The Law That Was Loved By Criminals
The Law That Was Loved By Criminals (100 year anniversary of the introduction of 6 o’clock closing).
By Michael Shelford © 2016
At the height of WWI, a unit of soldiers kicked in the front door of Squizzy Taylor’s sly grog shop at Little Lonsdale Street and demanded beer. Squizzy’s wife, Dolly Gray, suggested that instead they go to Fitzroy, where they would find all the beer they could drink.
Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the introduction of 6 o’clock closing in Victoria and by default - the beginning of that frantic afternoon tradition known as the 6 o’clock swill. On the 25th of October 1916, the amended Temporary Licensing Restriction Act of 1915 came into practical effect in Victoria. It was a law intended to only last the duration of WWI but it would end up hanging around like a bad smell for almost 50 years.
The liquor trade in Australia had been under immense pressure from temperance movements since back in the time when rum was a currency. The agitators, mostly of a conservative Christian base, had long pushed for not only a restriction in the availability of alcohol but a complete prohibition - much like that introduced nationwide in America in 1920. The temperance movement in Australia recognised WWI as the perfect time to push such changes through parliament. It was presented that the hours of liquor trading should be restricted for the health of Australia’s fighting force, and that those who remained at home should practise temperance out of respect for the ones risking their lives at the front. It was also argued that such reform was needed for the good of the nation – both morally and financially. It was promoted as an opportunity to arrest moral decline, decrease alcohol-induced family violence and redirect the flow of bread earner’s wages from the hotel till back into the family larder. The drive for change gathered momentum, and South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria all introduced 6 o’clock closing in the year 1916. Western Australia opted for a more moderate change in 1916 with 9pm closures, whilst Queensland waited until 1923 to implement 6 o’clock closing there.
It would be of no surprise that this law was not very popular amongst drinkers; nor was it the flavour of the month for those in the hotel trade. There was one group of traders however, who were very satisfied with the change. They were the unlicensed vendors already profiting from the illicit sale of alcohol. Melbourne’s inner-suburb of Fitzroy, in particular, had developed a reputation for being a place where you could whet your thirst outside of trading hours. There were a large number of well-established sly grog shops in Fitzroy. The keepers of these establishments had taken advantage of the already existing legislation which required hotels to close on Sundays and after 11pm weeknights.
An organised criminal network had grown and nurtured the sly grog industry in Fitzroy for over a decade and by 1916 it was well managed and tightly controlled. The ‘Fitzroy combine’ were prepared for the introduction of 6 o’clock closing and when it was finally enforced they hit the ground running.
Sly grog shops in Fitzroy were generally just normal rented houses. Some were set up like licensed bars – with beer on tap, fresh glasses, glass washing facilities, bar room furniture, a kitchen with a maid making fresh sandwiches and a piano man for singalongs. At the other end of the spectrum were establishments often bereft of furniture, with perhaps some wooden crates for seating and a few filthy mattresses for customers to sleep off the booze or to sojourn with one of the prostitutes who worked from these houses. When a customer wandered, or was lured, into such an establishment, they would rarely leave with their valuables. It would be their duty to shout beer for all those present and, if they attempted to leave with money in their pocket, they would be assaulted and robbed in a nearby alley - that’s if they made it that far. One unlucky chap, by the name of James McGuiness, was assaulted in an alley after leaving a Fitzroy sly grog shop known as ‘Porky Walker’s’ in January 1916. His assailants were disappointed to find that he only had £1 on his person and stole his spectacles as well.
Edward ‘Ted’ Whiting had the controlling stake in most of the sly grog shops in Fitzroy. He was the former Australian Middle Weight Champ and was described in police reports as ‘the King of them all’ and in The Age newspaper as ‘the uncrowned King of Fitzroy’. It was known that if someone wanted to open a new sly grog shop in the area, they had to run it by Ted first. If they opened their business without taking up one of his franchise deals, their place would either be smashed up or raided by the police – or both. The whole system was remarkably well run. Houses were leased as depots and occupied by staff. Delivery men, who were insiders, would transfer the alcohol from the wholesaler to the depots. The depots were quietly conducted houses located nearby to the sly grog shops. The sly grog shops would top up their stocks from the depots as required, lessening the risk of conviction in the case of a raid (“We were just having a party, Your Honour, and each person brought along their own beer to drink”). The sly grog operators also had agreements with Marine Collectors: those licensed by the government to collect empty bottles from hotels and restaurants. Their late-night, rear-lane, collections helped the sly groggers avoid the tell-tale sign of having large piles of empties in their backyard. The sly groggers also had the biggest asset a business can hold and that was a brand – the name Fitzroy was already synonymous as an illegal nightclub district and people came from near and far to avail themselves of what there was to offer.
In February 1916, Constables Berriman and O’Keefe, both stationed at Russell St Police Headquarters, were on duty in the Melbourne inner-city red light district known as ‘Little Lon’. They observed a large number of soldiers coming out of Exhibition St into Little Lonsdale St, and moved in when they sensed some trouble. The following is an excerpt from the written report of Constable Arthur Berriman, 6th February 1916.
“On Tuesday night the 1st instant about 10.30pm we were on duty in Little Lonsdale Street between Russell Street and Exhibition Streets when I saw a large number of soldiers come out of Exhibition Street into Little Lonsdale Street. They went to number 120 Little Lonsdale Street. These premises and the adjoining premises, 122 Little Lonsdale Street are occupied by Dolly Gray who is living with the notorious Leslie Taylor. The soldiers broke in the front door of 120 Little Lonsdale Street, and when we arrived with Constables Fennessey and McCaffrey, the soldiers were saying to Dolly Gray. “This is a sly grog shop and you met us in Lonsdale Street today and you told us, this number - ‘120’ - and said we could get plenty of beer up here at one shilling and sixpence a bottle. Dolly Gray said “You have made a mistake boys.” We ordered them off and after some whispered conversation with Dolly, the ringleaders said “Yes. We have made a mistake and are sorry." They fell in and one of them called out “Quick march to Fitzroy. We can get plenty of beer out there”, and they all marched off towards Fitzroy.”
(Constable Arthur Berriman, 6th February 1916)
As is evidenced by the above quote, it was often the soldiers, those on whose behalf the law was supposedly introduced, that were often the biggest frequenters of the sly grog shops. One of the busiest establishments in Fitzroy was run by a wounded soldier named Victor Ewart. He went by the sobriquet of ‘Anzac’ and his establishment was known as Anzac Cove. Around the corner was a brothel and sly grog shop run by ‘Mum Matthews’ and known as ‘The Dardanelles’. The busiest sly grog district of Fitzroy, just south of the Fitzroy Town Hall, was nicknamed ‘the Narrows’ – arguably a reference to the ‘Dardanelles Narrows’ – a notoriously dangerous 68km strait of water through Turkey which connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas. If ships attempted to travel through this strait in WWI, they could be fired on from the land on both sides. Interestingly, the aforementioned gangster, Squizzy Taylor, was nicknamed ‘The Turk’ and did plenty of shooting of his own in Fitzroy’s ‘Narrows’. Some of the returned servicemen, who were recovering from wounds both physical and mental, became tenants in the sly grog shops and handed their pensions over to the proprietor in return for lodging and as much as they could drink.
As mentioned previously, the 6 o’clock closing legislation also gave rise to the term ‘six o’clock swill’. This referred to the practice of workers making haste to the closest pub after knock-off and knocking down as many beers as they could before being ejected at 6pm. To add to the perfect storm was the introduction of the Licences Reduction Board of 1906. Each year from 1906, suburbs which were seen to have more than their share of pubs would have the number of licenses in their locality reduced. At license renewal time, the pubs that had been fined for trading after hours would usually be first on the list to be culled. This meant that each year there were fewer venue options for post-work drinkers and thus less elbow room at the bar during the rush.
The effect of 6 o’clock closing on the already established sly grog industry in Fitzroy was exponential. Some streets would be so littered with bottles on a Monday morning that pedestrians could barely walk along them. Police reports of the era stated that in the worst streets of Fitzroy, such as Marion St, Fleet St, Little Napier St and Young St, practically all of the houses were sly grog shops or brothels - or a combination of both. And it was into these places that the drinkers would walk after they were turfed from the pubs at 6.
The expansion of the illegal liquor trade brought on other problems for the police, namely - law enforcement and their sworn duty to protect the public. The police were supposed to have unrestricted access to the interior of hotels at any time of the day. Even at 3am in the morning, if a police officer requested entry they were supposed to be allowed entrance without undue delay. The penalties for a licensee who was deemed to refuse or even slow down access to the police were substantial. The sly grog shops on the other hand were conducted in private houses, which meant that the police had no right to enter them without a warrant.
The hoteliers grew more and more furious as they saw a huge portion of their profits spill directly into the black market. They also felt that they were suffering an unfair amount of raids and surveillance compared to their illegal business opponents. In 1918, Emma Foy, the licensee of the Victoria Parade Hotel, (corner of Napier St and Victoria Parade), was fined for trading outside of licensing hours. She had been allowing customers inside the hotel after hours and also selling grog over the back gate. When raided by the police she said “You stop the sly grog shops and I stop the trading. They are everywhere around here.” (Z9843)
The inability of police to gain access to private premises made the sly grog shops a haven for criminals and illegal activity. A good number of these houses were traps for young players and men were robbed and beaten within their walls on a regular basis. Other drinking houses in Fitzroy were open only to criminals; and many large-scale robberies were planned over drinks at their tables.
1919 marked the arrival of a new Chief Commissioner of Police, Sir George Steward. He launched an unrelenting attack on Ted Whiting’s sly grog network and much of it was successfully dismantled. Ted was gaoled for ‘Being the occupier of a house frequented by thieves’, after a raid on his headquarters resulted in not only his arrest but that of 4 members of his gang. Ted’s younger brother, Bunny Whiting, had been gaoled for sly grog earlier the same year. Ted’s main opposition, in the form of Squizzy Taylor, could smell blood too, and just a few months prior to Ted’s imprisonment, he squeezed 7 bullets into the ex-boxer whilst he was sleeping: 6 were later extracted from his head and 1 from his arm. Ted’s surgeon told the newspapers that he had only survived because of his extraordinarily thick skull.
Ted Whiting’s imprisonment, and the breakup of his gang, signalled the end of this particular sly grog monopoly but similar cycles would be played out again and again in the years before the legislation’s eventual repeal in February 1966. There would be many police campaigns against the sly grog trade over that half century but none as intense as that of the first half decade. Many men and women were sent to prison during this initial period, purely for selling alcohol without a license.
In 1954, police estimated that there were 24 sly grog shops operating in the South Fitzroy area. Though a goodly amount, it was only a shadow of the boom time era which had surrounded WWI. The sly grog shops continued to be havens for criminality right through to the 1960’s and maintained their reputation as places where gangster rivalries came to the fore, often at the end of a gun.
On the 1st February 1966, the pubs of Victoria were packed to the hilt with drinkers who’d turned out to celebrate not being turned out. They were again allowed to drink their beers at a respectable pace and they could stay until 11pm if they wanted. The law was over and almost all of the sly grog shops went out of business overnight.
Though pubs will soon be shut at six,
The booze will still be flowing;
The Trade will trump the Wowsers’ tricks,
So little grief it’s showing,
Shebeens spring up in every row;
And will they squelch them? – Never;
For Wowsers come, and Wowsers go,
But booze goes on forever.
(Truth Newspaper, Melbourne edition, 14th October 1916).
Author's note: The former sly grog shop and brothel of Squizzy Taylor still exists in Melbourne’s CBD today. Numbers 120 and 122 Little Lonsdale Street are protected as part of a mini heritage precinct that covers that small streetscape between Bennetts and Exploration Lane, this was done after fear it would be demolished in 2012 when sold. (A special thank you to Melbourne Heritage Action for this confirmation).
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.