Referendum ended the 6 o'clock swill

Porirua Tavern, packed with customers, on the last day of the 6pm swill in October 1967.
Porirua Tavern, packed with customers, on the last day of the 6pm swill in October 1967.

Vote now, drink later - it was a slogan that ushered in the end of the infamous "six o'clock swill", with its stench of stale beer and cigarettes.

Forty-five years this week since the end of six o'clock closing for pubs, we are certainly drinking later - 24 hours a day, if we want.

Wellington social historian Tony Simpson remembers pubs, such as the Duke of Edinburgh on the corner of Willis and Manners streets or The White Swan in Cuba St, as the kind of places men would arrive after work - and roll out of just after 6pm.

"Your feet would stick to the carpet. Most stank of stale beer and stale tobacco."

Wellington had fewer than 20 pubs in 1967 selling "chemical muck" beer.

While 6pm closing was stringently observed in Wellington, other parts of the country were less compliant.

Mr Simpson was at a pub in Greymouth about 10pm in the early to mid- 1960s when the phone rang.

It was a police officer warning that a local woman had complained (again) about the pub staying open and he was coming to investigate.

The crowd wandered out to the yard, leaving a pub of cigarette butts and half-finished beers.

The officer made a cursory check, minutes later the punters returned.

These days, the corner of Murphy and Molesworth streets is an apartment block and police national headquarters.

In 1960s it was The Princess - a pub which sat alongside the likes of New City, the Cambridge, and the White Swan as pillars of Wellington's pub scene.

Mick Robbers, now a real estate consulting executive, was a young law student working at The Princess in the 1960s.

"It used to be bedlam," he remembers of the six o'clock swill, when workers would rush in after work to drink "one, two, three jugs" before heading to their suburban homes.

"When you look at it, it must have been pretty health-damaging. But the beer wasn't as strong."

A fog of cigarette smoke hung in the air, he remembers. "People in suits amongst people in boiler suits. It was really very egalitarian."

There was a "cocktail bar" - in case women came in - through to the soon-to-be-closed "end bar" with sawdust on the floor and a hitching post outside.

"Unless you were there you would never actually appreciate what took place and how. It was really shoulder-to- shoulder, wall-to-wall."

A 1967 referendum to extend opening hours till 10pm received 64 per cent support.

The change was made on October 9 that year. Many pubs had already been upgraded, expecting an influx in female patrons.

On that first night one woman told The Dominion: "It is about time we were able to drink in public bars but there will have to be an improvement in them before women will be prepared to make a habit of it."

In Wellington, a dispute between the bar workers' union and employers over penal rates beyond 7pm - employers were arguing for 10 cents extra per hour, the union for 15c - meant there was a stuttering start to the new later hours.

On October 17, after an agreement was reached for an extra 12c per hour, Wellingtonians could finally drink till 10pm.

Mr Robbers was working that night. "People were reluctant to leave because they were having a good time."

Within days, women started appearing in bars, and drinking started to slow as punters paced themselves for a long night.

There were still problems though.

The "Wharfies" rugby league club, regulars at the Princess, had antagonised a local motorcycle gang. "One Friday night we heard this roar coming up Molesworth St." It was the motorcycle gang. "The Wharfies were well ensconced [in the Princess]. All hell broke loose but somehow we got through it."

The referendum that ended the six o'clock swill was buoyed by the popular "vote now, drink later" campaign, Mr Simpson says. By the 1980s, hours had started to loosen further. "The whole country now goes out on a wave of booze."

Contact Tom Hunt
Porirua reporter
Twitter: @tomdom76

The Dominion Post