May 26, 2024

The Six O’Clock Swill

Until the 1960s, Australian pubs used to close at 6pm, and getting a drink after work was a fraught experience. This is, The Six O'Clock Swill.

The Six O'Clock Swill in a Melbourne pub
The Six O'Clock Swill in a Melbourne pub

Let’s say you knocked off work at five, and fancied a quick beer afterwards.

Like most workplaces, your colleagues are a mixed group, men and women, all different ages. So you head down to the local pub, the one just round the corner from the office, together.

And then, when you get there, you have two split up into two groups. The men go into the ‘Public Bar’, and the women go round the side of the place to a different entrance, that takes them into the ‘Ladies Lounge.’ You won't meet up again until you leave.

Whichever entrance you use, inside is much the same; heaving, hot, crowded and smoky.

The main service area is crammed, wall to wall. Everyone is drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. You immediately start to sweat.

You push your way to the bar and order a round.

People yell and argue. You can barely hear yourself talk. You are jostled as you try and edge back with the drinks, and beer slops on your pants. There is beer all over the floor already, your feet stick to the ground as you try to take a step.

Once you’re back with your friends, everyone guzzles their drinks as quickly as possible. It’s 5.30 already, and the bar will only be open for another thirty minutes.

Before the first drinks are even finished, one of your friends is pushing back into the crowd, to get the next round in.

At ten to six, the barman rings a bell, and all hell breaks loose. The atmosphere, already boiling, erupts into a mad frenzy.

Every punter in the place makes a lunge for the bar, everyone shouting for five beers each. The bar staff work the taps at a manic pace, slopping beer around as they dump the beers on the counter.

The schooners are snatched up as they are poured, and chugged down as quickly as possible.

Every customer has two drinks in their hand, and more in front of them.

The Six O'Clock Swill has begun.

Local beer ad, circa World War I.
Local beer ad, circa World War I.

In 1910, Melbourne was a city with a powerful thirst.

With one bar for every 120 people (the current ratio is more than three times this), alcohol was one of the city's most popular, and lucrative, hobbies.

Stopping at the pub on the way home from work was a daily ritual for many of the city's workers, and the industry had expanded to meet this enormous demand. Alcohol was cheap, readily available, and heavy drinking an accepted part of everyday life.

The downside was as you would expect; high rates of alcoholism, and alcohol related health problems. Also claimed, although not universally accepted, was that this level of drinking had lead to increased property crime and domestic violence.

Temperance Movement poster.
Temperance Movement poster.

To combat these ills, a local ‘Temperance’ movement was formed; civic minded individuals, often religious, who campaigned for stricter government control of the alcohol industry.

Temperance Associations became prominent in Australia's major cities; they founded meeting halls, where serving alcohol was prohibited, and staged regular anti-alcohol demonstrations and rallies.

During World War I, the Temperance movement would reach the height of its influence.

Ad supporting six o'clock closing
Ad supporting six o'clock closing

As Australia sent soldiers off to Europe to fight and die in their thousands, and the war dragged on year after year, a mood of austerity gripped the nation.

On the home front, public drunken-ness was viewed more than ever as improper, and consuming alcohol as an indulgence. Australia's troops were prohibited from drinking on duty, and many people back home saw it as proper to observe the same restrictions.

The Temperance movement seized their opportunity.

In Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide they began to campaign aggressively for a sharp reduction in alcohol trading hours. Most pubs at this time stayed open till 10 or 11pm, and the Temperance movement now demanded this be reduced to 6pm, allowing only one hour of drinking time at the end of the work day.

Large demonstrations in support of this change were held across Australia, and petitions with thousands of names collected.

A sign on a Melbourne pub indicating the 6pm closing time
An old ad from the side of a Melbourne pub, captures the early closing time.

The campaign was successful enough that several state governments agreed to hold a referendum. South Australia voted first, in late 1915, and the 6 o'clock closing option was approved by a small majority.

The new regulations were introduced in SA in March 1916, and by the end of the same year voters in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania had also approved the change (WA would move to 8pm closing in 1923, and Queensland never altered its laws).

The Temperance movement appeared to have won a decisive victory. By the end of the First World War, six o’clock closing was an entrenched part of life in Australia’s largest cities.

A 1920's era speak-easy.
A 1920's era speak-easy.

But as the dour mood of the war years gave way to the Roaring Twenties, alcohol came roaring back.

With legal drinking hours now severely restricted, illicit cafes and bars, also known as speak-easy's, began to operate after 6pm. And found plenty of customers willing to break the law.

As in America during Prohibition (also in force by this time), these enterprises were often run by shady characters, who flouted the rules and made themselves rich in the process, charging a premium to serve a thirsty public.

But with after hours booze prohibitively expensive for many, the rest of the adult population had to try and make do with the one hour of drinking time they had available to them.

And so ‘The Six O'Clock Swill’ was born.

It was not a pretty picture:

'Five of us would approach the bar at dead on 5.30. Each of us would buy five beers. 


At six o'clock the publican would ring his bell and yell, 'C'mon fellas, drink up!'


The we were all out on the footpath. Everyone was drunk at 6.15pm.


People are chundering. Bodies that had not known food for five hours had to have a tough constitution to handle five beers in 30 minutes.'


- Keith Dunstan, Melbourne journalist


'Soon the six o'clock swill was in full swing. It was a long time before I learned to handle it.


The first arrivals crowded the counter, the less fortunate ones shouted over their heads.


The shouting for service, the crash of falling glasses, the grunting and shoving crowd, the smell of human bodies, the smell of liquor, all beat against my brain until my actions became mechanised. 

It was not a pretty sight.'


- Sydney bar girl, 1950s

Victorian artist John Brack's painting ‘The Bar’, one of the most famous artworks to come out of Melbourne, is also a depiction of this moment.

Painting by Bracks, showing the Six O'Clock Swill

In this work, Brack tried to capture the hostile environment described above; the dismal atmosphere, the unhappy customers, and the long suffering barmaid, overseeing proceedings.

But despite the gross excesses of six o’clock closing, and its unpopularity, the policy remained entrenched.

Rally in support of six o'clock closing
Rally in support of six o'clock closing

After World War II, as Melbourne became more open to the wider world, and more of a tourist destination, our restrictive drinking regulations were much remarked on by visitors.

Opponents of six o'clock closing claimed that this gave Melbourne a provincial, or even unwelcoming, tone.

But anti-drinking advocates were well organised, and continued to lobby against any changes to the law. The tussle over when and how people were allowed to drink, dragged on for decades.

In Tasmania, the regulations did not even last through to World War II, and were reversed in 1937.  But it was not for another 18 years before another state would follow; New South Wales relaxing the laws in 1955.

End of the Six O'Clock Swill

In 1960, the head of Victoria's Liquor Licensing Board, Judge Archibald Fraser, authored a report on the state of Victoria's liquor laws.

Judge Fraser had undertaken a fact-finding tour of America and Europe, analysing their liquor regulations, and now compared these unfavourably to Victoria's.

'Deplorable' was Fraser's verdict.

It took another six years, but Fraser's report was the catalyst for change. 6 o'clock closing was finally repealed in February, 1966.

From this date, bars in Melbourne were permitted to remain open till 10pm.

When it finally came, the change was not as dramatic as many had predicted:

'The Temperance people said that instead of a six o'clock swill, there'd be a ten o'clock swill.


No husbands would be home to their wives, and there would be carnage on the roads.

Well... nothing happened. The pubs were practically empty. Drinking is not very interesting when its legal.'


- Keith Dunstan, column the day after the repeal



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