1966 Six o’clock closing ends in Victoria

The six o'clock swill ended when pub hours were extended. Photo: Herald Sun

On 1 February 1966, Victorian hotel hours were extended to 10pm – the end of six o’clock closing and the infamous six o’clock swill. Judge Archibald McDonald  Fraser, chairman of the Victorian Licensing Court from 1954 to 1968, recommended the extension of opening hours until 10 o’clock. He had toured Europe and the US to look at licensing laws and was critical of what he termed “perpendicular drinking” in Australia.

Six o’clock closing had been introduced in 1916 when temperance advocates agitated for restricting drinking hours during WWI. It was intended to be a temporary measure but persisted for 50 years. There were several referendums asking Victorians whether they favoured extended hours, including one in the lead-up to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. All were defeated.

In Melbourne for the Olympics, a correspondent for the New York Times wrote:

The six o’clock swill is a charming folk custom which requires saloons to stop serving liquor at 6 pm. This creates a challenge which no Aussie worth his malt will take lying down, or at least not as long as he can stand.

The ‘swill’ took place between five o’clock or 5:30, when most businesses closed, and 6 pm when drinks could no longer be served. Many would line up several drinks purchased just before closing, tossing them back in the 15 minutes allowed before drinks had to be finished. The results were not pretty.

The end of six o’clock closing in Victoria brought Victoria into line with most other states, although South Australia clung on to the custom until the following year. On the eve of the change, The Age published a satirical article mourning the passing of what it described as “a piece of genuine folklore woven into our as yet not very colorful national fabric”.

“Tonight will be an occasion redolent with poignancy and nostalgia,” it mourned. “For tonight the last “six o’clock swill” will be celebrated in Victoria’s 1600-odd hotels – from the rustic taverns of Gippsland and earthy pubs of Newport to the quiet suburban retreats of Sandringham and the glittering saloons of Collins Street.”

The article reported that a celebration was to be held at Young & Jackson’s Hotel in the city:

There, in the back bar, under Chloe’s eyes, 200 people, including stage and television personalities, press and businessmen, will cram together for a “last swill night party.

Of course, the party would have concluded at 6.15. And it’s unlikely the nostalgia for six o’clock closing was shared by many. Liquor reform still had a long way to go, and it wasn’t until after the Nieuwenhuysen Review in 1986 that truly civilised, non-perpendicular drinking came to Victoria.

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