‘Terrible place, a pub with no beer’… The ‘schooner war’ and beer rationing

closed pub 1942
City Hotel Goes Dry: This notice, posted over the closed doors of one of the best known hotels in the city, tells its own story. Many would-be patrons, including Americans and Australians in uniform, walk confidently towards this door yesterday, came to a sudden halt. At another hotel nearby there was no draught beer until midday – Brisbane Sunday Mail June 14 1942.


dan sheahan
Dan Sheahan. Picture: Supplied

“THERE’S nothin’ so lonesome, morbid or drear, than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer”; so goes the lyrics made famous by legendary country music entertainer, the late, great Slim Dusty.

Slim Dusty’s Australian classic tune, ‘The Pub With No Beer’ originated from a poem ‘The Pub Without Beer’, written by farmer Dan Sheahan.

Sheahan penned the poem in 1943, after he rode 32km from his North Queensland property for a drink at the Day Dawn Hotel, Ingham, only to find that the pub had run out of beer.

Beer was rationed in Australia during World War II, and the American servicemen had drunk the bar dry at the Day Dawn the night before. On hearing this from the publican Gladys Harvey, and unhappy about riding home without wetting his whistle, Dan put pen to paper to write “The Pub Without Beer”.

The ‘pub with no beer” was established as the Telegraph Hotel in 1875. The hotel’s name was changed in the mid 1880s to ‘Day Dawn’, after a gold mining company. The grand old timber ‘Queenslander’ was demolished in the late 1950s, and its replacement, known as Lees Hotel, now sits on the site.

Day Dawn Hotel, Ingham, undated. This is how Sheahan knew the “pub with no beer” in 1943 before it was demolished and present hotel was built in the late 1950s. Picture: supplied

The poem was altered in 1956 by songwriter, and another Aussie country music legend, the late Gordon Parsons, who was said to have been given the verse, marked “anonymous”, on a scrap piece of paper at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Taylor’s Arms, almost 2,000km to the south of Ingham in New South Wales.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel was established in 1903 and has since had its name changed to “The Pub With No Beer”. The renaming of the Cosmopolitan has sparked an ongoing debate over the rightful title of the ‘real’ pub with no beer – Ingham or Taylors Arms? We’ll let you decided on that one.

Cosmopolitan Hotel Taylors Arm 1950 ANU
The Cosmopolitan Hotel, Taylors Arms, NSW, 1950. This is how the pub looked when Gordon Parsons was given the poem, “Pub Without Beer’ on a scrap piece of paper in the 1950s. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

Meanwhile Parsons revamped the poem, adding music, and gifting it to Slim Dusty who recorded it on April Fools Day 1957.

“Now the publican’s anxious for the quota to come
There’s a faraway look on the face of the bum
The maid’s gone all cranky and the cook’s acting queer
What a terrible place is a pub with no beer”

The lyrics, “the publican’s anxious for the quota to come”, referred to the government’s war time austerity measures. In March 1942, as a rationing measure, production of beer in Australian breweries was reduced to two-thirds of normal output.

To assist in the orderly rationing of beer to consumers, publicans were placed on a quota system, with the breweries restricting the number of bottled and barrelled beer available to hotels.

Publicans in NSW in turn eliminated pint glasses from their bars, in preference to the recently created 16-ounce schooner glass, and the nine-ounce middy, in an effort to stretch their supply further.

The Illawarra Mercury warned on Friday March 20 1942 that a beer shortage was looming in Wollongong, on the NSW South Coast. The president of the Wollongong branch of the United Liquor Victuallers Association (ULVA), Sam McCauley said:

“The rationing of beer, as it stands,  is most unfair so far as the Wollongong-Port Kembla and surrounding districts are concerned. Owing to speed-up in munitions, and because of other efforts, a greater number of men are now employed in this area, therefore there is a greater consumption of beer. The rationing of beer to the same period last year will not be a 33 1-3 per cent cut, it will really mean a 50 per cent cut on present day supplies. If the rationing was from our supplies say from January 1st this year, it would have been much fairer to this district and many others. With deliveries as they stand for the balance of the month I am certain that most of the hotels will be out of bulk beer before Wednesday next. It is safe to say that in future, no more flagons will be bottled.”

Restrictions on the use of schooner glasses were introduced by NSW publicans late in 1942 as a further rationing measure. It became a dry old argument for beer drinkers around the nation. Publicans were given the right to refuse to serve beer in schooner glasses except during the busiest period of the day, a couple of hours before closing time at 6pm. This was meant to reserve beer for times when it was most in demand.

In Wollongong, where the Port Kembla steelworks was in over-drive, manufacturing for the ‘war effort’, the rationing of beer penalised many workers, particularly the shiftworkers, wharfies and coal miners, who ‘knocked-off’ well before 4pm.

The resulting protests and industrial stoppages in the region’s coal mines and steel manufacturing plants became known statewide as the ‘schooner war’.

Protests and boycotts of pubs in the Illawarra and Newcastle regions eventually resulted in an increase in the beer rations to industrial areas by 20 per cent. The Illawarra Mercury reporting on Friday June 12 1942:

An all round increase of 15 per cent, in the beer ration, and an increase by 20 per cent in industrial areas, has been authorised by the Minister for Customs (Senator Keane). Senator Keane made this announcement to a deputation from the Federated Ironworkers, in Canberra on Sunday, according to Mr. McHenry, who represented the Federal Executive of the union.

beer quotas 1946 sydney pub
To reassure his customers, one Sydney publican made it clear how many kegs he was allowed from the brewery each week.

The increase in quotas though had little effect, with many of the pubs in the Illawarra continuing to run dry.

The South Coast Times reported on September 4 1942 that many of the region’s pubs were “again closed at noon on Saturday” after running out of beer. “That the position is becoming worse, say the publicans, who declare there is not a living in the business now”.

Pubs were without beer for days during the rationing or quota years. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in February 1944 that the Bulli Family Hotel placed a sign on the door on a Monday morning, declaring that there was no beer until Thursday.

Beer shortages continued after the end of the war in 1945, with quotas kept in place into the 1950s. Accusations of black-marketing and profiteering by Illawarra publicans, caused unionists to place boycotts or black bans on pubs during 1948.

Allegations that publicans were selling kegs of beers on the black market to the emerging registered club industry and anyone able to afford the inflated prices, eventuated in unionists declaring every hotel in Wollongong ‘black’.

The allegations also claimed that publicans were not keeping their bars open at required times, enabling them to stretch out their limited amount of beer.

There’s no doubt publicans were selling beer on the black market. There were reports that beer was seen wheel-barrowed into the Bulli and Woonona surf clubs, and a foundation director of the Bulli Workers Club, the late George Channell, told me back in the early 1990s that he purchased kegs of beer from the publicans of the Bulli Family Hotel or the nearby Woonona Royal in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I was also told by ‘old timers’ that the Bulli Sports Club’s illegal bar, in rooms behind a barber shop and billiard saloon opposite the Bulli hotel, also bought their liquor from local publicans.

We have no beer, but will keep your spirits up if you can keep ours down”

-Notice in an East Sydney hotel 1946

no beer Tribune feb 8 1946 cropped
No beer today – A familiar sign throughout Sydney and suburbs. But there’s plenty of beer for the black market -Tribune February 8 1946.

The powerful trade unions demanded a check of publicans’ allocations or quotas, to see if they were denying their members beer by selling on the black market. The Canberra Times reported on January 19 1948:

South Coast (Wollongong) hotelkeepers agreed to permit police and customs officers to inspect their cellars, but again refused the unions’ demands to have representatives inspect them as means of checking liquor sales. Police and customs officials made it clear they had no desire to inspect the cellars unless a complaint had been made. South Coast unions have boycotted 24 hotels because they claim they sell beer and win at blackmarket prices and do not remain open in licensed trading hours.

The Wollongong Branch of the United Liquor Victuallers Association vehemently denied allegations their their members were black-marketing, and placed the following advertisement in the Illawarra Mercury on January 22 1948:


By the Wollongong Branch of the U.L.V.A.

This statement is made at the request of the hotelkeepers of the South Coast, in an endeavour to clarify, in the minds of the people of this district, their feelings and attitude in this unfortunate dispute,  We, the hotelkeepers, emphatically deny allegations by the Trades and labour Council that black-market operations have been prevalent in this district. We do not deny that in the past kegs of beer may have been sold at legitimate prices at some hotels, but consider that on those occasions, local clubs, such as Returned Soldiers’ Clubs, Football Clubs, Surf Clubs, Buffalo Lodges and, in some instances, to persons who wished to use them at their wedding breakfast or some special social    function. As these clubs are an integral part of this community and, as in most instances, this allocation of beer was used by trade unionists, and supplied at their request, we feel we have done no injustice to the public generally. At the request of the Trades and Labour Council, the hotelkeepers guarantee that this practice will cease immediately.  We have guaranteed the Trades and Labour Council that if they  can produce evidence that any hotelkeeper is selling beer in kegs we will report him to the brewery, which will take disciplinary action and, if so declared black by the Trades and Labour Council for this offence, he will not be supported by his fellow hotelkeepers. The shortage of beer has resulted in drinking conditions arising over which we have no control. These results are over-crowded bars, over-worked staffs, broken glasses, waste of beer and, in general, are no satisfaction to hotelkeepers. We have offered the Trades and Labour Council a genuine guarantee in answer to their suggestion of inspection. We feel we still want the right that everyone enjoys — the right to run our own businesses providing we at all times give service to the best of our  ability. We have doubts in our minds whether the demands of the Trades and Labour Council are the true feelings and wants of the public in general, when we understand that at the meeting of the Trades and  Labour Council their resolutions were carried by a meeting of little over 100 members, representing 30,000 trade unionist in the district. In conclusion, we wish to repudiate statements made in last Sunday’s ‘Sun’. Mr. Sam McCauley and Mr. George Boseley deny allegations of any change in the presidency of the local branch of the  U.L.V.A. Mr. McCauley is still president and at no time during the  dispute has there been any suggestion that he be otherwise.

– Authorised by S. McCAULEY, Wollongong branch of the U.L.V.A.

telegraph brisbane 1946 no beer no light
A Brisbane pub during the war – No lights (except a lamp), and no beer…. The Brisbane Telegraph Friday June 28 1946.

Aggregate meetings of unionist at Wollongong, Port Kembla and Thirroul decided to call off the boycott of the 25 pubs from Clifton to Dapto on January 24 1948. Voting was 1,020 to two in favour of lifting the ban. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that hotel bars were packed a few minutes after the vote was taken.

Despite the agreement, beer remained scarce in Wollongong after the war. Enterprising publicans were always eager to tap an extra keg or two to satisfy their customers’ thirsts. The Illawarra Mercury reported on July 1 1948:

BEER JOKE Wollongong: Members of the South Coast Branch of the United Liquor Victuallers Association have been chuckling amongst themselves over a neat joke played on a well known licensee a couple of weeks ago. Beer is generally short on Monday mornings — in fact, is non-existent at most hotels. On Monday morning, this particular licensee received a phone message to the effect there was an eighteen gallon keg of beer at the Showground. It was a ‘left-over’ from a footballers’ do, he was told. Post-haste, a truck was despatched to collect the keg. It was delivered, placed in the cellar and connected.’The beer’s on,’ the licensee told some thirsty souls at the bar. He drew a schooner, but it appeared mostly froth, so he drew another. Still puzzled, he tasted it — It was Ginger Beer.

Coming into town in the tram was an old-timer, who had left early in disgust. “I’ve been going to the Show for 50 years,” he said, “and this is the worst ever.” Surprised after seeing such a magnificent display of the State’s wealth and resources — the best ever I thought — I asked him why. “No beer,”, he tersely retorted: and apparently he was too dry to say anything more. -‘Old Bill’, Brisbane Telegraph Thursday 11 August 1949.

The South Coast Times reported on November 20 1952 that a deputation from the Labour Council, United Liquor Victuallers Association, and local Parliamentary representatives endeavoured to get an increased beer quota for the Wollongong area.

During the 1951/52 NSW Government Royal Commission into the liquor industry one witness said he visited four hotels in Wollongong at 11.30am and there was no beer available at the hotels. He visited eight hotels, and with the exception of two – the Crown and Harp – there was ‘no beer on’. He also visited hotels at Woonona, Bulli and Thirroul between 4.30 and 5.30pm and also found that no beer was ‘on’.

beer shortage 1946
Truth Readers Have Their Say – Truth, Sunday March 3 1946

By the mid 1950s government restrictions had been lifted and the breweries had got on top of the shortages. Trade at NSW hotels were at an all time high. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in August 1953:

Only about six out of more than 600 hotels in the Sydney Metropolitan area had sold their full quotas of beer each week this year, hotel authorities said in Sydney yesterday. The breweries had more “than overtaken” demand, they said. Some publicans had refused delivery of thousands of gallons of draught beer since Christmas, because they could not sell it. Return of competition to the trade had caused many publicans to modernise their premises so as to attract custom.

Beer was again flowing free by 1954, with Thirroul’s Ryans Hotel reported to have sold 950 gallons (almost 360 litres) of beer in one day. The pub’s average weekly sale was 120, 18 gallon kegs. Not bad for a town with a population of just under 4,000 people.

By the mid 1950s the thirst of Australians was once again satisfied. However, the underbelly of the liquor industry had been exposed during the war years, and a royal commission was around the corner. But that’s another story.

First published 2016. Updated 2023

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023

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Categories: beer glasses, Illawarra Hotels, NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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