Story: Alcohol

Page 1. Colonial drinking, 1800–1880

All images & media in this story

Old world origins

Alcohol is 21st-century New Zealand’s most widespread drug – about $85 million is spent on it each week, and the equivalent of 34 million litres of pure alcohol consumed each year.

Traditionally Māori did not drink alcohol. The habit was introduced by settlers from Britain and Northern Europe. In their cultures alcohol, especially beer, was regarded as an essential food which helped make blood and give energy. Alcohol, usually in the form of spirits, was considered a medical tonic or ‘pick-me-up’ – although it is actually a depressant. At a time with few safe drinks – milk could carry disease, water was often contaminated and alternative drinks such as cordials, tea and coffee had not yet established themselves – alcohol seemed a daily necessity. It was used for celebratory occasions and as a daily fix which infused the sociable world of the village pub. Mediterranean cultures drank wine with meals, but this was rare in the United Kingdom.

Rum palace

William Fox visited a New Zealand grog shanty in 1877 and ordered dinner. ‘Absolutely everything on the table smelt of rum,’ he wrote. ‘The roast beef smelt of rum, the potatoes smelt of rum, the water-bottle smelt of rum, and the very tea smelt of rum; and the woman who brought the things into the room smelt of rum, and was so drunk that she could scarcely take them out again.’1

New Zealand conditions

Conditions in New Zealand made alcohol more attractive. On a frontier of tents and shacks, with many unmarried males, the pub offered warmth, news and company. Even in towns, the absence of amusements such as concerts or theatre gave the pub added value. By 1879 there was one hotel for every 287 Europeans, ranging from grand establishments to crude shanties. And there were new excuses for celebration, such as anniversary days, race days and the end of shearing.

Extent of drinking

Many observers believed colonial New Zealand was sodden with alcohol. Locals like George Chamier claimed, ‘It was considered a mean thing to drink alone; it was considered meaner still not to drink at all.’2 Foreign travellers shared Anthony Trollope’s view that the colonial New Zealander was ‘very fond of getting drunk’.3 In the United Kingdom in the 1870s there were about seven convictions for drunkenness for every 1,000 people; in New Zealand there were more than 18, and in 1864 during the gold rushes more than 28. Of 114,146 convictions from 1855 to 1870, 51,110 were for drunkenness.

Figures on alcohol consumption tell a different story. Although until 1867 only figures for beer imports, not local production, are available, and the extent of illegal production and smuggling is uncertain, it seems that until 1870 the consumption of alcohol per head was about the same as that of the UK. After 1870 it was significantly lower.

The universal currency

A visiting Scotsman, David Kennedy, observed New Zealanders in the 1870s: ‘Colonial Bill, when he beckons his chum Tom to have a “nobbler” over the way, is only increasing his long-established fame for good fellowship … No company of average men assembles, but some one “shouts” or “stands” drinks all round. Mr Black meets Mr White, whom he has not seen for a whole week and the consequence is a couple of “drinks”. Jones has something particular to say to Robinson about the weather – they “step across the road”. Smith settles an account with Brown and two “nips of brandy” are immediately called for …’4

Binge drinking

Two factors explain the contrast between observations of drunkenness and the moderate statistics. One is the high level of binge drinking. Many men in frontier jobs – shepherds, boundary watchers or bush fellers – worked miles from a pub. When paid they would come to town and ‘melt’ their cheque by going on a ‘burst’ or a ‘spree’. It could last for days. The men would get sodden drunk, there might be fisticuffs, and they would spill out onto the streets where their behaviour was highly visible. So total consumption was not high, but when drinking did happen it could be socially disruptive.

Spirits, not beer

Secondly, colonial drinkers, especially early on, did not drink beer, but spirits and fortified wines like sherry and port which had more powerful effects. At first most alcohol was imported and had to be carried inland. Beer was bulky and did not travel well. The alcohol content of wine and spirits relative to volume was higher, so importers promoted those drinks. Initially the major spirits were brandy and rum, with little gin and whisky. Until the mid-1860s per-capita consumption of spirits and wines was three to four times the UK level. Beer consumption was under half.

First brews

The very first beer made in New Zealand was brewed by British explorer James Cook at Dusky Sound in 1773. To ward off scurvy among his crew, Cook made beer from rimu and mānuka leaves. The first organised brewery was started by Jewish trader Joel Polack at Kororāreka (later Russell) in 1835.

Local brews

The beginning of local production changed things. Whalers and sealers had distilled liquor, but in 1841 stills were outlawed. The Distillation Act 1868 legalised the practice and two distilleries emerged. But when the duty on local spirits was raised in 1874, the industry collapsed, and local fire water was only produced illegally in places like the Hokonui Hills of Southland. By then almost half the spirits drunk was brandy, but whisky and gin had risen in popularity, to 19% and 17% respectively.

With beer the story was different. Local breweries emerged in the 1840s, but it was not until the 1860s that they made a difference. In the decade after 1867 the number of breweries increased from 51 to 91, and imported beer fell to 10% of beer sales. Numerous locally made beers meant that drink was more accessible and of better quality. Beer drinking increased. Even so, in the late 1870s beer consumption was still under half that of the United Kingdom.

  1. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 25 (1877), p. 111. Back
  2. George Chamier, Philosopher Dick: adventures and contemplations of a New Zealand shepherd. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891, p. 517. Back
  3. Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand. Melbourne: George Robertson, 1873, p. 632. Back
  4. David Kennedy, Kennedy’s colonial travel: a narrative of a four years’ tour through Australia, New Zealand, Canada, &c. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Publishing Company, 1876, p. 195. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Alcohol - Colonial drinking, 1800–1880', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Apr 2016