Alcohol in the colony

Pubs and alcohol were a major part of life in early Melbourne. Public houses and hotels were places where common people could relax and forget their worries. But in Port Phillip, life was hard, and alcohol was consumed in huge quantities.

By 1839 there were 20 pubs, and breweries soon began to appear. The local brew was weak and often had tobacco added to it to make it seem stronger. It was called ‘swipes' because you had to drink it down in one gulp to avoid the taste. Despite this, by 1850, over three million litres of beer, wine and spirits were shipped to Port Phillip.

With all that alcohol around, it's no real surprise that public drunkenness was a serious problem. The fact that Melbourne's police received 50 percent of every drunkard's fine helped fill the jails, as well as policemen's pockets:

The Police are bound to be vigilant...but this vigilance may be overstretched; and there is one great evil arising from half the fine for intoxication, &c., being paid to the constables, namely that it is an inducement to them to take sober men into custody...

New South Wales Police Act, Section 6, 1836

Annear, R 2005, Bearbrass: imagining early Melbourne, Black Inc., Melbourne, Vic.

The title of this book, Bearbrass, is one of the names Melbourne was known by before Separation. This book combines history with short fiction pieces based on real scenarios from newspapers and other primary sources.

In 1842, Melbourne's population was nearing 10,000, and in the same year 1500 men and women were charged with public drunkenness.

SOMETHING REMARKABLE - There was not a single charge of drunkenness at the police office yesterday. Such a fact is worthy of record for its singularity.

Port Phillip Patriot, 30 December 1841

Annear, R 2005, Bearbrass: imagining early Melbourne, Black Inc., Melbourne, Vic.

But Melbourne's problems really peaked in the early 1840s when the land boom ended, leaving the city in a financial depression. Drinking began to have a major impact on the living conditions of women and children, as men who drank excessively were often unfit to work and couldn't support their families. Domestic violence was also common.

The plight of women in the colony led to the establishment of the temperance movement. Small temperance groups formed all over Victoria, with the hope of encouraging abstinence and raising public awareness of the evils of alcohol. But despite the efforts of such organisations, alcohol and pub life have remained a fixture in the city of Melbourne, and form an important part of the city's culture.

Caricature of a policeman picking a drunk man up from the ground.
Photograph promoting the temperance movement.
Engraving of men drinking in a pub.
Painting of men loading kegs into the brick brewery building.