Six o’clock closing was introduced for pubs in South Australia in 1915. The following year, Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria followed suit. The temperance movement was successful in getting new laws passed that required pubs to close at six o’clock, arguing that a “well-ordered, self-disciplined and morally upright home front was a precondition for the successful prosecution of the war.” The result was a change in architecture that let publicans hose out tiled pubs after closing time.
In 1915, with the beginning of World War II, the temperance movement became more fervent than ever. As part of the ‘war effort’, Australians were urged to be patriotic, thrifty and morally upright. Organisations like the Central Methodist Mission and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had been campaigning against alcohol for decades. With Australia at war, they saw their opportunity. They argued that Australians needed to ‘throw off superfluous drink and get down to the solid fighting habits of the soldier here and now’.
And they succeeded. In 1915, after a referendum, South Australia introduced a six o’clock closing time for public houses. Referendums in Tasmania and New South Wales yielded the same result in 1916, while the Victorian parliament simply enacted a law “temporarily” instituting 6 o’clock closing during the war. In 1919, further legislation made the temporary early closing time permanent. Queensland had meanwhile adopted a more moderate early closing hour of 8pm while the sensible Western Australians settled on 9pm.
The temperance activists weren’t satisfied. They pushed for total prohibition. As one newspaper reported, there were strong opinions on both sides:
In answer to the fulminations of the over-zealous temperance advocate there came from the opposite camp fiery denunciations of the wowser and all his works, and as both sides depend to some extent on their imaginations for their facts the principal result of a verbal clash between them is to raise such a dust as to effectually becloud the issue.
(The Swan Express, 23 August 1918)
That was one battle the ‘wowsers’ lost. But after the war was over, early closing lingered on. Six o’clock closing meant the very architecture of pubs changed to cope with an hour or two of high-intensity drinking at the end of the working day. Bars got bigger to handle the rush. They were tiled, so they could be hosed out. And while men got home earlier, they probably got home drunker.
The introduction of six o’clock closing led to grumblings about the ‘six o’clock rush’. The term ‘six o’clock swill ‘ did not emerge until the 1940s, after WWII. Thanks to the ‘wowsers’, an Australian term which came to mean one who condemned the pleasure of others, six o’clock closing prevailed in some states until the 1960s, despite many Australians’ deep distrust of those who didn’t drink. In some states, it took a referendum or two before more civilised drinking hours returned.