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‘Six o’clock ?swill’ left cruel legacy in NZ drinking culture

Opinion Piece

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the six o’clock swill, one of the most disastrous social initiatives in New Zealand history and with effects that linger on in Kiwi culture.

Six o’clock closing was introduced in December 1917 as a temporary measure during World War 1, on the premise that sobriety was patriotic. Total prohibition was only narrowly defeated in 1919 when troops’ votes arrived.

The temperance movement remained strong and early closing won in referenda as late as 1949, when the majority for the status quo was three to one.

In fact, a referendum on closing hours was still held each election until 1987.

But New Zealand was changing. The restaurant industry, including the pioneering Chalet Rendezvous at Wainui, was calling for a more liberal approach to alcohol with meals. Tourists visiting New Zealand were scathing of the strict licensing laws.

The 1987 referendum saw nearly 64 percent in favour of extending opening hours.

Six o’clock closing achieved the opposite of what was intended. Men rushed from work at 5pm, or earlier if they could, to crowded bars where barmen actually used spigots to try to keep the beer flowing quickly enough.

It was a scene of chaos as glasses were stored for the last orders, and 15 minutes drinking-up time. In major cities like Auckland, police cars pulled up outside notorious drinking holes at 6.20pm.

It all seems quite humorous now but the social effects at the time were far from that. Meal times were a nightmare for some families, and abuse of spouses sadly all too common.

In the past few decades licensing laws have gone in the other direction, with closing extended to the early hours of the morning.

But sociologists believe the swill has left a cruel legacy. Succeeding generations have not adjusted, and speed drinking remains common among young New Zealand males. Another major change has been increased drinking by young females.