Story: Alcohol

Page 3. The beer swill, 1919–1960

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During the interwar years, particularly as economic depression hit, alcohol consumption fell. By 1933 only 25.5 litres of beer per person was drunk, less than half of the 1920 figure (55.3). Wine consumption decreased to half a litre per person each year, a tiny amount, and spirits to under a litre, a third of the 1920 figure. New Zealand had become a beer country.

There were fewer pubs (one for every 1,542 people in 1945, compared with one for 833 in 1910). The rate of convictions for drunkenness halved between 1920 and 1940.

As economic conditions improved from the late 1930s, wine and spirits drinking remained stable, and beer drinking increased fast. By 1948 beer consumption was 78.7 litres per head. In 1957, just before new taxes briefly interrupted the rise, it was 103.6 litres (four times the consumption in 1933).

The six o’clock swill

The increase in beer consumption was partly fuelled by a reduction in the alcohol content of beer as a war measure in 1942. Some have suggested that this was the real beginning of ‘the swill’.

All for a cheap beer

Workingmen’s clubs on the West Coast were the result of a beer boycott in late 1947. Pubs on the coast decided to raise the price of a 10-ounce beer, from sixpence to the sevenpence charged elsewhere in New Zealand. Locals boycotted the hotels and flocked to the only pub which still charged the old price, the Central Hotel in Greymouth. After three months it was decided to form workingmen’s clubs selling cheap beer. In December 1947 they opened at Brunner, Greymouth and Rūnanga, followed soon after by clubs at Blackball, Hokitika, Reefton and Westport.

However, the conditions which produced the swill had emerged earlier. In 1918 six o’clock closing of pubs became permanent and this was reaffirmed in a 1949 referendum. Drinkers had one desperate hour of drinking between knocking off work and traipsing home to the dry suburbs. Also, in 1919 the very close vote which defeated prohibition became a disincentive for hotel owners to improve pub conditions out of fear of losing their investment. The vote for prohibition remained at over 40% until the end of the 1920s, then dropped to 29% in the 1930s. Even then, owners preferred to put money into buying up hotels rather than improving facilities, as limitations on new licences restricted competition. By law the drinking of beer could not be accompanied by the provision of food or the playing of music, and the scene was hidden from the world by frosted glass.

The result was that between 5 and 6 p.m. conditions in public bars were generally regarded as disgusting. There were no chairs and few tables, and the floor was covered in sawdust, linoleum or a sodden carpet. Barmen used hoses to fill jugs, which were handed back over the customers four to five deep. There were allegations that spills and dregs were recycled. Men drank at speed as they took turns to ‘shout’ one another.

As consumption rose after the Second World War, mass dispensing was facilitated by the delivery of beer to pubs in tankers, while the delivery of beer back home after closing time was aided by the use of ‘half-g’ (half-gallon or 1.9-litre) jars. With barmaids not allowed, the public bar became de facto a male enclave – which hardly improved the atmosphere. In practice women could only drink in the more respectable private bars upstairs, or at home.

Founding 10

The 10 breweries which formed New Zealand Breweries were Captain Cook and Lion in Auckland, Barry’s in Gisborne, Staples in Wellington, Crown, Mannings and Wards in Christchurch, and McGavins, Strachan’s and Speights – by far the biggest – in Dunedin.

The beer duopoly

In 1921 there were 57 breweries in New Zealand. But rail and road improvements allowed nationwide concentration. In 1923, 10 breweries came together to form New Zealand Breweries. In 1929 William Coutts, son of Cromwell brewer Joseph Kühtze, opened the Waitemata Brewery, and the following year went into partnership with Henry Kelliher to form Dominion Breweries. The two companies proceeded to buy up breweries, so that by 1961 there were only 11 left (and by 1970 only four), and to purchase pubs to control the outlets. Morton Coutts, son of William, invented a process of continuous fermentation, first used in Palmerston North in 1958 and later universally adopted. By the 1960s both corporations were pumping out large quantities of mass-produced sweet beer with little variation in taste.

There were a few threats to the duopoly. In 1944 Invercargill was allowed to establish a licensing trust, which operated liquor outlets on behalf of the local community. This model was followed in Masterton and some suburbs of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In many communities the conditions in the pubs encouraged the establishment and expansion of workingmen’s and cosmopolitan clubs, which offered cheaper drinks in more comfortable surroundings.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Alcohol - The beer swill, 1919–1960', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

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