A Town Run Dry

It was once said that drunkenness was a feature of pioneering life, but this observation extends far beyond the timeframe of the early colonial lifestyle. During the latter decades of the nineteenth century the Ashburton Guardian often reported on drunk-and-disorderly cases that were laid before the Magistrate. Drunkenness was widely regarded as one of Ashburton’s, if not the entire country’s, greatest problems at the time.

Alcohol consumption did decrease in Ashburton in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as bars closed and overall quality of living improved, but many people still desired to drink. As it turns out, there were plenty of ways one could score a bottle of whiskey or a pale ale during Ashburton’s days as a ‘dry town.’

The events that occurred in Ashburton during those years of rampant alcohol intake and subsequent temperance are an important aspect in showing how much the district has changed, and some stories surrounding Ashburton’s alcoholic past can be downright ridiculous.

4) A sketch by Alfred Domett MP from 1856, depicting one of his colleagues staggering home drunk

Drink ‘til you drop

Some early Ashburton residents could have easily drank Father Jack Hackett, from the television comedy Father Ted, under the table. Before the 1870s, drunkenness was largely seen as a common facet of colonial society. In the 1870s and 1880s, most drunk-and-disorderly cases ended with a “guilty, sur” and a ten shilling fine. Other more serious cases could land a defendant in Lyttleton gaol for what was then called “lunacy from drink”.

One reporter claimed in 1886 that “more has been spent in a single night” at Turton’s inn “than is now taken in any house in Ashburton in a single month.” Hotels with bars were major social hubs for much of Ashburton’s working population, possibly to an even greater extent than pubs and clubs in Ashburton today.

There are numerous pros and cons to New Zealand’s drinking culture, and current public opinion seems just as divided when it comes to our drinking as it was in the 1870s. The notion of restricting alcohol sales was neither-here-nor-there until legislation and temperance movements enabled more widespread discussion and action.

2) Temperance Central Hotel, opened in 1878 and replaced in 1881. These established sold soft drinks and coffee

Goodbye bars

From 1879 up into the early 1890s, kiwis were strapped for cash due to a depression caused by credit shortage – one minor reason alcohol consumption decreased during this time. The effect this depression had on alcohol consumption pales in comparison to the closure of hotel bars through licensing polls.

Following the abolition of provincial government, the Licensing Act 1881 was introduced. This act enabled votes to be held regarding revoking certain liquor licenses, reducing or banning sales at certain events, and so on. Around this time the temperance movement had garnered massive support. Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Traffic were established in the mid-1880s. Over the next decade, more liquor legislation followed.

A majority vote at the licensing poll of 1894 ruled that no more liquor was to be sold at races, A&P shows, or at saleyards. Eight years later, hotel bars in the Ashburton area were closed following another poll. Dry districts came into effect, and across the country nearly 500 hotels lost their liquor licenses due to licensing polls. Over time, ‘entertainments’ such as barmaids were removed from bars to further discourage drinking. Ashburton became completely ‘dry’ on 30 June 1903.

1) Turton's new Inn and Accommodation House

Attempted secrecy

Unsurprisingly, people in Ashburton found ways of acquiring alcohol. Sly-grog shops were extremely common in the 1920s, and Ashburton had an above-average amount. Alcohol was sold or shared in secret, often in people’s own homes or backrooms of businesses, and police raids on these sly-grog shops were common. One police raid in particular stands out from the rest:

At one locale, police found three bottles of whiskey under a tussock, two beneath an old woman’s bed, and roughly a hundred whiskey bottle wrappers – evidence which “featured in a lively case in the Magistrate’s Court when Margaret Scott (aged 85) was fined £25.” Cases like this were not uncommon. Another instance of sly-grogging was discovered by police at the Railway Refreshment Rooms, where a group of men and women were caught with bottles of whiskey, beer, and a decanter of wine in the kitchen with the door barred shut.

3) A pro-temperance cartoon from 1905

By Connor Lysaght



1) Turton’s new Inn and Accommodation House.

2) Temperance Central Hotel, opened in 1878 and replaced in 1881. These established sold soft drinks and coffee.

3) A pro-temperance cartoon from 1905.

4) A sketch by Alfred Domett MP from 1856, depicting one of his colleagues staggering home drunk.

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