Last drinks: Closing time for the great Australian pub
Pubs are losing relevance and revenue even though they’re central to our culture, our economy and our identity. But, there’s hope for the future of the industry if it can learn to take some cues from its past.
If you stand beneath the slightly retracted verandah of The Newmarket Hotel and admire the 19th century stonework, it would be easy to think that come Hell or Heaven Nightclub, pubs will always do what this one has done. They will simply remain.
Peppered throughout cities, suburbs, and country towns across Australia, pubs are inarguably cultural icons and sites of great historical significance – but as history will tell you, they are anything but eternal.
Despite their grand physical stature, the pub’s cultural relevance wanes as often as it waxes. At the moment in SA, the fortunes of the pub are as low as many can remember. In the CBD alone, three formerly bustling hotels all within less than 700m of each other – The Whitmore, The Director’s and Grote Street’s Hampshire Hotel – sit empty, their licenses valid but inactive.
But, in Adelaide’s earliest years, pubs were indispensable.
“Pubs were used, as you might know, for inquests, because a pub within a local area was usually the biggest building within a small community,” author and historian Patricia Sumerling says.
“The role of a pub in society has always been like that of a church; there are those people that like to go and talk with the vicar, and there are those that like to go and talk to the publican and talk about sport, or their problems.”
By the early-20th Century, religious institutions and hotels became less comfortable bedfellows as the temperance movement turned public attitudes against alcohol, and helped to impose six o’clock closing on pubs.
The aim was to eventually reach prohibition, like what was achieved in the US, but in true Australian style, the six o’clock closing time was treated as a challenge as much as it was a restriction.
Punters would rush from work and order multiple drinks to try and get a full night’s drinking in before close, and hoteliers increased the size of their bars to allow more people to pull up a pew.
It’s one of the first major examples of Australian publican’s resilience and adaptability in the face of a changing tide.
In 1981, random breath testing was introduced to South Australia, and in 1991, the blood alcohol concentration limit for South Australian drivers was reduced from .08 to .05. This, along with economic conditions, affected behaviour and cost the city several historic hotels.
“The introduction of random breath testing, .05, .08… that had a significant impact on how people behaved,” Ian Horne, General Manager of the Australian Hotels Association (SA), says.
“[And] in the late-’80s, we had a lot of venues fall over, because that was in a period when housing loan interest rates were at 17 per cent, business loans were 21 per cent, so if you borrowed a million dollars to buy a pub, or restore a pub… then your interest payments alone were $200,000 a year.
“That was also the State Bank period, and South Australia’s confidence was at rock bottom.”
For publicans still in the industry and fighting to stay out of the red, there was an unfortunate white knight in the form of a piece of 1992 legislation: the Gaming Machines Act.
“We certainly had a massive reinvigoration, driven to some extent by gambling, but also driven by general consumer confidence, an increasing level of affluence, higher inflation,” Ian says.
Politics of the pokies aside, the industry received a boon from them and fewer publicans jumped ship on their hotels than potentially could have, staving off demolition or re-purposing, and instead, the profits they’d made were eventually reinvested into the buildings.
“In the early-2000s to around about 2008, that’s when we saw significant money spent on refurbishments and redevelopments,” Ian says.
From the perspective of pub owners, particularly those with gaming rooms, this was a golden era; coffers were stacked, fit outs were under construction, and managers were employed to take care of the day-to-day.
In the punters’ eyes, cheap schnitzels and beer specials for a long while outweighed the negative sentiment toward poker machines, and regardless of whether you were at a pub in the outer suburbs, or in the centre of the city, you knew you could rely on consistent pub fare in a familiar environment.
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If you were looking to buy into the industry, however, a barrier had developed.
“It took us a couple of years to find the right pub for us,” publican Jade Flavell explains.
She and her business partners, Liz O’Dea and the late Emily Trott were in the market for a pub in the early-’00s.
“It always had to be a non-pokie pub. We weren’t even remotely interested in running a pokie pub, which limited things substantially.”
“Other ones we looked at that had a tiny [gaming] lounge… [we wondered] if we could sell the licence,” Liz recalls.
“The amount of money that each machine added to the price of a lease was extraordinary. So even with four or five machines, it was in excess of $100,000 per machine to the price of the lease,” Jade continues.
“No landlord in their right mind would let you buy a pub with pokies in it, at that point, and get rid of pokies, and if they did, they would charge you rent as if you were running the pokies.”
Eventually, an anomaly sitting in the inner-west, not too far from the city, caught their attention – The Wheatsheaf Hotel.
“[The Wheaty’s] always kind of existed in a parallel universe, in a sense, because even before we got in… it was not subject to any normal rules of a pub in any regard,” Jade says.
“There were two taps… the place closed whenever the publican felt like it, which was often at eight o’clock on a Saturday because he just couldn’t be bothered.
“We bought the place on a handshake. It was old school, absolutely old school.”
With no pokie lounge, and a decent reputation for live music, they took the “affectionately regarded shambles” and began operating in ’03, introducing a focus on craft beer.