National Archives of Australia

Issue 10 April 2013

Prohibition in Canberra: King O’Malley and the ‘dry’ capital

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King O’Malley. NAA: A7973, INT437/1

There is a popular watering hole in Canberra called King O’Malley’s. Ironically, it was Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley who was responsible for a state of prohibition in the new national capital from 1911 to 1928. Your Memento takes a look at records in the Archives’ collection that document the ‘dry’ days of the Federal Capital Territory.

King O’Malley was a charismatic teetotaller who, in 1911, introduced an ordinance stating that no more new liquor licences would be granted in the Federal Capital Territory. O’Malley vehemently opposed what he called ‘stagger juice’ and lobbied to keep the people of the federal capital – mainly workers constructing the new city – from its depressing influence. There is little doubt his penchant for verbosity and turn of phrase helped to convince his parliamentary colleagues to his way of thinking.

Was Canberra ever really ‘dry’?

O’Malley, however, wasn’t able to keep the new national capital completely dry. The ordinance did not make it unlawful to possess alcohol in the Federal Capital Territory, so residents were legally able to cross the border to buy alcohol and bring it back into the territory. And they did so in large numbers. By the 1920s, around 70,000 bottles were collected every six months from those who brought alcohol back to the territory. This practice contributed to the closure of the one existing pub in the national capital – the Cricketers’ Arms in Hall – in 1918.

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A page from the ordinance banning licences to sell liquor in the Federal Capital Territory, 22 December 1910. NAA: A1, 1926/3961

A 1926 guide to Canberra, presumably intended for public servants moving to the new capital, describes the liquor question with candour: ‘Bootlegging is not necessary in Canberra, when you only have to drive across to Queanbeyan and carry back all you want … you can bring it in in cartloads as long as you buy it outside the Territory.’ The guide also states that, for the most part, workmen simply saved up their thirst for a big night out in Queanbeyan.

Even one of the capital’s most significant days – with O’Malley in attendance – was certainly not ‘dry’. In March 1913, the foundation stone of the commencement column for the national capital was unveiled in a grand event – with a wine list that included champagne, sherry, claret, port, colonial ales, whisky and brandy. It is likely that these liquors were brought in from one of the five pubs operating in Queanbeyan at the time.

‘Stagger juice’ flows again

While there was significant interest from temperance organisations across the country in keeping the nation’s capital dry, the prohibition of alcohol licensing ended in 1928. There were several reasons for the end of the ‘dry’ capital. One was allegations that Federal Capital Commission workers were drinking excessively in Queanbeyan and conducting themselves in an ‘unseemly’ manner. It appears that most men, having come a fair way to drink, decided to make a real go of it rather than keeping to a few social drinks.

In 1926, there was a proposal to build a bar in Provisional Parliament House for members of parliament. This also created tension – why should members of parliament be allowed to enjoy liquor when other residents of the territory could not? In addition, Canberra was moving from a construction camp to a ‘civic’ town, and it was not considered practical or reasonable for residents to be held to different rules than those across the border.

Finally, in a 1928 plebiscite held by the Bruce Government, residents of the Federal Capital Territory voted for the end of prohibition in Canberra. The first consignment of liquor wheeled into the territory later that year. Jack Mildenhall, the official government photographer, captured the moment when bar workers from the Hotel Canberra in Ainslie met the cartload of Tasmania’s Cascade Ale. There is a sense of amusement in the photograph, as though the bartenders had known all along that the day of a ‘wet’ Canberra was inevitable.

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The first consignment of liquor arrives in the Federal Capital Territory, in November 1928, following the lifting of prohibition. Unloading the railway truck load of beer cases are bar workers from the Hotel Canberra in Ainslie. NAA: A3560, 4928

Want more?

Read about the first major campaign targeting drink-driving in this issue’s What a gem!

Fact sheet 35 – Administration of the Australian Capital Territory

Fact sheet 222 – Mildenhall photographic collection

‘What a gem! Canberra’s grand beginnings’, Your Memento issue 9

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