BEFORE the days of steel kegs, Northern Territory publicans had an ongoing battle with termites attacking their timber beer barrels.
With nests rising like skyscrapers to heights of three metres or more, there are some weird and wonderful stories told about Territory white ants and their fierce appetite.
Station ringers were said to be afraid to leave their boots or saddles on the ground overnight, for fear termites, like a scourging horde, would devour them!
Darwin houses were often built on concrete stilts in an effort to prevent the white ants from swallowing-up timber homes. The little critters have even been known to bore through corrugated iron and sheets of lead to get to the wood on the other side.
Stories of the ravenous termites destroying timber beer barrels were common.
The publican of Darwin’s famous Victoria Hotel, Roy Ferguson fell victim to the hunger of the Territory’s white ants in 1938.
The 23-year-old publican had been host of the Victoria Hotel for less than a year when he lost 80 barrels, stored in a shed, containing 1,440 gallons of beer, to white ants in 1938. Newspaper reports of the day told of how the young publican discovered that the white ants had not only eaten the barrels, they had also drunk the contents!
Thousands of white ants, swollen to twice their normal size, were found in the shed, “ludicrously drunk”. All that remained of some of the barrels were the iron bands: others had crumbled to pieces – not one had escaped.
Despite taking safeguards against theft from thirsty humans, barring and bolting shut the shed door, and taking the added precaution of placing loads of sea sand on the floor (a method of repelling white ants at the time), Ferguson lost the lot, and was out of pocket £420.
Why the publican had so many barrels in storage came about when a ‘slight mistake’ in calculation was made in his order. In April 1938 Ferguson had ordered 40 barrels of beer for his Top-End pub, affectionately known to all as ‘The Vic’. When his consignment arrived, he discovered, not 40, but 140 barrels!
Although the beer consumption per capita in the Territory is high and determined efforts were made to consume the extra 1800 gallons, the populace were only successful in accounting for an extra 360 gallons.
The remaining 80 18-gallon barrels were stored in a galvanised iron shed at the rear of Darwin’s Koolpinyah Cafe. The Northern Standard reported on August 30 1938:
Yesterday, was rather warm, and an unusual demand was made on the Vic’s beer resources. The licensee found it necessary to fall back on the unwanted barrels. When he went to the shed and opened the door, millions of bloated beer-soaked white ants met his startled gaze. It has now been determined that white ants, when intoxicated, wobble precariously in circles and stagger backwards. They also increase in numbers. They were twice the size of ordinary white ants. They had bored their way into every barrel. Eighty barrels at £5 a barrel! Sea sand had been placed on the floor of the shed and the barrels were laid on the sand. This, it was believed, would prevent attacks from white ants. But what a rude awakening! Not a single barrel escaped damage. Although several barrels still contained beer it had become polluted. Carriers who were engaged to cart the beer away to be destroyed were attacked repeatedly by the drink-crazed termites. They were ‘fighting mad’.” When disturbed they became vicious and intractable; As a result of their orgy it is feared a minor beer famine may be experienced.
In the end, the Territory’s white ants were the least of Ferguson’s worries. He recovered from his loss, and remained as licensee of ‘The Vic’ until 1939, before returning to the eastern states, where he hosted various pubs.
Tragically though, in a sad twist to this tale, Roy Ferguson was murdered by his wife and her lover in 1953.
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