Sly Grog Tales: When Adelaide’s Underbelly was a Beergut

Nearly a century before lockouts had Hindley Street partygoers fuming, South Australia’s restrictive liquor laws were earning us an unfortunate reputation as the home of the Wowser.

Famously overturned by the Dunstan Government in 1967, restrictions on trading past 6pm were actually introduced in 1916 following a popular referendum and decades of campaigning from the State’s Temperance movement.

But not everyone in town was a god-fearing teetotaller, and subsequent decades were rife with tales of doggedly rule-breaking publicans and cheeky sly grogsellers who went to great lengths to enjoy a drop on their own terms. Some struck deals with rural hotels to cart their liquor back to the city to be sold privately (or smuggled to interstate rings), while others surreptitiously bought liquor straight from the brewer. Beer, whiskey or even homemade wine was then traded or sold among groups of friends and social groups, or under the counter of other businesses.

sly-grog-6-oclock-adelaide-reviewA poster from the 1915 referendum, William Charles Brooker via State Library of South Australia PRG 1316/16/16

House Parties and a Cocky Defence

The risk of police raids gave rise to elaborate systems to hide illicit goods. In 1920 police found 19 bottles of beer buried beneath a Carrington Street backyard, while a 1929 raid in Uraidla (say that a few times fast) unearthed an illegal cache of 1300 bottles and two kegs. In 1922 Police spent seven hours staking out a Hindley Street residence, eventually swooping to discover a secret cellaret hidden under a bed. Others used a ticketed “club” system with strict entry open only to trustworthy personal acquaintances to avoid infiltration by authorities.

Perhaps the most colourful sly grog case came in 1932, when a man named Cyril Taylor managed to beat a charge of illegally serving alcohol at his Angas Street home thanks to an unlikely witness: his pet galah ‘Cocky’. Arrested after an officer heard suspicious noises including the chinking of glasses and an opening gate, when the case reached court Taylor’s defence countered that the sounds heard were in fact made by his bird, a keen mimic of many household noises. Upon taking the witness perch the galah offered a brief sample of its repertoire that impressed the magistrate enough for the defendant’s explanation to be deemed “reasonable”.

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“Cocky” the galah with defence counsel C.J. Philcox, The News Friday August 5 1932

Rebel Publicans

It wasn’t just private citizens who flouted restrictions – hotel landlords were also regularly prosecuted for illegal liquor and gambling practises. In 1916 the publican of the Launceston Hotel on Waymouth Street (now the Grace Emily) Richard Agg lost his licence following two convictions for breaches of the Licensing Act. James Milburn ran the pub throughout the 1930s, and once accused the police of concocting a charge of slipping a patron wine out a side door after hours. The court did not agree, and it became one of several convictions Milburn racked up throughout the decade.

Over on Rundle Street, then-publican of the Exeter Hotel Alma Rook pled guilty in 1937 after a patron was found in the bar at only 6.35pm. Later, publican Archie Simonds was fined £10 for having two men and three women in the bar at 9.25pm. The men were found drinking unlawfully, but the mere act of having women in the front bar was also an offence until the 1970s. You read that right – despite blazing the trail for women’s suffrage, South Australia remained as squeamish as the rest of the country when it came to giving women a seat at the bar along with the vote.

Nitkeepers vs. Plainclothes Cops

Plainclothes policemen were deployed to break up such activities, and and these would be
Elliot Nesses weren’t afraid to be creative. One city resident recalled policemen wheeling fake prams and carrying flowers to disguise their true purpose, while in 1929 two unlucky drinkers felt the long arm – or branch – of the law when they were spied leaving a city hotel after hours, having failed to notice two nimble constables perched high in an adjacent tree.

To avoid such intervention many hotels employed ‘nitkeepers’ to keep watch. These well-paid men were obliged to “know every new policeman sworn in”, and upon spotting an official’s approach would ring a bell or yell coded warnings like “Nit!” or “Coat!” The occupants would then scramble to hide evidence of illegal activity until the threat at passed. Some even used signals to warn other nitkeepers across town of police activity – if you saw a bloke outside a pub holding his coat by the lapel or flashing a light three times, it’s a fair bet some plainclothes officers were in the vicinity.

Despite great effort, police were unable to fully curb sly grog practices and unlawful trading. By the 1960s these laws which had initially inspired imitation around the country had gone out of fashion everywhere but South Australia, where they were kept on the books despite being openly flouted with impunity by football clubs and hotels as police and government turned a blind eye. It all finally came to an end at 6.01pm on September 29, 1967 when Dunstan raised a pint at the Challa Gardens Hotel , a very literal toast to a new era.

Uncover more surprising tales and secret stories of Adelaide’s drinking culture in City of Pubs, part of the new Adelaide Tours guided walks program.

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Detours is presented in partnership with National Trust South Australia and The Adelaide Review

Header image:  Three men enjoy a drink outside an hotel (1926), via State Library of South Australia B 59771/8