1911 Prohibition in Australia’s capital

First beer shipment to Canberra, 1928

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, temperance advocates throughout Australia campaigned for a total ban on alcohol. The only place they met with some success was the new federal capital, Canberra. Prohibition in Canberra commenced in 1911 and the city was “dry” until 1928. But the laws only prevented the sale of liquor, not its transport and consumption. As a result, the hotels of nearby Queanbeyan did a thriving trade for the next 17 years.

Historians attribute the introduction of prohibition in Canberra to the influence of the Minister of State for Home Affairs, King O’Malley. He was a colourful character, who claimed to be Canadian by birth but was more likely born in the USA, where he spent the first three decades of his life. In America, he was involved with fundamentalist religious groups and espoused the cause of temperance.

The site for Canberra had been chosen in 1908. O’Malley had urged the Parliament to select a site with a cool climate, telling the House of Representatives that “cold climates have produced the greatest geniuses”. In his Ministerial position in the Fisher government, King O’Malley was responsible for the planning of the new capital in an area that had, at the time, just 2000 residents.  As part of this remit, he succeeded in having legislation passed to prohibit the granting of liquor licences in the new Territory. One existing licensed inn, the Cricketer’s Arms, in Ginninderra, survived until 1917 when its New South Wales licence expired.

It wasn’t prohibition USA-style, as the law did not prohibit bringing liquor into the territory, or consuming it. And just over 10 miles (16.5km) down the road was Queanbeyan, with five well-established pubs. It seems that the workers engaged in constructing the new capital descended on Queanbeyan,  particularly on Saturday evenings. A pamphlet compiled by one Harry Grover in 1927 described the situation:

Bootlegging is not necessary in Canberra, when you only have to drive across to Queanbeyan and carry back all you want. It is only an offence to buy liquor in Canberra. You can bring it in in cartloads as long as you buy it outside the Territory….That is why, for the present, Canberra’s main export is gold and silver to Queanbeyan; and why Queanbeyan possesses five hotels of a total value of close on £120,000; and why the bars in those hotels are as long as the counters in a big retail drapery establishment, and on Saturdays present the appearance of a bargain sale.

The situation changed when the Federal Parliament moved from Melbourne to Canberra with the opening of the first Parliament House in 1927. There was, of course, a Members’ bar. This provoked an outcry among the general population. If MPs could buy liquor, why couldn’t they? A poll was held, offering the local population four choices: prohibition of possession of liquor; continuance of the present law; sale of liquor under public control; and sale of liquor on privately owned licensed premises.

Although more than 50 per cent of those polled voted for the last alternative, the government decided to maintain control of liquor sales. Liquor licences were issued to the four government-controlled residential hotels and three government-owned “cafés” which sold drink, but not food. Described as “roughly furnished, sordid, primitive and filthy”, these cafés were not a success.

In 1935, two of the café licences were sold to private enterprises and the purchaser of the Kingston license built the Kingston Hotel. Now familiarly known as “the Kingo”, it opened in 1936.  With the opening of the first traditional hotel in Canberra since the creation of the Australian Capital Territory, the last vestiges of prohibition in Canberra (and, indeed, Australia) disappeared.

Photo: Canberra Times

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