Sydney’s stolen beer glass epidemic: Over 180,000 glasses a week disappeared from the city’s 600 pubs in 1944

Royal Exhibition Hotel in Chalmers Street, Surry Hills had problems with beer glass theft during the 1940s. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Royal Exhibition Hotel Chalmers StreetSurry Hills 1949 ANU
The Royal Exhibition Hotel, Surry Hills, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

DURING the 1940s, Sydney’s pubs was suffering a persisting problem with customers stealing beer glasses.

The problem had been around for decades, but the curious practice of ‘souveniring’ beer glasses from Sydney’s pubs had become a major headache for publicans by the 1940s.

Glass wear was expensive and out of reach for many working class families. As a result, beer glasses were often stolen from pubs and – along with jam tumblers and other jars – used in the home as practical kitchenware.*

Last Boxing Day was not a happy one for mine host, Nev Tipping, of the Dee Why Hotel, Sydney. And yet it should have been. He had plenty of beer, a great number of customers, excellent drinking weather, and 2,000 brand-new schooner glasses. At closing time he only had 600 schooners left. Of the 2,000, over 1,000 were so damaged that they cannot be used again, and 400 were stolen.

– Smith’s Weekly, January 9, 1943.

In Sydney’s 600 hotels during 1944, the weekly loss of beer glasses by theft and breakages was estimated by the United Victuallers Association – the forerunner of today’s Australian Hotels Association – to be 180,100 for the year.

A drinker has a chuckle over the warning sign in the Royal Exhibition Hotel, Surry Hills in 1949. Picture: Adelaide News, April 6, 1949.

This meant that the average weekly loss from each Sydney hotels was 300 glasses!
As a result glasses were rationed and some publicans started charging drinkers a bond on their glasses. Drinkers’ glasses had to be refilled after they were emptied.

At the time ULVA, president N H Connolly went on a education campaign telling newspapers of the financial burden the theft was causing publicans. He himself bought new glasses for use in his own hotel, and on the first day he began to serve beer in them, 24 were stolen. The Glen Innes Examiner in June 1944 reported: “Many of the glasses are broken in rush periods, but more than 75 per cent are stolen by drinkers,” Mr Connolly said.

“At three Bondi Junction hotels recently 1400 glasses were stolen in one week. In one day at Randwick racecourse 35 dozen glasses were stolen from the liquor bars. Each hotel is on a quota, but towards the end of ration period most publicans are practically without glasses,” Mr Connolly said.

Proprietor of The Lakes Hotel, Mascot, reportedly had 200 glasses stolen by drinkers from his hotel every Saturday afternoon!

The problem got so bad at the Royal Exhibition Hotel in Chalmers Street, Surry Hills during 1949 that the publican whacked-up an illustrated sign in the bar stating: “If you need glasses, see an optician, don’t take ours!”

While many of the missing glasses ended-up in the homes of customers, the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported on June 8 1947 that a black market had developed into the sale of stolen beer glasses.

Pub-to-pub traffic in stolen beer glasses

Hundreds of beer glasses are being stolen each week from Sydney hotels, then black marketed to other hotels and cafes. Sometimes they are even sold back to the hotels from which they are stolen.

The blacketeers are asking one shilling for middies and one shilling and six-pence for schooners. Normal price is five pence for middies, 10 pence for schooners. Publicans said yesterday that glass thieves were going round hotels in rush hours. They filled suitcases with glasses left on the floor, shelves, and window ledges, or served to them. They then crossed the street and sold them to rival hotels. Publicans desperately short of glasses, paid the high prices they demanded, and asked no questions. One publican said: “If the hotels refused to buy the glasses, the traffic would cease and our supply of glasses last longer. “But it looks as though the racket will go on. Hotels have got to get glasses somewhere.”

In the Parramatta district this week a man canvassed hotels with a suitcase full of beer glasses believed to be stolen. He offered to sell them to publicans at one shilling each, but they refused to buy them. Union Ban City and metropolitan hotels have been short of glasses since a union ban on the manufacture of middies (9oz.) and schooners (16oz.) last April. Members of the Australian Glass Workers’ Union say they will only make the new standard glasses prescribed by the amended Liquor Act for use after October. These are 5oz., 10oz., and 20oz. glasses.

A spokesman for Australian Glass Manufacturers’ Pty., Ltd., said yesterday that work had begun on the production of moulds for the new glasses. Australian Glass Workers’ secretary Markham said yesterday that he expected manufacture of the new glasses to begin in about five weeks. Mr. Markham added: “The trade will need about 4,500,000 of the new glasses to switch over from the present glasses. “But it will be some weeks after production resumes before the demands even of city hotels are met. “Production of the pint (20oz.). glass will probably begin first.” Most city hotelkeepers said yesterday that they had no reserve of beer glasses left to replace glasses broken or stolen. Some of them have only a few dozen middy glasses left.

Stolen beer glasses was nothing new to publicans. The problem had been around since the first beer was sold from Sydney’s tap rooms. However, the epidemic seems to have began to get out of hand from the early 1920s. The Sydney Sun reported on January 27 1923:

1,300,000 Stolen Beer Glasses


And Select Bars, Too !

Beer glasses.

Lager glasses.

Whisky glasses.

Wine glasses.

Nothing in them.

Tumblers and mugs and waist shapes and toddlers,

But all glasses —

One million three hundred thousand of them pocketed from the hotel bars of Sydney every year.

Jules Eisen, proprietor of the Railway Hotel, Kogarah, has probably made a record by losing 18 dozen glasses each Saturday, as he said, in evidence, at the Kogarah Police Court the other day. But there are others.

Each of the 673 hotels in the metropolis, loses glasses by the dozen. Some lose six dozen a week — some four dozen — a few three and two dozen — but the point is that they are always losing them. They each average over three dozen a week— a total loss of 25,000 each week, or 1,300,000 a year.

At an average of nine pence a glass, that means that Sydney publicans lose £48,760 a year.


All that, of course, has nothing to do with breakages. Hebe looks after that. She breaks about as many as the customers put in their pockets. But Hebe is privileged. It is recognised that she can’t juggle glasses of beer all day without breaking some of them. It’s, her special prerogative. It’s part of her duty to do it. If she doesn’t, she will probably be suspected of witchcraft or wizardry, or spookism, or something, and be sacked and ostracised.

So that glasses are a big item for hotel-keepers. “It’s not much use worrying about it,” says a city proprietor. “They go. That’s all about it. I suppose it makes more work for the glass-blowers.” That’s one way of looking at it. It might be pointed out also that in fidelity makes more work for the Divorce Court, and that if you get murdered it will be refreshing to know that it makes more work for the detectives. Further than that, you can always count on making more work for the doctors and undertakers if you get crushed by a steam roller or run over by the Melbourne express.


But to get on with the story. A few hotels have their glasses branded. That doesn’t prevent people from taking them, but it makes for an easy conviction if ever any of them are discovered in private homes. The trouble with unbranded glasses is that when a constable finds a couple of them in a drunk’s pocket he has to make all kinds of inquiries to find out where they belong. And even then all the proprietor can say when the case comes into court is: “These are like the glasses missing from my bar.” The law wants more than that. It demands that ownership must be de-finitely proved — unless there is direct evidence of the theft. Still, the way most hotelkeepers look at it is this: “Branding the glasses costs money and doesn’t prevent enough thieving to balance the account.” So most of them have simply become inured to it. They don’t worry. They regard the theft of four or five dozen glasses a week as entirely natural and unavoidable, and with no more concern than you or I regard the Prime Minister or an overcrowded tram-car.


Of course in big hotels in industrial centres like Newtown and Botany the weekly loss is greater, but not so much greater as you would expect. Without inquiring, you might be inclined to think that nobody would be brutal and uncouth and low enough to stow away a glass in some of the elaborate City hotels. But ask Hebe. “Six dozen a week,” she says. “Six dozen, HERE?” “Yes, H— E— R— E! Right H— E— R— E”. And you can’t argue with Hebe when she starts to talk like that — In spelt-out capitals. The only thing you can do is to accept the six dozen unconditionally and rush home to your wife or mother-in-law or something — anyone.

The explanation of this is that though the patrons of these hotels are select sort of persons (everybody swears they are select) they all have homes and the people in these homes somehow or other are constantly breaking glasses. To be goaded into crime like this must be perfectly unreasonable and ridiculous and horrid, so to speak, for select persons — but there it is. And the hotelkeepers, realising perhaps that their customers’ homes are fitted out with only the best kind of glassware, thoughtfully provide the finest glasses for them. There’s nothing in the actual stealing. It’s simplicity itself. You have your drink, drain the glass on the floor, glance round to see that nobody is looking, and than thrust it gently into your pocket and call for another drink. People who drink in the city and live at Bondi are unlucky.

* With thanks to a social media post from Jon Douglas

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Categories: Australian Hotel Association, beer glasses, NSW hotels, Sydney hotels, United Victuallers Association

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2 replies

  1. Why did they steal them? Did anyone ask? Cos its nice to have them at home? Why?

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