In June 1904, the Kalgoorlie Sun recounted the tale of a chook raffle in a local pub. The chicken, in this case, was a live one, at least initially. However, the winner had left the pub before the draw and a week or so later, after he’d failed to return to claim his prize, it ended up on the pub’s menu. Poultry raffles were not unusual but weren’t quite the same as the regular Friday night chook raffle that became a tradition at Aussie pubs and clubs from the 1950s.
In the early 19th century, raffling was a routine way to dispose of property. Notices in newspapers advertised pianos, furniture, duelling pistols, timepieces and many other, usually valuable, objects to be disposed of by raffle. Horses were also raffled and in 1833 Sydney papers announced: “THE lovers of aquatic amusements are respectfully informed that a beautiful fast-pulling WHERRY, built in England, will be raffled…
Sometimes the items being raffled were edible. In December 1832, G. Russell of George Street in Sydney advertised that a large plum cake, weighing 112 lbs (around 50kg) and valued at £18 would be raffled on 6 January. The raffle was to consist of thirty members at 10 shillings each.
Poultry raffles, which mostly involved turkeys and geese, but occasionally chickens (live or dressed) were not an exclusively Australian phenomenon. They were common in America, often around the festive season and Thanksgiving. Birds were often raffled in taverns, giving the practice a slightly seedy reputation.
This was all entirely legal but had its opponents, who argued that the practice encouraged gambling. In the 1850s most Australian colonies passed laws forbidding or strictly regulating raffles. Some offered exemptions for charity bazaars. While the use of raffling as a means of sale ceased, it seems the laws were selectively enforced and raffles persisted into the 20th century. In 1906, the New South Wales Attorney-General cracked down, saying there was “too much elasticity in the administration of the Lotteries Act.”
As you might expect, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union became involved. In 1918, these righteous ladies mounted a campaign against charities raising money through raffles. Perhaps they were targeting charitable souls like Miss Finlayson of Armidale who, that year, was raffling a meat basket to help raise money for the building of soldiers’ homes. The meat raffle, like the chook raffle, was to become another Australian tradition.
Although the term chook raffle seems to have emerged in the 1950s, the practice had a much longer history. In 1920, the Perth Mirror, under the heading of “Fowl Play”, recounted the tale of two con men who collected money for raffle tickets from bar patrons, then scarpered through the billiard-room window taking the two prize chickens with them. In 1938, The Truth protested that “The latest police brainwave is to abolish raffles in hotels. For years – particularly during the depression – some men have been knocking out a few shillings by raffling oysters or poultry on Fridays”.
The first documented winner of the charity “chook raffle” in its modern form, and with its familiar name, was one Ernie Dwyer, who held the winning ticket in the Cabramatta Bowling Club’s weekly fundraiser on Saturday 20 October 1956. In the 1950s and early ’60s, my father participated in the regular raffles at the Caulfield North RSL Club, every so often arriving home on a Saturday evening with a ready-to-roast chicken. He was known to remark that these were probably the most expensive chickens we ever ate, given the number of losing tickets he’d purchased over the years.
These days, when roasting a chicken at home has largely been replaced by ducking into the supermarket for a rotisseried bird, the charity raffle in the pub or club is more likely to be for a meat tray. Often, especially in country towns, these are held to support a local football team sponsored by the pub in question. “Chook raffle” has now become something of a derogatory term for an incompetently run election.