Story: Liquor laws

Page 1. Early liquor laws

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First liquor laws

In Britain, where New Zealand’s legal system originated, a licence has long been required to sell alcohol. A New Zealand licensing system was adopted in 1842 (between 1840 and 1842 New Zealand came under the jurisdiction of laws operating in New South Wales, Australia) and licensing has been a feature of the law ever since. Standard opening hours for bars was another innovation adopted from Britain.

Between 1852 and 1876 New Zealand had provincial government and liquor laws were largely left up to provincial councils, which placed varying restrictions on alcohol. Most provinces banned the selling of alcohol on Sundays. An 1873 act imposed a new national system of liquor licensing, but otherwise left provincial laws untouched.

Lingering discrimination

In 1948, following pressure from Māori returned servicemen, Parliament repealed most discriminatory measures which restricted access by Māori to alcohol. However, a 1962 law allowed Māori wardens to expel Māori from bars if they were drunk or disorderly. This provision was still on the books in the 21st century. 

Specific national laws applied to Māori, who were thought at the time to be particularly susceptible to alcohol. Several acts were passed between 1847 and 1878 to restrict Māori access to liquor.

The popularity of imported spirits encouraged the government to impose high taxes on them to raise revenue. After spirits sales fell in the 1870s the government began to tax the growing beer industry.

Licensing Act 1881

The abolition of provincial government in 1876 left New Zealand with inconsistent liquor laws. The comprehensive and national Licensing Act 1881 replaced nearly 50 national and regional statutes.

No dancing girls please

The Licensing Act 1881 banned some entertainments, including dancing girls. Section 127 stated: ‘Whereas a practice exists in certain parts of the colony of hiring women and young girls to dance in rooms and places where liquors are sold: any contract by which any females shall be hired to dance in any such room or place shall be null and void.’ Proprietors risked having their establishment identified as a ‘disorderly house’ (a brothel), receiving a fine or losing their liquor licence if they hired dancing girls.

The act imposed restrictive measures due to the growing influence of the anti-alcohol temperance and prohibition movement. It established local licensing committees elected annually by ratepayers. Committees could licence new outlets only if voters approved an increase in three-yearly polls.

The act imposed an age limit of 16 to buy liquor to drink in a bar, although no age limit was placed on buying liquor to take away. Sales were banned, in most circumstances, on Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. It imposed penalties for those serving inebriated persons, permitting ‘riotous conduct’ and allowing prostitution. These provisions established the principle, still observed in the 2000s, that those serving alcohol are responsible for customer behaviour.

How to cite this page:

Paul Christoffel, 'Liquor laws - Early liquor laws', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Paul Christoffel, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Dec 2014