By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE barmaids must have looked on in sheer horror as thousands of thirsty beer drinkers began filling the public bar of their Bulli hotel on Christmas Eve 1940.
With just 40 minutes before closing time, hardly a slop tray had been emptied at the Bulli Family Hotel that day, in fact for many days before – The New South Wales pub had been boycotted. But that was about to change.
Around 5,000 miners from the various collieries dotted along the Illawarra escarpment, including steelworkers from Port Kembla, converged on mass to the Bulli pub by foot, bus, car, or bicycle – anyway they could find – forming queues, waiting with dry throats to breast the bar. Many had brought bags and suitcases to carry away bottled beer.
Adding further pressure on the barmaids, the Port Kembla shift workers had pulled into Bulli Railway Station by train, with less then five minutes before the required closing time of 6pm, racing the clock before the dreaded call of “time gents”.
The Brisbane Courier Mail reported on Thursday December 26 that the Bulli hotel staff was hard pressed to quench 5,000 thirsts and deal with Christmas orders.
In other parts of the South Coast beer is still ‘black’, but on Friday a meeting of licensed victuallers and the Illawarra Trades and Labour Council will try to reach a settlement. The Bulli agreement was reached between officials of the Illawarra Trades and Labour Council and the management of the Bulli hotel, and the ban was lifted immediately. The terms represented, in the main, a win for the strikers. The prices are: Pints, 10d.; 17oz. schooners, 8d.; 10oz. mugs, 6d.;6oz. glasses, 5d. Excepting on pints there was an all-round reduction of 1d.
It wasn’t the first Bulli beer boycott, and it wouldn’t be the last – But the 1940/41 beer strike remains the most famous. The miners had a proud tradition of demonstrating their opposition to beer price hikes by boycotting hotels, picketting and imposing fines on unionists or co-workers daring to drink at the ‘black’ bars.
As far as I can find, the first hotel strike in New South Wales, probably Australia, was imposed by drinkers in Bulli during January 1880. After a meeting, the publicans of Woonona, Bulli, and Clifton, raised the price of beer from threepence to fourpence a glass, to compensate a new Government tariff.
As a consequence the drinkers of Bulli and surrounding coal mining settlements had their own meeting on a Saturday afternoon in an old sawmill. They decided to boycott the pubs which had raised their prices, and fine 10 shillings any person entering the fourpence public-houses during the strike.
“That we, the inhabitants of Bulli, do not swallow
any more public-house drinks till the price of
beer be taken back to threepence again.”
-Resolution of beer striking miners January 1880
In a letter of support to the editor of the Illawarra Mercury on Tuesday January 6 1880, ‘Reprisal’ wrote:
Sir, — The announcement made on Friday last that the publicans had decided to raise the price of drink in Bulli from 3d to 4d a glass, created a strong feeling, and a similar decision on the part of the public, not to be purchasers at that rate. Sudden reforms are not always lasting reforms, but it is to be hoped that in this case the people will adhere to the wise conclusion arrived at, not to enter any of the pubs until it is reduced to the former price. At a meeting held in the old “Saw Mill,” on Saturday last, a resolution wth passed to fine any one of the miners 10s. seen to drink in a public-house at the present price. The loss must have been rather heavy to the gentlemen who put the penny a-glass on on New Year’s Day,and I venture to predict that another pay-day will not pass by, if the strikers are stout, and the justly regarded imposition is removed. Constable Parkinson will very likely be complaining about having nothing to do before long, for the hearty way in which it has been taken up is a proof that the bulk of the community are not enslaved to habit beyond recall. It is the best plan that could be adopted now to make the number of total abstainers swell tip, and to show that the grog sellers are careless who sinks, so that they swim, or who pays the excise tax, as they do not intend to be at any loss. Fourpenee for a little more than a thimble full of ginger beer is enough to justify the nailing of the colours to the mast, and keeping them there too.
In another letter to the editor of the Illawarra Mercury, ‘One Who Takes Water’ wrote on the strike:
Sir, Saturday being pay-day, and no drinking, the publicans could be seen looking up and down the road, quite disconsolate, at each other, having nothing to do, and no doubt wondering what the result of this strike would be. But many wives had cause to rejoice, and hope that drinks be kept up to fourpence, by seeing their husbands coming home at an early hour quite sober, instead of hearing them at two in the morning drunk.
The Bulli beer strike came to a compromise a week later with the publicans returning the price of nobblers (small glasses varying in content from six to eight fluid ounces) to threepence, and longsleevers (10 fluid ounce glasses) were charged at fourpence. A presedence had been set, and other colonial coal mining and industrial settlements soon started demanding a reduction in the price of their beer by staging similar strikes.
A year later the coal miners of Lithgow staged a similar strike. Like Bulli, the Lithgow beer boycott also ended in a compromise. Beer was reduced from sixprence to threepence, while spirits retained the old figure of sixpence.
The idea soon caught-on, and in November 1892 the gold miners of Victoria also protested against publicans daring to raise their beer prices after a similar government increase in taxes on the amber fluid. The Riverine Herald reported on Monday August 29 1892:
What about the three-penny beers? And what about the energetic movement of a few days back on the part of the local publicans to put a direct 100 per centum duty on the thirst of the local man of toil. The anticipation of the extra charge was so strong that an evening or two ago one of the community, who was observed by a companion in a very tired state, excused himself thusly— “Well, y’see ol’ mansh, therish nomore three-penny beers – hic – af’er a fewdaysh, and I’m making the besht of metimesh – hic:” If this is a sample of the re-formation which is to accompany the higher price, let us have it quickly for goodness’ sake. And when the new order of things is instituted we may expect to hear something like the following:
Fellow workers, we’ve a grievance sad,
And we must show our opposition;
The thing is really quite too bad,
A piece of downright imposition.
We work and toil from morn till night,
Then go forth for our little glass;
We look upon it as our right,
To pay only threepence as we pass
Out of the door to toil again.
But there is a change. What d’yr think ?
The greedy “public” now would fain
Charge us sixpence for our drink !
The thing’s absurd; it cannot be,
We’ll pay but threepence for our ale.
We must arise and let them see
That we’ll listen not to such a tale.
Our workers’ rights must be observed,
If we stand firm we need not fear:
Remain thirsty, steadfast and unswerved,
And we’ll yet get our threepenny beer.
A strike ! – a strike ! – ah, yes- that’s it,
We’ll take with one accord to water;
Until the publicans see fit
To charge just what they really “orter.”
As predicted in the above poem, the drinkers of the gold mining settlements of Victoria did rise-up and strike. The Allandale correspondent to the Ballarat Star reported on November 11 1892:
A strike of a rather peculiar kind is inexistence here at the present time. The local hotelkeepers having had a meeting to consider the imposition of the beer and spirit duties, decided that on and after 1st November beershould be raised to 4d per pint, and all other liquors should meet with a corresponding increase. This action gave rise to dissatisfaction amongbeer drinkers generally, and resulted in a mass meeting being held on Saturday evening last in the main road, when about 200 were in attendance to consider the matter. A large section attended, evidently regarding it as a good joke, but this idea was soon dispelled when the chairman stated that the object of the meeting was not so much to condemn the publicans as it was to show our “wooden legislators” in Melbourne that the miners protested against the taxation that was being imposed. Resolutions were moved and duly seconded, declaring that the publicans were injudicious in raising the price of liquor, and pledging those present to totally abstain oreven enter an hotel till the price was reduced, and the meeting dispersed with cheers. Subsequently a meeting of chief organisers was held, and the system of picketing was approved of. Pickets were appointed to visit each hotel, whose duty it is to report the blacklegs to the main body. Small processions have been held during this week, but the publicans, who are under a bond of £10 each, still remain firm, and it is evident that a struggle is intended, although the hotels in Allendale, Wallacetown, and Broomfield are almost deserted, save from an occasional traveller. The “beerstrike” being novel has for the sober residents here some very amusing features.
The Geelong Advertiser reported on November 22 that the beer strike at Allendale “still continues, the publicans standing firm, and, not withstanding the hot weather this week, there are very few waverers among the strikers”.
Additional interest is being imparted throughthe local good templars having organised a monstrous temperance meeting, at which some of the principal strikers aud picketshave been invited to speak. One of theleading pickets the other day rather quaintlyremarked ” that this is the first strike thatis self supporting, no funds or paid leadersbeing required, and in fact if it continuesmuch longer the strike committee will beable to declare a dividend.
The Goulburn Herald reported on December 23 1892 that the miners had formed a league pledging themselves to purchase no beer till the price is lowered. Some of the miners reportedly walked to the next township, a distance of five miles, for drink. “The matter is a serious one for the publican, one of whom is losing £30 a week by the strike,” the Herald reported.
Like the Bulli strike of 1880, the miners eventually won their battle, and the publicans relented. The Ballarat Star reorted on Wednesday March 29 1893:
The licensed victuallers, after four months,have broken away from the terms of their agreement, and beer is now again at the old price, 3d per pint. The members of the Anti-Beer League are joyful with the result,and Mr Miekin, the secretary, has conveneda meeting for Wednesday evening, when the “beer strike”’ will be formally declared off.
The industrial district of Port Pirie in South Australia was one of the first district’s to stage a beer strike at the dawn of the 20th century. The Port Pirie pub boycot lasted from November 1901 until January 3 1902 after publcians increased the price of a pint from fourpence to sixpence. After almost two months of empty bars, especially over the festive season, the publicans reverted to the old prices.
Similar beer boycots were staged in mining and industrial centres all over Australia during the first half of the 20th century, mainly with success, but with a few failures due to ‘blacklegs’ or strike-breakers ignoring the black bans. Another major beer strike was staged by the coal miners of the Illawarra – where it all started – during 1915. The strike grew from an altercation between the drinkers at the publican of the Balgownie Hotel, and eventually spread statewide. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday January 19:
BEER STRIKE. WOLLONGONG, Monday.
At a meeting of the hotelkeepers of Wollongong district on Thursday last it was decided to raise the price of the pint of beer to 4d. This rise brought about a beer strike at Balgownie where there is only one hotel, the miners of that locality refusing to pay the increase. On Friday night and Saturday all available coaches were requisitioned to bring miners to Wollongong. As a result of the strike Balgownie “soft” drink shops did a big business. The strike is still on.
The Illawarra Mercury reported on the same day:
THERE are five reasons why men drink –
Good wine, a friend; or being dry,
Or lest you should be by and by,
Or any other reason why.
The above lines by a poet advance the reason why some men drink, but, it remained for a district hotelkeeper to find out that even given all the above reasons in, men will not drink if they consider the price is excessive.
In the centre in question on Saturday all the five reasons were in evidence and yet the local hotel was not doingthe usual pay Saturday trade.
The reason was asked of a gentleman in the vicinity of the hotel, who looked as if he possessed at least one of the five qualifications— that of being dry. He was dry and admitted the fact.
“Strike me,” said he “Do you’s think we are going to part up fourpence for a mug of beer.”
We asked him if he considered the amount excessive, and he looked with a withering contempt that was at least expressive.
Subsequent inquiry proved that the local hotelkeeper had that day informed his clients that in future mugs of beer would be dispended at the rateof 4d.
The clients decided that they would not show their mugs within his premises whilst this state of affairs existed. Result: A falling off in the hotelkeeper’s trade and a hasty trek of thirsty mortals to Wollongong, where threepence secured for them the nectar dispensed as beer.
Some remained behind but patronised the cool drink shop, where trade advanced to such an unprecedented degree that a special consignment of Parkinson’s ambrosial cordials had to be despatched to drown the thirst of the individuals onstrike against 4d for a mug of beer.
Still the evidence was that there was a large exodus to Wollongong, where beer is still dispensedat 3d per glass, and as a result the local policeman was yawning from ennui at an early hour, a fact unprecedented in the annals of the hamlet.
An editorial by “The Grumbler” in the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser (Victoria) gave opinion on the beer strikes on Wednesday February 24 1915:
Beer strikes have taken place in a number of places in New South Wales, and as far as I can ascertain there was not one outside the coal-mining areas. At Balgownie the price of beer was raised from 3d to 4d a pint. The miners would not pay the increase, and night after night requisitioned all the available coaches to carry them to Wollongong. At Kurri Kurri, Weston, and Aberman the thirsty miners downed pints and went thirsty. The thing was done properly (?). Men were placed on picket duty to see that the publicans would not be allowed to earn their living, and threats were made that the men would refuse to work with anyone who played the part of strike-breaker by paying more than 3d. for a pint of beer. The publicans were in a state of siege and saw their means of livelihood cut off, and had to surrender. No doubt the victory- (“But ’twas a famous victory”) – was properly celebrated, though I have not seen a list of the casualties. The publicans had to admit defeat from a quarter whence they might have reasonably looked for support. Doubtless their troubles with the strikers were over, they thought they were sure of one thing, and that was, they would have less wages in the future. Alas for the vanity of human hope. Only a few short hours elapsed when hostilities were renewed. A “counter” attack was made by a deputation which waited upon the hotelkeepers, and another phase had developed, and unless the hotelkeepers agreed to give half a pint for three half-pence the boycot twould continue. This was unexpected the publicans, when our rendering, took into consideration that they would be able, in a measure, to recoup themselves through the “medium-beer man”. The last I heard of the battle was the publicans were strongly entrenched and announced “that theywould fight vigorously against the latest demand”. I hope the beer pullers will win and tell the strikers to take their three half-pence where there is not any beer – at any price.
The 1915 strike though wasn’t as successful as previous and failed to achieve any compsomise. The Illawarra Mercury reported on February 19 that the beer strike “can be considered off, as the strikers are gradually going back and paying the prices for their liquor”. The Wollongong strike collapsed, it was reported, because of a heat wave, and “the hotelkeepers are now masters of the situation”.
The Mercury again reported on February 26 that although there were some who were continuing the boycott the Balgownie Hotel, most drinkers had returned to the bars of other pubs charging the same price. “It is obvious that it cannot be sensibly termed a strike, as fully 75 per cent, of the so called strikers are paying the high prices at the neighbouring hotels.Strictly speaking, it is a boycott against the present (Balgownie) publican”.
Interestingly the Illawarra’s beer drinkers, through solidarity and continual threatened boycotts, maintained a stable price for their glass of beer for almost 35 years, with little increases since that first strike at Bulli in 1880. But pressure was building on publicans to increase the price of a glass of beer, with esculating government taxes and the mounting cost burden from breweries – which held the head-lease of the majority of New South Wales’ pubs. Another attempt at raising the price of a pint of beer from threepence to fourpence resulted in yet another Bulli boycott in October 1918. Into the third week of the strike, pickets outside the Bulli Family Hotel, and Woonona Royal Hotel assured the bars remained quiet. To boost moral and assure the miners had their ‘sustanance’, a social evening was organised by the striking drinkers, with their grog brought in from Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday November 26 1918:
There is no abatoment In the “beer strlke”, which has been operating at Bulli and Woonona for the past month. The men appear determined in their demand to have the price of beer reduced to 3d per pint in lieu of 4d now charged, and 1/ for bottled ale in lieu of 1/3. The strike last week extended to Thirroul, and it is stated that there is a probability of it further extending to other towns on the coast.
An amusing aspect of the boycott, the Illawarra Mercury reported, was that many of the striking drinkers refusing to pay fourpence for their pint at the Bulli Family Hotel, the Woonona Royal Hotel and Thirroul’s Ryan Hotel, would travel elsewhere to pay the same price. After more than a month, the beer strike was declared “off”. The men claimed victory with a reduction in the price of bottled ale, and also a threepenny service in draught beer.
The beer strike of 1940 and 41 though had the most profound impact on the future of beer pricing and glass sizes in Australia, and, particularly in New South Wales, lead to government regulation on standard glass sizes – the pint, the schooner, the middie and pony, or five ounce glass. The 1940 boycott spread Australia wide, with varying effect, and mainly in industruial centres, where unionism was strong. The unions were the backbone of the strike, organising picket lines, and negotiating with the United Victuallers Associations in the various states. By December 1940 an estimated 30,000 workers in New South Wales joined an estimated 12,000 miners and steelworkers in the Illawarra region engaged in the boycott.
The Newcastle Sun reported on December 20 that as a result of the Illawarra Trades and Labor Council for workers to boycott South Coast pubs, “Wollongong hotels were deserted”.
The Labor Council last night decided on picketing to enforce Its ban. It is expected that the hotels will be picketed at 4 o’clock, when the men leave work. About 1,200 railway men at Chullora and Enfield are continuing their beer strike. Riverstone meatworkers are still ‘out’ so far as the local hotel is concerned. The Homebush abattoir workers wrote to the headquarters of the Meat Industry Employees’ Union suggesting a beer strike. The union passed the letter to the NSW Labor Council. The Labor Council last night could not reach the beer question because of other business. It won’t meet again until after Christmas.
By January 1941 an estimated 50,000 drinkers in Sydney and surrounding suburbs had boycotted pubs in protest to the increase in prices. The Brisbane Tuth described the strike on February 9 1941:
Beer Drinkers Aren’t The Mugs!
Aust. Strikers Are Spartans
Beer strikes have been raging ail over Australia (except Queensland) since the price of the cup that cheers and occasionally inebriates was pushed up last December following the increase in excise duties. Whether this State will continue to be ‘lucky’ remains to be seen, but certain working class organisations are considering proposals for a boycott until prices
come down and ‘pots’ and glasses are standardised in size, so as to give full measure.
The Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners is holding a State-wide ballot on the subject, other unions have already declared for a boycott; and Queensland Trades and Labor Council (which represents practically all the militant unions of the State except the A.W.U.) has been discussing the subject.
While our boys of the A.I.F. were bowling into Bardia to the tune off ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ (as well as ‘The Wizard of Oz’), the bold boys of Bulli (N.S.W.) were singing the same first-named song as they conducted a boycott campaign which was crowned with victory on Christmas Eve, just before closing time at the local hotel concerned.
Inspired by this initial success, the miners in other parts of the Mother State, the wharfles, the building tradesworkers, the telegraphists, and other big bodies of unionists have launched beer strikes, with the approval and support of the State Labor Council. The Battle of Bulli was followed byanother victory at Darwin, but only after a long and bitter fight.
During the discussion on the Estimates in the last session of the Queensland Parliament. Mr. E. J. Riordan (Labor, Bowen) brought up the vital question of the price of beer, particularly In North Queensland. He said it was remarkable that the further north one went, the cheaper beer became. Brisbane bottled beer was 1/9 a bottle at Gladstone, but it was only 1/6 a bottle at Townsville (this was before the recent increases). There was a different price at every railway station. He had heard a passenger say at Gladstone: “This is the sixth bottle of beer I have bought on the trip, and I have never paid the same price yet”.
Mr. A. E. Moore (C.P. Aubigny) inquired curiously: “What did he say when he got the eighth bottle?”
Mr. Riordan: “By the time he got the eighth bottle he would not care what he paid for it”.
The most successful beer strike the present writer ever enjoyed broke out at Broken Hill a good many years ago. In those good old days beer was 6d. a pint – a genuine 20 oz. pint – but the miners reckoned that 4d. was quite enough. They had just saved the business lives of the publicans (72 of the min a city of 31,000!) by voting down local prohibition, which appeared to be on the verge of success, and, as a reward, they demanded that beer prices should be reduced.
When the publicans refused, an un-assuming hero named John Smith, just a common or garden miner on the line of lode, brought matters to a head by writing a letter to “Barrier Daily Truth” declaring a beer strike right off his own bat, and branding as an “undesirable” any man who should hence-forth pay more than 4d. for a pot of beer. Very few people knew ‘Smithy,’ but everybody obeyed him! The city bars were as bare of customers as Tobruk is of Dagoes, and before noon on the same day every hotel was placarded with the glad tidings: “Beer 4d. a pint”.
South Broken Hill pubs, which had conceded the strikers‘ demand from the start and had been doing a roaring business at 4d., went a step further and brought the price down to 3d. a pint. “Them were the days!”
In the early days of the West Australian goldflelds beer strikes were of frequent occurrence in the outback camps, where luke warm stuff was retailed at 1/- a glass. The usual method was to call a roll-up of miners by beating a dry blower’s tin dish. When the strike was declared, pickets would be appointed to watch the local pubs. Then the men would form up in procession, march to the Saving’s Bank, deposit their money, come out with the bank passbooks tied to their shirts (no one wore coats) and parade past the pubs, singing lustily “My drink is water bright”.
Sometimes the beleagured publicans would try to corrupt the pickets by ‘accidentally’ rolling out a keg of beer near them; but any picket who succumbed to temptation would be severely dealt with by his mates. These beer strikes usually ended in complete victory for the strikers, or in a compromise which was a half victory. Greatest example of self-denial in a beer strike was given in the stay-in strike of Brisbane brewery workers a few years ago. That, however, was not a strike against the high price of beer, but for a 40-hour week. The sit-down strikers in the breweries were surrounded on all sides by beer enough for an army, but they didn’t touch a bottle of it: they drank milk and other soft stuff!
The Sydney breweries, which have been the hardest hit by the beer strikes, are “cracking hardy”. They say that the drop in local sales has been more than offset by increased exports to India, Palestine, Egypt and other places in the East [for soldiers]. The demand from these Eastern markets has increased enormously owing to the cutting-off of British supplies. As the price-fixers have made a mess of the beer business, it is not surprising that beer-drinkers all over Australia are taking direct action to get a fair deal.
The solidarity of the drinkers was felt as far north as Darwin, where drinkers’ drinking habits were notorious. The boycott there caused the retrenchment of staff in January 1941. The Melbourne Argus reported in January 28: “Residents of Darwin hotels now have to provide their own meals and service their own rooms”.
Hotels have dismissed their entire staffs as a reprisal against the beer strike which has been going on for a fortnight. By this move the North Australian Workers’ Union which organised the strike is being compelled to support the unemployed hotel employees.
At a mass meeting last night strikers rejected an offer by the hotels to reduce the price of beer from 2/2 a bottle to 2/ and make a considerable reduction in the prices of spirits. The meeting re-affirmed its determination to continue the strike until the price of beer had been brought down to 1/9 a bottle.
Meanwhile women hotel boarders are giving managements every assistance to keep their hotels open. To-day they assisted with cooking and laundering. However, it is expected that this help will cease tomorrow, and hotels will be closed until the strike ends. The position will become acute when the next flying-boat arrives with passengers from overseas.
DESPITE the enforced sobriety of the beer strike period, some good stories about the strike are still going the rounds.
It became a habit during the boycott for steady drinkers to console themselves and each other by reminding themselves that they were in much better health since the town went dry.
One such man met a friend in a milk bar and said, as they put awaya pint, “My word, Jack, you’re looking fit since the beer ban.”
“Don’t you make any mistake,” was the reply.
“It’s not me that’s looking better, it’s you that’s seeing better.
-Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), Around Town by ‘The Prospector’, May 10 1941.
Where it all started, on the New South Wales’ South Coast, the strike came to an end in January 1941. The Trade Unions began lifting bans in February 1941, and other regions, like Lithgow and Broken Hill ended their boycotts in April. The Cessnock Eagle reported on January 10 1941:
IT is reported from Wollongong that the south Coast beer strike has been called off by the Trades and Labour Council as a result of the hotelkeepers accepting the following terms put forward by the council: Imperial pints, 20 oz., 10d; schooners, 17oz. 9d; mugs 10 oz. 6d; half-schooners, 9 oz:, 6d; Quarts, 2/. As a result of the strike, hotelkeepers lost about £20,000 in revenue.
By the end of 1941 most of the strikes had ended in a compromise, but ironically World War II would result in major beer shortages across Australia, denying beer drinkers for years to come. Perth’s Western Mail reported on May 8 1941:
Beer Supply Runs Out.
DARWIN, May 2.- Darwin, a town known for heavy drinking, is experiencing one of the driest periods in its history, equalled only by the recent beer strike. Supplies of bee rran out two weeks ago and there seems little prospect of the position being rectified under another week. The reason for the shortage is that other demands on shipping space prevents local hotels from obtaining the full quota of their orders from southern breweries. Combined with this is the fact that during the last two months there has been a huge increase in population ( from the arrival of military forces).
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015