The Six O’clock Swill

It was 10 PM and Rebecca and I were sitting in the Astrolabe bar, a nearby local bar. Smooth jazz music was playing in the background and we were celebrating a new job position one of her co-workers had been offered in Australia. A number of years earlier this wouldn’t have been possible in New Zealand. Rebecca and the other women wouldn’t have been allowed in the bar and no music would be playing. In fact, the bar wouldn’t even be allowed to be open at this ‘late’ hour.

Astrolabe bar (note Christmas decorations and palm tree in background)

Astrolabe bar (note Christmas decorations and palm tree in background)

In a curious piece of New Zealand history, in 1917 a law was passed ordering bars to close their doors at six PM every evening. Initially introduced as a temporary war-time measure— sobriety was considered a “patriotic duty”—the law was made permanent in 1918 and remained for the next fifty years. That’s right, up until 1967, no New Zealand bar could serve alcohol past 6 PM, New Zealand being the only country to do this on a national basis.

Throughout its lifetime New Zealand has experimented with the so-called availability theory of alcohol—that the consumption of alcohol can be reduced by restricting its availability, and thereby reduce alcohol-related problems, notwithstanding any consideration of an individual’s right to drink socially or to get sloshed (or in the New Zealand vernacular ‘pissed’ meaning drunk or inebriated).

Among the other reputed advantages of early closing of bars was felt to be the increased productivity of individuals through less drunkenness, less unnecessary cargo (alcohol) having to be transported in the country and less ‘wastage’ of sugar. Also as far as soldiers during the war were considered, it was felt that they would drink less and thus be less likely to catch venereal diseases.

Why was six o-clock chosen? It seemed a reasonable compromise supported by such arguments similar to one claimed by a Methodist publication that it was a scandal that a country should ‘close shops for the sale of bread, and keep open places for the sale of intoxicants until eleven’. Or as a cleric claimed with bars open late, ‘temptation is spread alluringly before our young men far into the night’.

The temperance/prohibition movement

I’m okay with that! — the temperance/prohibition movement

At the time it was instituted, the liquor trade seemed to feel this was an acceptable alternative to prohibition which had a significant following. A few years earlier in 1916 a law was passed prohibiting the ‘shouting of drinks’, that is ordering a round of drinks for others present, and prohibiting women from being in bars after 6 PM. In 1919 prohibition failed to achieve the majority vote required by just 3,263 votes, and the six o’clock closing was seen by some as a reasonable compromise.

The government’s concept of the 6 o’clock closing was simple. A man would finish work at 5 PM, head to the city bar, enjoy a quiet beer with his mates, and then head home to his loving family.

The reality was anything but. The first part was correct. Men would finish work at 5 PM. But during the next hour, the infamous six o’clock swill, they would drink as much as they could and as quickly as they could trying to get as drunk as possible in the shortest amount of time. Hence, six o’clock swill was a slang term referring to the last minute rush to buy and consume drinks before the bar closed.

The infamous Six O'clock Swill

The infamous Six O’clock Swill

It should be noted that liquor outlets were not readily available as they are now. Take-away liquor, from my understanding, could often only be obtained from bars and from hotels, which had their own restrictive rules. And of course, part of the irony of all this was that bars were essentially allowed to be open during the hours when everyone worked, and would be closed during their leisure hours.

Once the law was passed, the conditions in many bars were set up to cater to this propensity, for the rapid consumption of alcohol by a thirsty clientele. There were often no chairs or tables. The floor was often sawdust. This standing-up drinking was referred to as “vertical drinking”.

“They are three or four deep, and drinking not as human beings, but often like animals, fighting to get it and passing handles over each others heads.”

Barman often used hoses to fill glasses for jugs of men sometimes five or six deep. Yet another quote—

“In many cities the crowd around the bar is so thick that instead of filling glasses from the old-fashioned beer pumps, the hotel staff take the beer to the glasses by long plastic hoses – a dreadful sight to those unused to it.”

Or in New Zealand parlance as one returning serviceman noted—

“Bars resemble a rugby scrum and it requires a sturdy forward to push through the scrum and obtain a drink.”

Further adding to the business-like atmosphere of getting drunk was a law with some exceptions forbidding dancing and entertainment (including the playing of music) on any premises where liquor was sold.

As the time approached six, ‘last call’ was announced and often five or six beers were ordered, or the men saved their glasses and had them all refilled. The result, along with perfecting one’s speed-drinking habit, was that the men went home to their families totally plastered, along with a documented corresponding increase in the number of car accidents and spousal abuse between the hours of 6:30 and 8 PM. Along with this, the men would often stock up, taking large flagons of beer home with them that would be stored in the refrigerator for use over the weekend.

At least in some areas, people and bars circumvented the rules. Westland, the west coast of the South Island and an area known for its fierce independence, was less than compliant with the law. And in some places police turned a blind eye. A loophole allowed lodgers at a hotel to order drinks after six, and in some places things went something like this when a police officer entered a crowded rowdy bar full of locals still drinking well after hours.

“All lodgers here?” the policeman would query.

“That’s right, officer,” the barman would nod back.

“Alright then, carry on.”

But in most areas people (men) simply adapted to the law. And thus, it is felt several generations of New Zealanders didn’t learn the habit of moderation, but rather that of binge drinking, contributing to the drinking culture of New Zealand.

In 1949 a referendum failed to overturn the law and it remained in effect.

Campaigning circa 1949 to keep the six o-clock closing

Campaigning circa 1949 to keep the six o-clock closing

Campaigning circa 1949 to keep the six o-clock closing

It was only when the growing restaurant and tourist lobby in the 1960’s began to complain about the effects of the law on commerce that another referendum in 1967 finally overthrew the law. It is only relatively recently (1999) in New Zealand that supermarkets have been allowed to sell beer.

Which brings us to our closing question—do such laws decrease the consumption of alcohol and of drunkenness in general? A relatively isolated place like New Zealand with the rapid introduction of laws limiting availability and their subsequent rapid removal years later can serve as an ideal place to test this experiment.

Arguments come down to whether the goal should be to curtail the availability of alcohol, that is, its per capita consumption, a not-always accurate determinant of alcohol related harm, or that the habits and misuse of alcohol should be specifically targeted, or some combination of the two.

A comprehensive review of the subject and related laws, cited below, indicates that the six o’clock closing law did not decrease the amount of alcohol consumption nor alcohol’s effects on society. It merely shifted the pattern of drinking.

Why did the law last so long in the absence of any real effect? Politicians were reluctant to change a law that was at least seen by a fairly high number of people (many still argued for prohibition during these times) as having a positive effect on decreasing drinking, even though it really didn’t. It, in effect, kept a big voting block of people happy, and seemed to help preserve New Zealand life.

Limiting the number of outlets selling alcohol (another thing tried in New Zealand) also does little to diminish overall consumption. In the New Zealand example, people simply bought alcohol in bulk quantities or illegally. Surprisingly, laws allowing more outlets actually decreased consumption. However, increasing the price of alcoholic beverages does seem to diminish overall consumption and drunkenness. To this end New Zealand on two occasions has doubled the excise tax on alcoholic beverages overnight both in 1921 and in 1958 with a subsequent drop in alcohol consumption. As an aside, for a current price comparison, a six-pack of beer in New Zealand costs NZ$ 10-12 while in the US a six-pack costs about US$ 7.

Lowering the drinking age, when the New Zealand drinking age was dropped from 20 to 18, also increased alcohol consumption. In a curious twist of New Zealand law, those under 18 are not allowed to buy alcohol but minors are allowed to drink under the supervision of their parents at any age.

For what it is worth, alcohol consumption in New Zealand is 9.3 liters consumed per capita compared to 8.6 liters per capita in the US (France is the winner with 12.6 liters per capita).




Christoffel, Paul John (2006). Removing Temptation: New Zealand Alcohol Restrictions,
1881-2005 – A thesis submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington in fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History.



One thought on “The Six O’clock Swill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s