1937 Tasmania ends six o’clock closing

Tasmania was the first Australian state to jettison the six o’clock closing legislation introduced during WWI.  In 1916, Tasmania had joined several other Australian states in introducing early closing hours for liquor sales in hotels. For 21 years, liquor could only be sold between 6am and 6pm. The early closing time had led to the infamous six o’clock swill, as working men downed as many drinks as possible in the short period between finishing work and last drinks.

The change was a victory of sorts for the temperance advocates but they continued to push for total prohibition of alcohol. In the 1920s, inspired by the passing of prohibition laws in the USA,  there was a call for a Tasmanian referendum on prohibition, and a Bill was drawn up. However, after lengthy debates in the House of Assembly, the legislation was abandoned in 1924.  Similar referendums were held in New South Wales and Victoria in 1928 and 1930 respectively, with the “wets” triumphing over the “dries” in each case.

The six o’clock closing laws in Tasmania were complicated by a provision allowing hotels to keep their doors open until 10pm, but forbidding them to sell liquor after 6pm. Members of the public were permitted to be on the premises for “any legitimate purpose”. So you could eat, have a club meeting or play darts, as long as you didn’t drink at the same time. Of course, the law was often flouted. Although there were many prosecutions, there were frequent cries of outrage from the temperance movement about less-than-stringent enforcement of the law.

By 1933 (after prohibition had ended in America) a Bill was introduced in the House of Assembly calling for liquor trading hours to be changed to 10am to 10pm. Naturally, it roused the ire of the anti-liquor groups. Newspapers published objections by the Association of Sunday School Teachers, the Church of Christ, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Dawn of Hope Rechabite Tent and many others.

We can assume the Catholic Church took a more tolerant view, based on the Archbishop of Sydney’s advice to his flock during NSW’s 1928 referendum. ” The referendum on liquor legislation,” he wrote, “will afford Catholics an opportunity for asserting their policy, namely, that the evils of intemperance arise, not from the reasonable use of strong drinks, but from their abuse.”

Those objecting to the Tasmanian Bill insisted that, since the current liquor trading hours had been decided by referendum, any change should similarly be put to the people. In the event, although it passed the Assembly, the Bill was defeated by one vote in the Upper House – the Legislative Council.

Three years later, new legislation was introduced. Again there was fierce debate, with some ministers citing the value to tourism of later opening hours. Although the result was again very close, this time the Bill passed through both Houses, with a majority of one in the Legislative Council.  The six o’clock swill in Tasmania was no more.

There were high hopes for a more civilised drinking culture. However, perhaps The Advocate in Burnie was being unduly optimistic when it suggested that hotels should also make a point of serving tea, cocoa and hot or malted milk in the interests of sobriety. “The hotels should be a medium for popularising the drinking of milk,” it suggested. Strangely enough, this suggestion was completely ignored.

Ten years after Tasmania had ended its six o’clock swill the New South Wales government was holding a referendum on hotel closing times. The premier of Tasmania defended his state’s decision to move to 10 o’clock closing in an advertisement in Sydney papers paid for by the Liquor Trades Council of NSW. He said that six o’clock closing had not provided any moral advantage, that the change provided people with the most freedom and that it benefited the State.

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