97. The war against drink

While the war against drink was waged well before 1914, World War One definitely gave the already strong temperance movement added credibility and influence. The introduction of 6 o’clock closing was held up as the singular achievement of the period.

Prior to the War, the Licenses (Licensing) Reduction Board  had overseen a significant reduction in the number of hotels in Victoria. Figures cited by Public Record Office Victoria show that between 1907 and 1916, 1,054 hotels had been closed.  Additionally, the same legislation, with its provision for future local option polls, held out the promise that, from 1917, localities could vote to reduce the number of licences. It even offered localities the possibility that they could vote to have no hotels. Many temperance advocates believed that, even before the War, the movement was on the verge of ridding the nation of drink. Driven by women’s movements determined to reduce poverty, child neglect, family hardship and domestic violence, and intimately tied to the issue of female suffrage, the temperance movement had achieved a great deal.

The impact that the War had on the existing push for temperance was both significant and complex. The claim that the war against Germany and the war against drink were intimately connected – to the extent that the former required the latter – was a constant message reflected in the newspapers, particularly in the first few years of the War. Further, the success of state-level referenda over 1915-16 on the introduction of earlier closing hours did indicate that there was popular support for the view that drink did constitute a threat – however defined or quantified – to the war effort.

Specifically in terms of the Shire of Alberton, there was a strong history of temperance being actively promoted by the local Protestant churches. There was also a local ‘tent’ of the Independent Order of Rechabites (IOR) which was actively supported by the same churches.  The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 23/12/14, under heading War Against Alcohol, presented a detailed account of a meeting organised by the local IOR. The other local paper, the South Gippsland Chronicle reported the meeting under the headline No-Licence Campaign, on the same day. The meeting was addressed by Rev Archer Harris, representing the Victorian Alliance. He spoke about the worldwide fight against alcohol and focused on the experience in New Zealand,  where prohibition (no licenses) in the area of Port Chalmers (near Dunedin) had reduced drunkenness and crime. He also cited the success of the prohibition movement in the USA. As well as delivering his public address in the evening, he had also spoken at Presbyterian and Methodist services earlier that day. The vote of thanks was given by Rev W T Johns (Methodist) and Rev Geo Cox (Church of England). At the time, Reverends Johns and Cox were, respectively, the Chief Ruler and Secretary of the local IOR. The meeting declared that drink was ‘the great national foe’ and, at the urging of Rev Tamagno (Presbyterian), decided to form a Yarram branch of the No-License League.

Drink had typically been described in terms of a national threat for many years but the War itself was employed to give this claim additional credibility. The perceived – or constructed – threat that drink posed to the national war effort was highlighted at a public meeting on temperance held in Yarram on 20/4/15. This meeting was again organised by the local IOR tent. It was written up in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 23/4/15. The audience was estimated to be about 70.

The meeting called for people to take inspiration from, and follow the example set by, the pledge – to not drink – taken by the British Royal Family. Accordingly, the first resolution passed by the Yarram meeting was,

That this meeting expresses its profound admiration of His Majesty the King in banishing intoxicating liquors from the Royal household, and we strongly recommend all loyal subjects to follow His Majesty’s example by individually abstaining from the use of alcohol during the currency of the war.

The person who put the resolution was Ben Percival Johnson. Johnson was the most outspoken supporter of the war effort in the community. He was also the driving force behind both recruiting and the Yes vote in the conscription referendum. Importantly, Johnson acknowledged that he had never belonged to any temperance group. At the same time, he was prepared to move and support the resolution because of the leadership the King had shown. Moreover, as Johnson pointed out, it was not just the King who was opposed to drink. He cited the claims made by Lord Kitchener, the Czar of Russia and British politicians like Asquith and Lloyd George. The latter, he reminded the audience, had told the British people that …  they were fighting Germany, Austria and drink and that the greatest of the three was drink.

Johnson spoke of the thousands of hours lost in the munitions industry because of the drinking problems of the workers. He also spoke of the harm drink did to the soldiers. However, principally, for Johnson at least, the most pressing reason for supporting the pledge was that it was a test of moral strength. If loyal subjects across the Empire could follow the King’s example then this universal act would represent the moral greatness and superiority of the Empire.  As he saw it, only the weak and selfish would not commit to the cause. As has already been pointed out – see Post 26. Soldiers of Christ – for Imperial patriots, the War offered the chance for people to re-commit to their religious beliefs and strengthen and prove their moral character. Moreover, for such people, the War was as much a test of moral fibre as it was a battle of military might.

The second resolution passed at the meeting – also unanimously – was more focused in its intention. It called for 6 o’clock closing, in line with other eastern states:

That in view of the appalling physical and mental deterioration, the grave moral depravity, and serious economic wastage, directly and indirectly traceable to the use of alcohol, this meeting respectfully urges the Government to come into line with the State of South Australia by providing for a referendum concerning the earlier closing of hotel bars and wine saloons.

Again, speakers for the resolution laboured the evils of drink. Drink was spoken of as the curse of the working class – It was pitiable to think the working classes could not do without drink – and again there was the extraordinary claim … that the effect of strong drink upon a country is more disastrous and more far-reaching than a German invasion.

The meeting was, of course, one for the converted and committed, but there was a noticeable confidence to the views of those there that prohibition was within reach. The War itself would finally open people’s eyes to the full horror of drink. Moreover, the legislation was already in place to enable far greater checks to drinking.  At the meeting, Rev Johns declared that, Prohibition was coming in 1917, and the public had had 10 years notice to quit. He was referring to the vote – under the Licensing Act 1906 – which promised localities the opportunity to reduce licences even further or, in fact, vote for no licences. In terms of the legislation, 1917 was the year this vote was to occur. However, it was delayed until after the War, in 1920. When the votes did eventually occur, 2 metropolitan districts in Melbourne – Nunawading and Boroondara – did indeed vote for no hotels.

The war against drink was, unsurprisingly, a favourite subject for sermons. As an example, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (26/7/16) featured a sermon on temperance delivered by Rev Tamagno (Presbyterian). It was headed, Temperance Question.  Tamagno spoke about his own experience, over many years, in tackling the consequences of drink and had no hesitation in declaring that it was … the  cause of more wrong in our Empire than any other. … I have no hesitation in saying that the traffic in strong drink is hellish in its results. It is to my mind a traffic in the blood, brain, body and soul of thousands in our fair land. There’s no wrong like it.

Tamagno praised the efforts of the Licensing Reduction Board and he was also looking forward to 1917 and the promised chance to vote out drink. He praised South Australia and the success of its referendum on 6 o’clock closing. He urged moderate drinkers to give up drink entirely as a sacrifice, on behalf of their ‘weaker brother’ who ‘feels in his blood and bones and brain, he must have it’. There were the customary claims about how drink was weakening the war effort across the Empire. Significantly, Tamagno was not just for curbing excessive drink but rather, as he kept putting it, he wanted to ‘drive drink from the land’. He imagined a future Australia freed from the grip of drink, one of a higher moral and spiritual order –

Think of the boundless moral and spiritual benefit that would come to our fair land by gradually weakening the liquor traffic, and ultimately leaving it no legs to stand on.

and he believed that with God’s help the backers of temperance would eventually triumph:

I know that vast problems are wrapped up in the iniquitous thing; but in the evolution of time God help us to drive it out of our land.

A pastoral letter from the Church of England was published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 2/6/16. The church also acknowledged the world-wide efforts to curb drinking and praised the work done by the Licensing Reduction Board.  It threw its support behind 6 o’clock closing, not as just a temporary ban for the duration of the War but as a permanent check on the evil of drink.

For the local Protestant churches, the War brought an increased commitment to temperance, with a specific focus on the introduction of 6 o’clock closing. There was also a general understanding that very soon local communities were to have the power to reduce the number of licensed premises and even to vote drink entirely from their midst.

While the temperance cause was driven by heightened religious fervour, and stirring examples of Imperial sacrifice and duty, the actual behaviour of the members of the AIF was another powerful driver behind efforts to curb drink. The metropolitan and local papers were full of stories of drunken and disorderly soldiers. At a number of levels, the picture of the drunken, aggressive and dangerous digger was a very troubling image.

The Argus, under the headline Soldiers and Drink, reported (15/3/16) on a Rechabite conference held at Bendigo where the Chief Ruler claimed,

… there had never been a time in the history of Australia when alcohol had been used to worse effect than during the past 18 months, since the troops had been in training for active service.

and on the face of it, there was plenty of evidence to support this view.

The dangers of life in the large training camps had been identified right from the start, and religious bodies had been quick to try to establish a presence in the camps to counter the evils that young men would face. For example, Rev Tamagno had a letter-to-the-editor in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/3/15, appealing for donations to help establish a (Presbyterian)  “Soldiers’ Institute” at Broadmeadows. He claimed the facility was needed urgently … in the interests of the spiritual and social welfare of our church’s young troops . He saw the young men at risk far from home and amid the perils of camp life near to the great city. The ‘great city’ was even more of a temptation because there were no wet canteens in the camps.

The most infamous drink-related episode occurred in the training camps at Liverpool and Casula on Monday 14 February 1916. Events that day, particularly in Liverpool and then Sydney, amounted to a major breakdown of military order and discipline. One soldier was shot and killed and there were many injuries. In the aftermath 1,000 men were discharged from the AIF and over 100 prosecuted on a range of charges.

The newspaper accounts of the day were incandescent in their fury and outrage. The riotous behaviour was presented as nothing less than a national disgrace. And drink was said to behind the excesses of what happened. The Age (16/2/16), in unrestrained commentary, declared the men involved to be traitors to the nation and despoilers of the Anzac spirit:

On Monday night, through a trifling grievance about hours of drill, several hundreds of New South Wales troops rebelled against discipline, broke camp, looted hotels, destroyed private property, and entered upon an orgy of violence. For a few hours they attacked the country, the people and the laws they are sworn to defend. These are not the men of Anzac; yet they wear the same uniform and have the same legal right to call themselves Australian soldiers. The honor of the grand young Australian army is as much in their keeping as it was in the charge of the men who fell, while advancing on the Peninsula. It is idle to discuss the merits or demerits of the complaint which led to the riot. There can be no excuses for a citizen who turns traitor to his country, and there can be none for the soldier who revolts against its authority, and temporarily takes up the cause of the foreign enemy…  Assuredly men of British blood seldom covered themselves with so much ignominy.

And the paper highlighted the evil power of drink:

Throughout the riots bottles, liquor, beer and hotels were consistent features. Whenever intoxicants were introduced to the scene the riotous soldiers became more unrestrained and the mischief the greater. Had all the hotels in the neighbourhood been closed before the riot, as they were closed shortly afterwards, the story would have been stripped of most of its sensationalism. Wherever the seeds of disorder may lie, strong liquors stimulate them into a foul and deadly growth. And not only does excessive drinking arouse latent lawlessness, it may debase soldiers of the finest manhood, and lead them in their madness to join the worst elements at the head of the mob. Discipline, therefore, depends to a fair extent upon restricting the opportunities for drinking.

While the Liverpool strike/mutiny/riot was the worst incident, there were many others at the time. For example, just 10 days earlier there had been trouble involving several hundred soldiers near Central Railway Station in Sydney. The Age (4/2/16) reported that the trouble had started over claims that a returned, wounded soldier had been manhandled by staff at a nearby ‘oyster bar’. The Age also reported on riots involving soldiers at St Kilda Beach in January 1916. At the end of February (28/2/16) it featured a story of a drunken riot at Warrnambool involving soldiers from the local camp. The police magistrate who dealt with the aftermath was quoted as declaring that … it appeared that when some men got liquor they went mad, and it was a great pity they got supplies at all. The same edition of the paper featured an account of how a 45 yo soldier – John Heath – had been killed in Melbourne, at the corner of King and Little Collins Street. Apparently, he had been involved in argument with a much younger soldier. In what for us is a depressingly contemporary story, Heath had been trying to talk his mate down when the younger soldier lashed out, unprovoked, and hit him. Heath fell to the pavement, fractured his skull and died instantly. The young assailant managed to disappear.

Post 26. Soldiers of Christ,  looked at the earlier riots involving soldiers in Melbourne in 1914. Drink was a common feature of such riots, both in Australia and Egypt at the time.

Faced with ongoing accounts of soldiers behaving badly it is not surprising that there there was popular support for the introduction of 6 o’clock closing. In jurisdictions where the issue did go to a referendum – South Australia and New South wales – there was strong support. Clearly, the threat of soldiers on leave, descending on the city for heavy drinking sessions and causing havoc did play on the minds of civilians. Many saw it as outrageous behaviour and wanted the culprits made an example of. For example, after the Liverpool trouble the local Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (23/2/16) fulminated in its editorial,

Over 1000 men have been discharged from Liverpool and Casula camps for misconduct, drunkenness and absence without leave, and 116 men are held in custody for trial by court-martial. Rather should the men be made to fight, and placed in the front trenches, as the Germans do with this class of soldier.

At the same time, there were some who saw the problem as one caused, ironically, by temperance advocates. They argued that Senator Pearce had bowed to the pressure of temperance advocates and not allowed wet canteens in the camps. This ensured that when men went on leave, they were were bound to make the most of their limited chance to drink. As the writer of the Melbourne Letter – published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (22/10/15) – had put it back at the end of 1915:

The soldier, who is a civilian, has been accustomed to drinking at any odd time that he feels so disposed, will not drink any less when in town because he is made to imbibe only “soft stuff” in the camp. Rather is he prone to make certain that he uses the opportunity, while it offers, to get a fill of his favourite beverage, before he returns to another week or a fortnight of “raspberry and lemonade”.

Similarly, after Liverpool, many called for wet canteens in camps where soldiers’ drinking could be better controlled. Some also wanted tighter curfews and regulations that prohibited the sale of drink in licensed premises to any man in military uniform. Even temperance advocates could see the need for wet canteens. For example, Archdeacon Martin who worked in the Sydney camps with the Home Mission Society was quoted – The Age 22/2/16 – as advocating a wet canteen ‘under strict military discipline’,

These men become irritated when they are deprived of what they have been accustomed to, and when they get the chance they overdo it, and take more than they would if a wet canteen existed in the camp.

Six o’clock closing was first introduced in South Australia in March 1916. This followed a referendum held in 1915 (27/3/15). In the referendum only one-third of voters favoured keeping the present arrangement (11.00 o’clock) and 56% opted specifically for 6 o’clock. In New South Wales a referendum was held a few months after the Liverpool riot and the press campaign in particular drove the result. There was virtually no support for retaining the current hours, and 60% voted specifically for 6 o’clock. Accordingly, 6 o’clock closing was formally introduced in July 1916. In Victoria, 6 o’clock closing was finally introduced in October 1916. Initially it had been proposed to hold a referendum but in the end the decision was taken by the parliament. The Government judged that there was clear popular support for the action.

Some people acknowledged that drink could harm the War effort in a number of ways and they were prepared to support early closing on the basis of war-time necessity. Similarly, others recognised that drink and the AIF represented a dangerous mix, particularly if the effects played out in the streets of the cities, and they were prepared to limit drinking hours. At the same time, the fact that what many saw as an appropriate, temporary, war-time restriction was to remain in place well after 1918 – in some instances for up to 50 years – highlights the way temperance advocates at the time viewed 6 o’clock closing. For them, it was another major, non-reversible step on the way to a truly drink-free Australia.

Specifically in terms of the Protestant churches, the temperance push in WW1 was another example of the way the War itself was seen as a call by God for people to recommit to their religious beliefs and lead a more moral, socially responsible and  decent life. Protestantism was committed to both a moral and military war; and it was seen as perfectly natural that, as was evident in the case of the Shire of Alberton, the local Protestant clergy called for recruits and support for the Yes vote in the conscription referendum at the very same time they were calling for temperance and 6 o’clock closing.

The issues surrounding the push for temperance in the local community will be taken up again in a future post, where the focus will be the attempt by temperance advocates to remove the liquor licence from the local Co-Operative Store in Yarram.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

The Age

For 1916 NSW referendum results see NSW Electoral Commmission.

For 1915 SA referendum results see SA Electoral Commission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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