Adelaide’s last barmaid: When women were barred from behind the bar

Oriental Hotel at the corner of Rundle Street and Gawler Place, 1964. Picture: State Library of South Australia.

UNLIKE NSW, where barmaids were more plentiful than barmen in hotel public bars, women were as scarce as hens’ teeth in the pubs of South Australia and Victoria for many decades during last century.

From 1908 until 1967 no woman was permitted to serve in the public bar of a South Australian hotel, unless she was directly related to the publican. Similarly, no woman could be served a drink at the public bar.

Registered barmaids already employed prior to 1908 were allowed to continue behind the bar. Victoria had similar laws, with barmaids banned between 1920 and 1950.

South Australian barmaids were required to be registered, and those who had been registered prior to 1908, were able to continue pulling beers behind the public bar. There was no record of the actual number of registered barmaids that continued working in South Australian pubs during the following 60 years, as the licensing courts never were advised of deaths and retirements.

There were not more than half a dozen barmaids still serving behind public bars in South Australia in 1941, according to The Adelaide News. Despite this, the Adelaide News reported on January 16 1941 that hundreds of women continued to be employed in other parts of hotels throughout the state.

While a push was made during the war years to allow women to be re-registered to work in public bars because of a shortage of men, it would take another two decades for the barmaid to return to the public bars of South Australian hotels.

By 1949, just one woman remained registered to pull beers in the public bar of a South Australian hotel – Lily Dear, or ‘Dearie’ to her customers and friends.

Miss Lily Dear, working behind the bar at the Oriental Hotel, Adelaide 1949.

Miss Dear worked as a barmaid for over 40 years, 30 of those in the Oriental Hotel, Rundle Street, Adelaide. The Adelaide Mail reported on Saturday April 2 1949:

Forty years ago this week, Adelaide stopped registering barmaids.

Only one is still on the job in the city – Miss Lily Dear, of the Orient Hotel, Rundle Street.

No barmaids were registered after March 31, 1909. A licensee’s wife and daughters over 21 are permitted to serve liquor in SA bars.

Miss Dear (‘Dearie’ to workmates and customers) has been a barmaid for 40 years, the last 29 in the Oriental saloon bar. Today she said: “A friend who urged me to take up the work said I’d never regret it. I don’t think I have. “Why have I stuck at it so long? Well, I like the customers and the wages are better than women get in most other jobs. “I got £1 a week when I started. That was quite good money in those days.

“I don’t drink and I let the customers do the talking. I listen. “Another rule I learnt early was never to remember names or drinks. A regular customer entertaining friends doesn’t always want it made obvious he is a regular.” Miss Dear says men drink more whisky— when available —than they did 40 years ago. She also believes there was less drunkenness when bars were open until 11 p.m. in stead of the present 6 p.m. closing. She enthusiastically supported Liquor Trades Union Federal secretary (Mr. F. Ryan), who, in a log of claims hearing in Sydney, said barmaids had to be more artistic than ordinary working women and should be paid £10/10/ a week.

Mr. Ryan told Conciliation Commissioner Morrison bar-maids had to have “personality plus”, so they could attract customers. If a barmaid looked a “frump” no publican would bother to employ her. Barmaids had to meet the constant expense of hair-do’s and cosmetics. Mr. Ryan said in NSW barmaids were paid £4/16/6 a week and barmen £7. In Victoria both received £7/13/ a week. [Barmaids are not classified in the South Australian award. Barmen in SA get £7/3/ a week.]

Oriental Hotel, Adelaide, 1940. Picture: South Australian State Library. Inset: Lily Dear

The Adelaide News profiled Lily Dear again on Friday January 13 1950:

Barmaids Lifting the tone

SOUTH Australia’s only working registered barmaid, Miss Lily Dear, still on the job in the Oriental Hotel saloon bar after 29 years, thinks barmaids should again be employed in SA hotels.

She is convinced that women behind the bar improve the tone of a hotel because they “command respect from the drinkers and are cleaner in their work than men”. She had a birthday on December 27. Her licence is dated March 31, 1909 – the last day barmaids could be registered under the SA Licensing Act.

Although she has been serving liquor for more than 40 years, Miss Dear drinks only “softies”. 

Manners of the drinkers today do not compare favorably with the courteous ways of the drinkers early in the century, says Miss Dear.

Tipping is not as generous as it used to be. In fact, it is practically non-existent. General behaviour in the bars is good. When the language gets a little “hot”, she says, she reminds the men they “are not at home with the family now”.

Miss Dear does not mind being the sole barmaid on the job. She has become accustomed to it over the years. She still serves men who were among her first customers.There is another registered barmaid living in Adelaide. Miss Dear has tried to get her back on the job, but she is looking after a sick son, who does not want her to work.

Although a ruling has been given that barmaids can be employed in Victorian hotels, secretary of the SALVA [South Australian Liquor Victuallers Association], Mr. W.C. Dowling, said today there has been no move in the trade here for re-employment of barmaids.

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Categories: Adelaide hotels, Barmaids, South Australia Hotels


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