No-license: all eyes on Ashburton

In November 1902, a vote was carried that would have a huge effect on Ashburton both socially and economically.

After much debate and support from groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Protestant church, a majority of voters in Ashburton had supported the town’s transition to ‘no-license’. From the time when existing liquor licenses expired in 1903, until 1949, the sale of alcohol was prohibited in town.

Residents could still get alcohol via licensed premises in Chertsey, Rakaia and Methven, and if someone had liquor delivered to Ashburton they had to prove that it was for personal consumption only. A decades-long era of dry hotels and sly-grogging in Ashburton had begun.

A snifter in secret

As licenses lapsed and the town dried up, liquor consumption moved away from the public eye, for the most part.

In a 1904 issue of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union publication White Ribbon, it was reported that “during the last year of license Ashburton recorded ninety-one convictions for drunkenness in the town; during the first year of No-license there were nineteen.” While fewer cases of intoxication surfaced over the prohibition years, there were many occasions when illegal suppliers of alcohol were exposed in the courtroom.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union convention in Ashburton, 1921. (Archive reference 01.1976.0396)

According to The Wet, the Dry, the Trust by local historian Rita Wright, Ashburton is said to have had about a hundred sly-grog shops. One such case occurred in 1923 when two men named James and Gideon Scott appeared on the charge of keeping liquor for sale in Ashburton, also known as sly-grogging. The Ashburton Guardian reported that the defendants bought liquor at Rakaia and had hidden several bottles of Scotch around their house which were discovered by police.

After the initial raid, the police returned the next day, and after Gideon denied having any more alcohol on the premises, another full bottle was found in his hip pocket. A witness said that they had “seen many people going there” and that they “had the place under observation for years.”

It was revealed that the Scotts were engaged in stock sales and odd jobs, so it was plausible that the comings and goings observed at their home were related to this business. However, when Gideon was asked to explain some of his previous business transactions, the Magistrate “could not listen any longer to such lies.”

James Scott was convicted and fined £25, but Gideon’s case was dismissed due to the fact that “only a bottle of whisky had been found in this defendant’s room, and it did not provide sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction.”

Strong words against the Scotts came from one constable involved, as the Guardian recounts: “The police stated that Gideon Scott had ‘a shocking record.’ James Scott, he considered, was one of the worst men in Ashburton. He loafed about with drunken men at night. So far as the police knew, he had never done a day’s work here.”

When Gideon denied this, the Magistrate cut across him and said that “the only thing is to put them on a desert island and let them work out their own salvation. They are a menace to the community. Respectable citizens would like to see the last of them. They make a boast of having so much money, and the best they could do was to pay some to the Government.”

Outside views

By 1911, Ashburton was one of twelve no-license electorates in New Zealand.

Opinions published by the media on Ashburton’s status as a dry town were generally positive, as evidenced by various articles from publications around the country. Some of the most noteworthy columns analysing Ashburton during prohibition came from Wellington’s weekly Free Lance newspaper, which weighs the issue with a bit of humour.

One piece from 1905 begins with an excerpt from an Australian newspaper, which alleges that the state of affairs in our Ashburton was “worse than the old days” on account of the men forming clubs and acquiring barrels of beer or cases of whisky from Dunedin for the purpose of having “a royal time”.

The Free Lance writer follows up this woeful account with a sarcastic remark: “Makes you tremble, doesn’t it?” Dismissing this account as pure rumour, the columnist goes on to express a popular opinion of the time which was that the brewers were the real problem, on account of how heavily they lined their pockets with profit.

“Thefts and assaults have been fewer under no-license. The Ashburton people may wake up to their terrible mistake, and may reinstate the brewery plenipotentiaries as the ruling class of Ashburton – perhaps.”

View of a building in the Triangle with a sign reading “Dominion no-license votes, are you in favour of majority rule?” from 1914. (Archive reference 05.2011.0451)

“We take it that the people in prohibition areas vote no-license not so much because of the evils arising out of intoxication, but because of the excessive hold the brewers have on the country, the enormous profits made, and their greedy habit of mopping up every bit of land they can get their hands on with extremely little trouble, and at the expense of the people.”

Ashburton’s dry era is arguably one of the most interesting periods of our district’s history, as it put our town in the spotlight nationally and our decision to go no-license was seen by many as somewhat of an experiment. What do you think would happen if prohibition laws were passed in Ashburton today?

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 4 December 2021.


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