if curiosity continues to kill the cat, then Jimmy’s future is assured.

Bells Hotel woolloomooloo 1949 ANU
The Bells Hotel, Woolloomooloo, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

Nowadays, people come from as far away as Western Australia just to say they’ve had a beer with the little fightin’ man. Today, the ring holds no fascination for the great little pug. He has turned his back on the Marquess of Queensberry. For exercise he swims at the Domain Baths to keep his weight in check.

“I’m a member of the Sydney League Swimming Club,” he said. “Look!” and he showed me his membership card, on the back of which was: “For all excellent modern drinking facilities, visit Bell’s Hotel, where you will meet Jimmy Carruthers, famous Bantam Champion of the World.”

* Jimmy Carruthers (James William Carruthers) was born in Paddington NSW on July 25 1929. He was an Australian boxer, who became world champion in the bantamweight division. He died on August 15 1990 at Narrabeen, Sydney. More on Carruthers.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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Categories: NSW hotels, six o'clock swill, South Australia Hotels, Victoria hotels

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