Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Female Publicans by Clare Wright

Liquor licensing is, like planning and building law, fascinating in that it’s all about deciding who has the right to do certain things, and where they can do it. Unfortunately, it’s also very boring because its political impact is concealed by reams of dull regulation.

Accordingly, I was thrilled to find Clare Wright’s Beyond the Ladies Lounge, documenting the rise and fall of female pub owners in Australia, who were banned outright in some states, encouraged in others, and subject to the weird moralism that surrounds both alcohol and gender.

The sale of alcohol had, until the 18th century, always been dominated by women, and operated as an ad hoc cottage industry. With the mass production of alcohol in the 18th and 19th centuries, things began to change. Wright notes:

In South Australia… the Licensing Act 1908 prohibited single women from holding a publican’s license. Remarkably, in 1915, this disqualification was extended to include widows as single women.

Of the 700 hotels in SA at that point, about a quarter were owned by women, many of whom found their licenses revoked purely on grounds of their gender and marital status. In NSW, no single woman could apply for a new license after 1912, although they could take over an existing license. In Tasmania, the 1902 Act barred married women from holding a license, and disqualified all women aged under forty-five.

These laws were based around an assertion that alcohol consumption required moral moderation. Most states banned single women from holding a license on the grounds they might be immoral, banning bar maids for much the same reason. By contrast, married women, older women, widows and the occasional spinster could apply for licenses on the grounds that they possessed a matronly spirit which, it was felt, would give a public house a sense of calming domesticity. Wright cites Victoria as the key state for this approach, actively shaping its licensing laws to ensure female licenses acted as ‘moral guardians’.

Wright makes an interesting point that this attitude changed when Six O’Clock Closing came in, at which point the pub ceased to be a ‘domestic’ environment:

The distinct snugs and parlours which catered to a variety of intimate social exchanges were sacrificed to the ‘egalitarian’ needs of after-work drinkers… tables and chairs were removed; billiard tables, dart boards and lounge furniture sacrificed for sheer empty space that could be filled by the daily crush of bodies.

During that time, the Temperance Movement successfully turned the pub from something akin to a private house into a building with a “cold, lavatory like atmosphere”, taking with it the sense of domesticity, which had legitimised female ownership. Regaining the ‘moral influence’ of women in the front bar was, oddly enough, one of the arguments for the retraction of 6 O’Clock closing, as this beer had attests:

Actually, this one is even better:

If this sounds of interest to you, you should also look up Jessica Warner’s excellent Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, which looks at the way female licensees were simply priced out of the market through high licensing fees. This is essentially the same tactic still used to discourage smaller enterprise, and retain a monopoly in certain areas.

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?

Yes, but she’d probably only read the beginning and the end.

One thought on “Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Female Publicans by Clare Wright”

  1. This sounds like a great read! I recently found out that my many-greats-grandmother was the publican of the Royal Hotel in Mossman, North Qld. A tiny town where my family spent several years while I was growing up – quite by coincidence!

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