Grogzone, Charlotte Macdonald

Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid: Women Behind the Bar in New Zealand, 1830-1976
Susan Upton
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864738943

Conrad Bollinger famously dubbed New Zealand “Grog’s Own Country”. It was 1957. Bollinger was writing under the dark cloud of six o’clock closing and its ugly swill. A call for evening drinking, throwing off the six o’clock rule in place from 1917, was just the most obvious protest against the many shackles of a licensing system dating from the 1880s which controlled both drinking outlets and hours. It took another edition of Bollinger’s book, and 10 years, to reach the bright light of 10 o’clock closing in 1967. These days, thanks to the liberalising skies of the 1989 Sale of Liquor Act (and its extensions), New Zealanders can legally buy and consume drink almost anywhere, any time.

Into a history often caricatured as a battleground between puritan wowsers and hard drinkers, Susan Upton’s Beautiful Barmaid brings us a less well known chapter: the worker and the banned barmaid. At its core is the 1910 success of the “ban the barmaid” campaign. From that date, barmaids were legally prohibited from working in bars. As some argued, bars were places of moral filth and thus inimical to female respectability. Whether as workers or as drinkers, women had no place in them. Others, equally keen to ban women, underlined their power to attract men to drink: they were dangerous “decoy birds of the liquor traffic”.  To save men from themselves, women’s removal from bars was imperative.

As early as 1869, barmaids on the goldfields were prohibited from dancing with their patrons. The idea of a wholesale ban on women working on bars was first mooted in 1874, but took on greater momentum from the 1880s. Controlling “the demon drink” by restricting its production and consumption – through reducing places and hours of sale, and making drinking space as unattractive as possible – was the guiding principle from the late 19th century onwards. It was a strategy which was also premised on separating imagined male consumers from female suppliers. In 1910, that vision was enacted in legislation.

Passing the law was one thing, applying it another. The amendment to the Licensing Act, 1910, banning barmaids, also established a register under which women already working in bars were able to continue. Provision to continue to work was also made for women who were themselves holders of liquor licences, along with those who made up that large and rarely enumerated group of people vital in most small businesses: children, wives and relatives “assisting”. Through the pages of her fine book, Upton introduces us to the working worlds and informal social codes of hotels up and down the country. At Dunedin’s Tattersall’s Hotel, diminutive Ma Blainey demurely dressed in black, but her intimidating manner kept her patrons in check. At Palmerston North’s Princess Hotel in the 1930s and 40s, proprietor Mrs Murphy saw no contradiction in serving her male customers while disapproving vehemently of women drinking in her pub. She simply refused to serve them.  The rather more genial Rebecca Tabor of Masterton’s Prince of Wales was held in such warm esteem by her customers they made her an honorary male and vice president of their rugby club. Women continued to be part of the hotel industry after 1910, as they had been before, even if they were increasingly an aging workforce, and one more likely to be licensed proprietors than wage earners. Many were widows.

Drinking establishments were imagined to pose dangerous landscapes for women well into the 1950s. Marge Goodger’s Otago farming parents made her promise never to go out with airline pilots or commercial travellers when she went to work as a receptionist at a decent Dunedin hotel in the mid-1950s.

By then, however, modern tendencies were afoot. Legal restrictions against women working behind the bar were removed in 1961. But the hotel workers’ union, with the support of FOL leader F P Walsh, stood against women’s employment, believing that barmaids would undercut wage rates. Getting a job was not easy. The final legal distinctions (in age) between women and men hotel workers were removed in 1976, while the 1977 Human Rights Act made discrimination on the basis of sex, race or religion unlawful.

The story which Upton’s excellent work tells of attempts to push women out of bars can be read as anachronistic, as a failed history, as simply an account of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of history, of what we once were, long ago. It is more than this.

The question of whether, and how, to regulate alcohol, remains a vexed one. Alcohol use, and abuse, is still with us. Effective forms of control that minimise harmful use remain challenges in the very different circumstances of the market and moral economies of the early 21st century. Localised liquor bans and territorial restrictions within certain hours are currently the tools used by local authorities to contain public drunkenness and its harmful consequences. History does not offer a lesson so much as provide evidence to draw on in knowing ourselves in the present, and thinking about how we act in the time that is ours. Upton’s story provides an important insight into the labour history and gendered values surrounding New Zealand’s culture of drinking. It can be profitably read alongside Paul Christoffel’s 2006 unpublished PhD thesis on the long reach of the 1881 Licensing Act. Christoffel suggests that by far the most effective measure in controlling consumption is economic – the cost of drink, rather than restrictions on availablility.

Ultimately, and enduringly, New Zealand has addressed its drinking through the ballot box. Political control is the target of reformers of all stripes. Prominent prohibitionist Tommy Taylor stirred his Christchurch audiences in the early 20th century with the challenge: “Isn’t your vote as good as the vote of two barmaids?” Upton has given him some good answers.


Charlotte Macdonald is Professor of History at Victoria University of Wellington.


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