Women and the demon drink

Sue Upton
Sue Upton, photo by Kate Fortune

In a public talk to the Friends of the Turnbull Library on 20 March 2014, Wellington researcher and historian Sue Upton presented some of the images and stories from her book, Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid: Women behind the bar in New Zealand 1830-1976, which was published by Victoria University Press in 2013.

Sue has spun an extraordinary tale from the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library and the records of the National Archives, exploring a side of New Zealand pub histories that has remained largely invisible: the women who poured the drinks. Her focus is a social history of the liquor trade and the controls (social and legal, written and unwritten) with which women workers had to contend. It begins in the 1830s when control over the sale of alcohol was first mooted and ends in 1976, when the last of the regulations that applied specifically to females was removed. As her book shows, all the various attempts to curb women’s involvement in bars – including the Register of Barmaids drawn up in 1911-13 – could not achieve what the legislators intended. The realities of earning a living, of serving local communities, of satisfying thirsty working men, often meant the doors were open, the women were behind the bars and the glasses were full – despite what the letter of the law might have said.

A wide range of comments from the audience included many vivid memories of the ugly and dangerous side of the restrictions of 6 o’clock closing. Several people produced their own stories of police apparently turning a blind eye on after-hours drinking in rural pubs, or a deaf ear on rowdy men whose thirst remained unquenched at 6 o’clock. Younger members of the audience listened to it all in growing astonishment, and appeared to appreciate this window into another strand of New Zealand’s feminist heritage.