Drinkers and the anti-drink movement in Sydney, 1870-1930




Beresford, Quentin

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In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the public consumption of alcohol and drunkenness excited strong passions. Between the late 1860s and the late 1920s a politically active anti-drink movement attempted to win legislative measures aimed at the abolition, or at least the curtailment, of the drink trade. This movement was inspired by evangelical Protestants but, especially after the turn of the century, the anti-drink crusade became a popular cause. It received enthusiastic support from sections of the middle class, living in the wealthier suburbs; from women's groups, particularly suffragettes; and also from 'respectable' working men. Throughout the long campaign, anti-drink crusaders were resisted by libertarians, Catholics and by the drinking public, all of whom defended the individual's right, as one parliamentarian put it 'to take a glass of grog if he wished'. The conflict between these groups was a central feature of social and political life until 1928. In that year the anti-drink cause suffered a massive defeat in the referendum on prohibition. Anti-drink militants, and especially evangelical leaders, regarded themselves as social reformers. They linked society's major social problems, poverty, deserted children and prostitution - with the drinking habits of the working classes in particular. The drinking habits of these people, however, cannot be separated from their often deprived living environment which, according to progressive-minded contemporaries, showed that drinking was as much an outcome of poverty as a cause of it. Habits of drinking and patronage of public houses were not limited to the working classes. In late nineteenth century society there were, broadly, three categories drinkers. Both the inner-city working man and his wealthier, suburban neighbor shared a fondness for the entertainments and conviviality of public houses. There were, however, important differences in the customs of drinking between these two groups. Working class drinkers drank cheap, inferior liquor in less salubrious surroundings than was the case with the wealthier patrons. Working men were also much more likely to be arrested and goaled for drunkenness. The 'down and out' alcoholics were a separate category of drinkers whose plight helped fuel temperance agitation but who received little material help from either crusaders or government. Anti-drink crusaders'ignorance of the 'culture'of drinking and the medical treatment of chronic drinkers fostered their single-minded faith in drastic legislative remedies. Campaigners functioned as a disciplined political pressure group and in this way forced parliament to agree to enact restrictive measures. The effect of these measures, however, was not to bring about the hoped-for social reformation, but to criminalise the drink trade. Publicans commonly broke the restrictive laws and committed perjury in self-defence, and sly-grog selling attracted many entrepreneurs. Although the anti-drink campaign was not successful in abolishing the liquor traffic, it served a useful role in awakening public attention to the use and abuse of intoxicants.






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