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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. Photo: 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’.

six oclock closing melbourne 1956

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. Before this reform, most pubs in Australia had closed 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.

six oclock swillEarlier 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 a hose-out after closing, and easy cleaning.

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.

More reminiscences of the rowdy days of the six o’clock swill at the Bulli Family Hotel are featured in my book, ‘Sister Pubs’, a history of the Bellambi Hotel, Bellambi and the Heritage Hotel, Bulli. 

The later closing time of 10pm was introduced into NSW on February 1 1955, Victoria in 1966, and South Australia was the last state to abolish six o’clock closing in 1967. 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.

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

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