Thursday 13 March 2014

Drunkenness and disorder in early nineteenth century Sydney

Sydney's binge-drinking culture and its implications for public order and safety have been making headline news since the beginning of the year; and the O'Farrell government's new alcohol lockout laws are the just the latest in a long line of state-led initiatives to curb public drunkenness and alcohol-related violence.

And yet excessive alcohol consumption has been a feature of Sydney's night life since the beginnings of European settlement, and the law has long been used to punish the drunk and disorderly, as the following police reports from the early 1830s make clear:

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 9 August 1832)

Ann Smith, found on Sunday evening rather queer in the Market-place, dancing a Dutch horn-pipe in the middle of a score of men, who were whistling in concert, as she jigged, was placed at the bar. By way of defence, she said she merely went in there out of the rain, and to keep her blood in circulation, she certainly did trip it on the light fantastic toe. The Bench ordered her to pay five shillings. "No, no," said Ann, " I know a trick worth two of that." In consequence, she was escorted by one of the politest Charleys to the stocks.

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 1 October 1832)

Maria Sparkes, puffing and blowing from obesity, was placed at the bar, after some slight show of resistance, charged with being over valorous the previous night, under the influence of a good draft of Dutch courage, and threatening, while in that state, to decimate the charleys at the very least, and brandishing a cudgel, told them to come on, she did not care a fig for them; this request was complied with, and after a little skirmishing, they were obliged to carry her to the lock-up, as she refused to walk.
Bench. - What defence have you to make ?
Maria. - Defence, eh ! what apology are those fellows going to make, who sculldragged me through the streets last night; was that the way to treat a decent woman like me.
Bench. - You should not have got drunk. You must go to the stocks for two hours.
Maria. - Ah, well, that's the way of the world. I don't much like the stocks, but I'll put up with it, rather than dump up; good bye.

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 17 October 1833)

Two seamen belonging to a vessel in the harbour, were amusing themselves on Sunday night last, about the hour of eleven, in George-street, by roaring out in unison, at the top of their lungs, "Tom Starboard's a lad you'd delight in;" when an officer of Police interrupted their harmony, by his interrogatories. They stated they were clerks in the Secretary's Office, and begged to be allowed to withdraw; their tarry hands, and beard bedizened muzzles, however, were too conspicuous to allow them to pass for clerks in so respectable an office, and they were lodged in the watch-house, to allow them time to give a better account of themselves.

These newspaper reports were accessed via Trove (

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