In October 1940, a group of soldiers rioted in Brisbane as authorities began strict enforcement of the 8 o’clock closing law for pubs. The rioters exchanged blows with police, disrupted tramways, smashed pub windows and marched the streets, chanting “Roll out the barrel. We want beer.” The beer riot continued for five hours bringing central Brisbane to a standstill. Some suggested that the failure of the army to provide “wet” canteens had contributed to the problem.
Brisbane’s 8 o’clock closing law had been in force since 1923. However, it seems the enforcement of the law was not as rigorous as it might have been. In the late 1930s, religious and social organisations were calling on the government to take action. In 1939, a group of them, including the Queensland Temperance League, claimed to have evidence of many Brisbane pubs flouting the legal opening hours.
The government of the day heeded the public demands to get tough on after-hours drinking. After years of laxity, this was not always taken well, especially in country areas. Drinkers in Mt Isa made their feelings known with protests against the crackdown.
The beer riot in Brisbane in 1940 was possibly the most dramatic protest against strict enforcement of the law. According to Brisbane’s Truth, the trouble began when soldiers were ordered out of a Queen Street hotel at closing time, 8pm. After that, according to the report:
…soldiers took charge of the town, and caused such sensational public confusion as to result in the calling out of every available policeman and firemen. Scenes unparalleled in the city’s history were witnessed, and almost incredible incidents took place.
The fighting and disruption continued until 2am. Few photographs exist, as the rioters apparently threatened press photographers trying to record the scene. According to some reports, 15 people were hospitalised. Some blamed the beer riot on the government’s policy of “dry” canteens in military camps. This situation changed in 1942 when “wet” canteens were introduced allowing soldiers to drink under supervision on base.
As late as February 1941, the Queensland Government remained adamantly opposed to the extension of trading hours. The move to 10 o’clock closing was controversial. It was opposed by the Liquor Trades Union. Other opponents argued that it “would weaken industrial efficiency, and would provide grave moral temptation for the young men in the Army” and that it was a violation of democratic procedure if the change was made without a referendum.
Despite the opposition of these groups, a narrow majority of the Labor Caucus in Queensland voted in October 1941 to introduce a Bill to change pub trading hours. It was pointed out that hours were not being extended, as the previous 8am to 8pm trading window was simply being moved to 10am to 10pm. Much of the pressure to change the law came from country hotels, whose business had been badly affected by the introduction of eight o’clock closing. The Liquor Bill was passed by the Queensland Parliament in December 1941.