Liquor Trading in early South Australian History

Liquor Trading in early South Australia.

Between 1836 and 1839, the first three years of European settlement, liquor licences in South Australia were granted by the Governor under his prerogative powers. The new government’s fourth Act passed in council at Glenelg on 2 February 1837 was “An Act for the granting of Licenses, the regulating the sale of Wine, Beer, and Spirituous Liquors, for the Prevention of Drunkenness, and the Promotion of good Order in Public Houses.” By the end of 1837 there were fifteen licensed houses in Adelaide, Glenelg and Port Adelaide.

A person who sold more than five imperial gallons of liquor required a general publican’s licence at a cost of £25 per year. Licensees had to conspicuously display their name and have a lamp containing at least two burners fixed in front of the house and near the main entrance, and to keep the same alight from sunset to sunrise throughout the year.

Licensed premises had ‘to be closed at 10 o’clock of the evening of all working days, and closed on Sundays, except between 1.30 and 3 and only for the purposes of serving malt liquor and for regular customers not drinking it on the premises and also for bona fide travellers. The proposed 1837 Act contained provision to charge £50 for a licence. Licensees agitated to amend the proposed liquor licensing laws on the grounds of unfair duties imposed on spirits, wine, and tobacco and for cheaper licences.

It was argued the duties and fees said to be based on the sums levied in Van Diemen’s Land provided greater temptations to engage in the nefarious smuggling traffic. In December 1838 it was announced that the Queen, with the advice of Her Privy Council, disallowed the Act. The first South Australian liquor licensing legislation proclaimed to operate from 21 February 1839 was an amended version of the first proposed Act, which endorsed a reduced annual fee.

The legislation allowed for three classes of licence, namely: A General Publican’s Licence that allowed the holder to sell wine, ale, beer, spirits, or other fermented liquors for consumption on or off the premises. The annual licence fee was £25.

A Wine, Ale, Beer and other Malt Liquors Licence that allowed the holder to sell these items for consumption on or off the premises. The annual licence fee was £12 and a Storekeeper’s Licence that allowed the holder to sell wine, spirits and other fermented liquor in minimum quantities and for consumption off the premises. The annual licence fee was £5.

Pursuant to the 1839 Act a publican had to: Keep his name at length and the words ‘Dealer in Wines and Spirits’ legibly printed in letters not less than three inches in length on some conspicuous part of his licensed house; Have a lamp containing at least two burners 7 to 10 feet from the ground, well cleaned and trimmed, alight from sunset to sunrise, throughout the year; and Receive the traveller and his horse, or the horse of a traveller not becoming a guest at the house, or any corpse which might be brought to the public house for the purpose of a Coroner’s Inquest.

One month after the commencement of the 1839 Act the Governor in Council determined that the number of publicans’ licences issued for the town of Adelaide and its neighbourhood within ten miles thereof shall not exceed eighty, and that every merchant and wholesale dealer in wines and spirits throughout the province may receive a storekeeper’s licence.

The number of publicans’ licences, was according to the Governor so large 'to provide for the growing wants of the community, and in the expectation that, before the next annual meeting for granting licences, other towns and villages will, in all probability, be formed'.

At the first meeting of magistrates to grant licences in March 1839, Chairman George Stephen, before dealing with any application addressed the open court. With regard to the ginger and spruce beer sellers in the first place, Mr Stephen admitted that the drinking so harmless a beverage ought to be encouraged by no licence for their sale.

However ginger beer shops were in most cases converted into sly grog shops; and that the Legislature therefore deemed it but an act of justice to the honest publican, who paid a large sum for his licence, to protect him, by requiring the retail dealer to take out a licence; but that if the ginger beer dealer or seller would confine himself to wholesale profits, by selling in quantities not less than five gallons at a time, no licence whatever was required.

If he was not contented with such profits, and would insist on having a ginger beer drinking shop, he must pay for a licence, which would help to pay the police for watching over the interests of the publican and the revenue, by seeing that the ginger beer shop was not made a cloak for sly grog selling.

He could see no injustice nor even impropriety in requiring that the merchant or storekeeper who was so greedy after gain as to wish to enter the field of profit with the poor publican, by selling out of his wholesale stores such a pitiful quantity as a gallon, should be compelled to subscribe to the few conditions mentioned in the act, and which were likewise framed for the protection of the publican.

Chairman Stephen further explained that the clause ‘licensed premises’ had a clear meaning under the Act and should not be confused with ‘licensed persons’. Public houses could alone be meant to be ‘licensed premises’, whereas the ‘premises’ of storekeepers were expressly not ‘licensed’ Storekeepers as individuals were licensed, but were distinctly and emphatically forbidden to sell upon their ‘premises,’ for the purpose of being drunk there.

The lack distinction between fermented liquors was a hotly contested topic and pastry cooks complained of not being able to sell ginger beer. In 1851 in a review of the liquor licensing laws it was first determined that spruce and ginger-beer should be exempted from the operation of the Act. The licensed Victuallers Association successfully argued that the proposed alteration would be highly prejudicial to the trade, and injurious to the public, as it would open great facilities for sly grog selling.

Five years later the matter was still unresolved. It was stated in the Legislative Council that publicans had a monopoly of the sale of ginger-beer and other light harmless drinks. Many had found the sale of such drinks so lucrative as to take out a licence for such sale only. Persons who wanted a glass of ginger beer were forced to go a public house. It was especially objectionable in the case of females, who most frequently required such beverages. By the close of 1856 there were 23 ginger beer makers supplying 114 public houses in Adelaide.

Later the Licensed Victuallers Act 1863 required new hotels to provide for stables for at least six horses with sufficient hay and corn, and made it an offence to supply liquor to aborigines and to any boy or girl younger than twelve years or to any person in a state of intoxication. The ratio of licensed public houses to South Australian population from 1837 to 1880, shows that the early South Australia settlers had plenty of opportunity to imbibe.

In 1837 the population was 3,273 and the number of licences 17, a ratio of 1 : 192. Three years later the numbers were 14,630, licences 107, a ratio of 1 : 137. In 1850 the population had increased to 63,700 and the licences to 197, making a ratio of 1 : 323. Five years later the numbers had increased to 97,387, licences 376 ratio 1 : 257. In 1870 the population of 184,546 was served by 540 licensees with decreased the ratio to 1 : 342. In 1880 population had increased to 276,393 and the licences to 678, making for a ratio of only 1 : 408.

The ratio in 1837 was similar to ratios of New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia, the only other Australian colonies existing then. By 1880 the ratios for all colonies varied: New South Wales 1: 193 Tasmania 1 : 291 and Western Australia 1 : 388 and the new colonies Victoria 1 : 200 and Queensland 1 : 187. By late twentieth century in most Australian States the ratios were heading toward 1 : 2,000.

The building of a public house in early times was entirely the commercial decision of an intended licensee. Most public houses were simple constructions, built without prior submission of plans to any regulatory or licensing authority. Once the building was complete or near completion the owner would apply to the quarterly sittings of the licensing bench for a licence to sell liquor.

The grant of a licence depended on the state of solvency and character of the applicant and the physical state of the premises to be licensed. In the case of a new application proximity to currently licensed premises was an issue often put to the licensing bench by existing licensees, usually countered by the applicant offering endorsement of his application by local residents in the form of a memorial, that is, a petition.

Past improper use of premises could be raised at renewal of licence sittings. A notable exception to simple construction was the York hotel, originally a boarding house it was remodelled in 1865 to offer patrons 46 bedrooms and five bathrooms. In 1850 there were 88 licensed hotels in Adelaide, and by 1861 the number had increased to 113. By 1879 probably more than half of the 136 public houses in Adelaide were owned by brewers.

From the outset drinking alcohol was not suppressed by religion and the institution of the public house was imported from England. In 1875 Rosamund Davenport Hill and her sister Florence, described many elements of South Australian life, including the effect of alcohol on society:

The drinkers, still more the drunkards, are found among the immigrants. The reasons are not far to see – wages are much above what they have been accustomed to; distance from those whose good opinion they value; a climate which at first seems more exhausting than that they have left, and the effect of which they mistakenly suppose alcohol will counteract; the weary toil and long hours of labour and lack of many ordinary comforts of life, which those engaged in station work have to endure; and lastly, the cheapness in a wine-growing country of the coarse strong spirit distilled from the refuse of the grape.

To protect tap room drinkers from becoming indebted to publicans who may allow patrons to run up an account on tick, the Licensed Victuallers’ Act contained a clause that no publican shall recover any debt for liquors, unless such debt shall have been bona fide contracted at one time to the amount of twenty shillings or upwards.

Public houses were licensed on application at a licensing meeting, usually a bench of a magistrate and several honorary members. “Provided that no Justice, being a brewer, maltster, distiller, importer of for sale or dealer in wine, malt, or spirituous liquors, or in partnership with any such person, or directly or indirectly as owner, trustee, manager, or agent, beneficially interested in any house licensed or about to be licensed, [could] sit or act in any matter relating to licences, convictions, or appeals; nor [could] any Justice vote on the hearing of appeals against his own convictions, under a penalty of one £100, to be recovered by action of debt.”

The role of the bench of magistrates was to assess the application of a prospective licensee and to grant, renew, transfer or refuse a licence. The colonial treasurer actually issued the licence on payment of the prescribed fee. From time to time grog selling was carried on by parties who had been granted a certificate, but had not paid for their licences.

At the licensing meeting held 14 June 1852 Francis S Dutton from the bench said he “thought it would be desirable that at each quarterly meeting of the bench, the clerk should come prepared with a tabular statement of the names of those to whom licences had been granted, but who had neglected to take them up.

Mr Hardy said that he for one would not consent to a licence being renewed to anyone who had not strictly complied with the regulations of the Licensed Victuallers’ Act.” Counsel representing at the meeting were of the view that “compliance of the law was a matter for the police and that the names of those who had paid for their licences were published in the Government Gazette.”

In 1864 the publican’s annual licence fee for premises outside Adelaide, a ‘Country Licence,’ was reduced to £15. Publicans were jealous of licensees of wine saloons, who could obtain a wine licence, which cost only £12 per year, and were not compelled like publicans to provide suitable accommodation, stables and stockyards with a provision of hay and corn, to keep a lamp burning in front all night and to take in dead bodies when necessary. A single licence was recommended by the House of Assembly Select Committee on beer and wine licences in 1858, but it never became law.

Much of the beer, wine and spirits consumed in early colonial days were imported from Britain. For example, the published cargo list of the ship Lysander on which John and James Merritt arrived in July 1839 included 19 cases port, 9 cases sherry, 29 cases hock, 10 quarter casks marsala, 19 casks, 15 cases wine, 5 hogsheads, 16 cases brandy, 10 hogsheads beer, and 2 tierces. (a tierce being a 45 gallon cask.)

Anthony Lillyman was the first Adelaide brewer followed by John Warren. William Williams, one time owner of the Grand Junction Inn built the Victoria Inn, Hindley Street in 1839 and brewed beer. Williams is noted as the second person to hold a licence to sell liquor in the province. On 16 June 1837 he successfully applied for two licences for his Adelaide premises; one to sell wine, beer & other malt liquors, and another to sell liquor.

Public houses and roadside inns were on the whole roughly constructed and not always kept clean. Many licenced houses were refused licence renewals on becoming derelict or dirty. In one case the application for renewal was refused after an inspector objected “on the ground that the house was not well conducted, insufficient accommodation, and that the bedding when he visited the house was nothing more than a bundle of rags.”

To the disturbance of patrons, pigs and other domestic animals were often found in inns. A pet pig at the Grand Junction Inn took a fancy to wearing a maid’s bonnet. Pigs became such a nuisance in the city that a special meeting of the City Commissioners was held on 20 October 1849 to redress the problem of pigs and several other matters to make By-Laws and Regulations, pursuant to Section 29 of the City Improvement Ordinance, including by-laws published on 1 December 1849.

When a new publican took possession of the Cross Keys Inn in 1858 the previous owner’s pigs had quartered themselves in the kitchen, and for a long time they were a great nuisance, frequently rushing into his kitchen and upsetting all the pots and pans, and swallowing the contents to satisfy their hungry appetites.

During the 1800s inns were an important community facility and usually had the only large room in the district for social and civic gatherings. An inn was the social hub, and used for official functions and meetings, and coroner’s inquests. Before 1851 some inns were also post offices.


With special thanks to Lance Merritt for his research


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