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Why there are no wine bars in Ashburton

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

For my first post, I answer the most important question about living in Ashburton.

On High Street Road there is a large sign for a housing development called “Chapter”. Every day the sign tells me that this is my opportunity to live in ‘leafy and lively Ashburton’. I always give a little snort. It IS leafy, but it’s a big stretch to call Ashburton ‘lively’ after 7 pm.

The whispers have started again in Ashburton (OK, mostly among the mothers-of-a-certain-age) that a wine bar is finally coming. This leads to the next question. It's 2021 in Melbourne. Pandemic aside, why is there still not a wine bar/pub/some-kind-of-dedicated-alcoholic-drinking-establishment here? We’re all in bed watching Netflix by 9.30 pm anyway, surely we won’t cause too much trouble if we have a quick drink with friends?

To answer this question properly, we need to return to the very beginning of European settlement in Boroondara.

In 1835, Melbourne was a miserable shanty town of around thirty or forty tents, huts and bark-roofed tents clustered around the Yarra at Port Phillip Bay. The first European settler to lay claim to land in the area, known by the Kulin nation as Boroondara (‘Shady Place’), was a Tasmanian banker and storekeeper called John Gardiner (pictured). You’ll recognise his name today from his creek, road and train station. Aside from his business success, Gardiner was also a founding member of the Temperance Society of Melbourne.

The Temperance Movement

In the 1830s, the Temperance Movement was beginning to pick up steam across the world. Alcohol had shifted from being considered a benefit in medicine to the root of growing problems with criminality. The idea of the Movement was to encourage people (mostly men) to abstain from drinking alcohol or, in the words of the immortal Slim Dusty, drink in moderation. In the beginning it was not particularly associated with one religion since most religions already encouraged moderation anyway. It mostly stemmed from the view that alcoholism was a moral weakness that transcended religious denominations.

Gardiner’s effort to found a Melbourne chapter of the Temperance Movement came at a time when Melbourne was fertile ground for it. Within a decade of his arrival in Boroondara, the little shanty town around Port Phillip Bay had grown to a 4,000 strong (mostly male) population with 30 hotels and three newspapers. To escape the growing rabble of drunkenness, noise and filth, wealthy merchants and politicians began buying up the land around the villages of Boroondara and building ‘country estates’. They gave these properties names very familiar today: ‘Burwood’, ‘Tooronga’ (pictured), and ‘Glen Iris’, among others. Gardiner's influence in these circles and the higher price of land helped limit the number of hotels serving alcohol.

By the late 19th century, the Temperance Movement in Melbourne experienced some success by establishing alcohol-free spaces, including coffee palaces and libraries. According to Geoffrey Blainey’s 1964 A History of Camberwell, temperance advocates in Victoria also had enough influence to ensure districts had the right to vote for more or less hotels. By 1885, North Melbourne residents managed to close down 37 hotels by poll. Around 217(!) hotels were closed in the whole town.

In Boroondara, the ratio of hotel to population was too small to run a poll. Since there were no more hotels in 1900 than in 1870, there was clearly no taste to increase drinking establishments in the area anyway.

The 6 O’Clock Swill

Before 1906, hotels traded from 6 am to 11 pm. But now the liquor reformers had gained sufficient political sympathy to limit trading by 48 hours per week and impose a 6 pm closing time. The idea was to get men home to their families earlier. Originally intended as a temporary measure, the “6 O’Clock Swill” lasted for 50 years. It was not just in Victoria either, all the new states of Australia and New Zealand implemented the change.

The 6 O’Clock Swill meant hotel patrons drank the most beers they could in the hour between knock-off and closing time. Today, we call this ‘binge-drinking’. The most enthusiastic/desperate would line up their beers along the long bar on the ‘front line’ and scull them one after another. Fights would then ensue because other patrons couldn’t make it to the bar in time for closing.

“It was a revolting sight and one it took a long time for me to take for granted. The smell of liquor, the smell of human bodies, the warm smell of wine, and on one early occasion even a worse smell, as a man, rather than give up his place at the counter, urinated against the bar.”
[Extract from Caddie: A Sydney Barmaid]

After the pub closed at 6 pm, masses of drunken patrons spilled into Melbourne streets just in time to stagger home to dinner or onto a tram. If they didn’t end up in a fight with each other, sometimes the poor wife and kids suffered at home. By the 1950s, the drunken patrons skipped the trams and got into cars to drive home ‘saturated with alcohol’.

Both sides of the temperance fence deplored the 6 O’clock Swill. ‘It is a nightly affront to the eyes’, said one commentator to the Argus in 1953. Almost everyone agreed that total prohibition did not work to curb excessive drinking, so the debate shifted to whether later closing hours would.

‘At least people could eat before drinking’, argued the alcohol supporters. ‘It would just become the 10 O’Clock Swill’, countered the temperance adherents.

In 1966, citing a nation-wide study that the 6 O’Clock Swill was doing far more damage than good, the laws were repealed.

Prohibition in Boroondara

While most temperance advocates supported moderation, Camberwell and Box Hill became the stronghold of the prohibition arm. Led by E.W. Greenwood, who had a seat in the Legislative Assembly, the single-minded goal of his Anti-Liquor League was to close every hotel in Melbourne. Greenwood’s influence meant that in 1920, a local option poll was run throughout the state for residents to decide whether the hotels of their districts could continue operation, be reduced or be closed. A condition was placed on the results that to close all hotels in the district required 60 per cent of the vote.

Only two districts gained sufficient votes to close all the hotels: Camberwell and Box Hill. In 1920, Camberwell had seven hotels, two wine saloons and one spirits licence. By the end of the year, they were gone. The demolition included the district’s name sake: the Camberwell Hotel (pictured).

Boroondara stays ‘dry’

Throughout the 20th century, as the rest of Melbourne moved away from the 6 O’Clock Swill towards standard trading hours and a thriving pub and wine bar scene, Boroondara and Box Hill’s residents resisted. The liquor license polls retained their mandatory status.

Running a poll required in-person voting at a polling place, all at the expense of the aspirational liquor licensee. This meant they did not occur very often. According to this map helpfully put together by Channel 10 reporter Steve Love, it took a long time for the poll results to reflect any shift in the pro-dry area attitude.

A July 1965 poll to award a liquor license to the Box Hill RSL (pictured) had an 85% turn out and a narrow ‘no’ vote. However, a 1975 poll for a licence for the Balwyn RSL with a similar turn out returned a 65% ‘no’ vote. This indicates that as liquor licensing laws softened across the rest of Melbourne, support for the dry area of Boroondara strengthened over the decade.

There is little information available examining residents’ attitudes to the ongoing ‘dry’ status. Anecdotally, I think that whenever a push to grant a liquor license in Boroondara or Box Hill occurred, a groundswell of grassroots support for the dry area sprung up, actively mobilised people to vote against change, then disappeared again.

Nobody even tried to run a poll again until 1990. When they did, the ‘no’ vote stood firm.

The first shift only occurred in 1999 when residents of the City of Whitehorse (the former City of Box Hill) voted to overturn the dry area. It was not even a comprehensive victory: the yes vote was 50.87 per cent.

Ashburton triumphs!

In Boroondara, it was Ashburton residents who granted the first liquor licence to the district in 80 years. The owner of Caffe Invidia (now closed), Steven Tsokanos won the poll on 21 June 2003 with a 51.72% 'yes' vote. The victory represented a demographic shift towards younger families with no historical connection to the 6 O’Clock Swill or even Boroondara. ‘I'm excited, relieved,’ he told The Age. ‘We are basically giving people a choice - if they wish to buy a drink here, it's not a problem.’

However, only when the State Government changed the laws to run the polls by post in 2004 did far more potential proprietors take the opportunity to run them. From then on, the ‘yes’ vote moved into landslide territory. Steve’s map only lists polls until 2013 and it shows the last poll recorded by the owners of the Sakura Inn received a 77% ‘yes’ vote.

Why we still need to get out and vote

BYO permits, restaurants and cafes are now exempt from the poll requirement. Yet in Camberwell, despite a significant increase in liquor licenses issued, the dry area persists in places, including the east side of Burke Road.

Despite the assurances of Dan Andrews during his last election campaign at the last election, Boroondara is still technically a dry area. The rule is that:

“The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) will not grant specific liquor licences unless expressly approved by the residents of the adjacent neighbourhoods. Residents vote in a liquor licence poll conducted by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC).”

Andrews’ push to change the ‘archaic’ laws in 2018 met with a groundswell of resistance.

‘The problems that pubs and clubs introduce to quiet neighbourhoods are not what [residents] want,’ Boroondara Mayor Jim Parke told Neil Mitchell on 3AW in 2018. ‘The City of Boroondara is already adequately served by pubs, clubs and restaurants.’

Won’t someone think of the mothers?

History shows that the odds are good that a poll for a wine bar in Ashburton will now return a ‘yes’ vote. Unfortunately, it’s an added expense to the retrofitting needed to convert the available buildings of Ashburton into a suitable establishment to store and serve alcohol. This adds to the setup costs in comparison to taking over an existing wine bar in the non-dry areas of the city. So ultimately, it’s up to the potential proprietor to decide whether the wine bar is financially feasible for them.

So if you want a wine bar in Ashburton (or not), monitor your mailbox and make your vote count!

Update: November 2021

On 13 November 2021, the State Government abolished the dry zones in Boroondara by passing the Liquor Control Reform Amendment Bill 2021. This overruled the position of Boroondara Council to maintain the status quo.

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1 Comment

Very interesting article Sarah!

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