Issue # 151 – Six o’clock swill

Six o’clock swill

By Phil Harrison

I have drunk in many journalists’ pubs in many countries over the past 55 years, but nothing has ever been like the six o’clock swill in Sydney during the mid-fifties.

I was working in the Sydney office of the Brisbane Telegraph, housed in the then Sydney Morning Herald building. The Sydney bureau comprised a senior journalist and a cadet (me). We would get the blacks of all Herald or Sydney Sun copy and rewrite them for Brisbane and cover events of Brisbane’s interest. Even in sleepy old Brisbane at the time, pubs closed at 8 pm, but I was surprised that in sin-city, Sydney, all pubs shut at 6 pm. From 1916 till 1955, that was the final drink time.

By the time I got to Sydney, the law – introduced after strong campaigns by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in a vain attempt to improve public morals and get men home to their wives earlier – had been amended so that pubs were able to close at 6, then reopen at 7 pm. It made no difference: men still vomited from the windows of trams, trains, and buses on their way home, after sinking as many drinks as they could after work. Talk about speed-dating; it has nothing on speed-drinking.

Anyway, on my second day there, my boss and I attended the daily editorial conference of the various interstate newspapers which had bureaus in the Herald building. Ten people usually attended, so I made it 11. The conference started at 4 pm. It was just after 5 pm when the senior interstate newspaper representative, who chaired the conference, suddenly looked at his watch and said: ‘Jesus Christ, we’d better get down there quickly.’

‘There’ was the nearest pub, the Volunteer. We piled out the door and ran down the road to the Vollo, as it was called. We just managed to make it before the after-work rush started in earnest. We were all drinking beer apart from one journalist who was on Scotch and water. I had assumed each would pay for his own drink. However, around was clearly expected. Fair enough, except that everyone paid for their whole round at once. This is why the head-high shelf which lined the pub wall had 100 schooners (three-quarters of a pint) of beer and 10 Scotches lined up. All to be drunk in 45 minutes (and possibly a 10-minute drinking-up period after 6 pm if the landlord was feeling generous).

Unfortunately, my lowly status in the gathering was such that I could not make an excuse and leave. Not that I wanted to. The next day, I wished I had.

Sydney pubs must have been the most efficient beer-dispensing establishments in the world at that time. The barmaids were equipped with beer-guns attached to tubes, allowing them to fill a long row of glasses in record time.

The celebrated Sun cartoonist Emile Mercier arrived at the Vollo one evening to find the bar-serving area 15 people deep. Unfazed, he rolled up the newspaper he carried under his arm, lit the end with his cigarette lighter, and held it up to the fire sprinklers. This cleared the bar quickly, so Emile commandeered the beer gun for himself and drank on, oblivious to the sprinklers.

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