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Sly Grog

Spirit selling is strictly prohibited; and although the Government will license a respectable public house on the road, it is resolutely refused on the diggings. The result has been the opposite of that which it was intended to produce. There is more drinking and rioting at the diggings than elsewhere, the privacy and risk gives the obtaining it an excitement which the diggers enjoy as much as the spirit itself …
Ellen Clacy

As Clacy’s comments suggest, despite the government’s attempt to enforce prohibition on the goldfields, liquor was never in short supply. Willian Howitt’s description of the vestiges of its consumption at Ballarat reinforce Clacy’s view: ‘... bottles broken and whole lie about in such quantities, that it is wonderful how horses go anywhere on the field without getting lamed.’

Transport costs and the need to conceal the alcohol meant the illegal supply was restricted to spirits. Sly-grog sellers found ingenious ways to advertise and dispense their goods. ‘Coffee shops’ or ‘coffee tents’, and less often ‘lemonade sellers’, were common euphemisms for sly grog shops. The prohibition was on the sale of alcohol so, to get around the law, a general storekeeper might make a ‘present’ of a tipple and charge extra for another item on the bill. A couple of ‘hugely fat’ female grog-sellers were well remembered for their enterprising ways – they strapped tin containers to their waists (underneath their clothes) and dispensed brandy from tubes poking out the side of their skirts.

The liquor supplied by sly-grog sellers on the diggings was commonly adulterated. In 1853, a government inquiry found that the ‘brandy’ sold on the fields was half cheap spirit and half additives. Water was commonly used to dilute alcohol, but tobacco was often used as a base to give the grog extra kick. Pharmaceutical spirits, opium and even cayenne pepper were also reported additives.

Prohibition failed to stop drinking on the diggings and thus did not prevent the disorder and crime with which it was associated by officials. Indeed, it did the opposite. Not only did it create ‘crime’ by deeming a favoured leisure activity criminal, it generated an unregulated, unsupervised grog trade that led to crime and corruption. Sly-groggers’ adulterated concoctions could be used to knockout and rob successful diggers and inadvertently sent others to an early grave. But the biggest effect it had was on the police. The kickbacks and bribery from this illicit trade escalated when, in January 1852, the government decided to award half the proceeds of a fine for sly-grogging to the policeman responsible for the conviction. Within six months, some policemen had made £1,000 in fines and bribes. By July of 1852, both the Superintendent of Police and Governor La Trobe were acknowledging the corruption produced by this ‘regulation’ of the illegal liquor trade. As La Trobe wrote to the Colonial Office, it ‘would seem to carry with it the disadvantage of inducing the police to neglect … other functions, equally important, but less remunerative.’

Despite the failure of prohibition and the problems caused by the consequent sly-grog trade, it was not until 1854, when the Colonial Secretary admitted it was a ‘mere farce’, that prohibition was abandoned.

Caitlin Mahar

Annear, Robyn, Nothing but gold: the diggers of 1852, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1999. Details
Moore, Bruce, Gold! Gold! Gold!: a dictionary of the nineteenth-century Australian gold rushes, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2000. Details
Robyn Annear's research Notes prepared in the course of writing the book, Nothing But Gold; Private (Robyn Annear). Details
Serle, Geoffrey, The golden age: a history of the colony of Victoria, 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963. Details