Knocking the top off: A people’s history of alcohol in Australia
Edited by Alex Ettling and Iain McIntyre
Featuring essays by: Wendy Bacon, Maggie Brady, Rowan Cahill, Bruce Carter, Carol Corless, Daniel A Elias, Alex Ettling, Gary Foley, Alison Holland, Terry Irving, Phoebe Kelloway, Diane Kirkby, Tanja Luckins, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Chris McConville, Iain McIntyre, Lisa Milner, David Nichols, Michael Quinlan, Nick Southall, Jeff Sparrow, Janey Stone and Graham Willett.
Melbourne: Interventions Books, 2023
The licensee of the Steampacket Hotel in Nelligen, New South Wales got calls from all over Australia during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, offering to buy volunteer firefighter Paul Parker a drink, after his on-camera spray at then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison went viral during the emergency.
As Morrison toured fire-affected communities, Parker told a TV crew to “tell the Prime Minister to get f*cked from Nelligen”, reflecting the anger that many people felt against the climate-denying PM, who shared holiday snaps from Hawaii as the flames were engulfing east coast communities.
This incident and many others, as well as historical figures and places are featured in the contributions to the 2023 book, Knocking the top off: A people’s history of alcohol in Australia, edited by Alex Ettling and Iain McIntyre.
Alcohol existed in Australia prior to colonisation, but there was no evidence of mass production until the arrival of the first settlers, who gained a reputation for heavy drinking that persists to this day. While Ettling and McIntyre stress that this idea is exaggerated, starting from the 1808 Rum Rebellion, alcohol has played a major role in key events in Australia’s history.
From the convict period when rum and spirits were used as a form of currency, alcohol played a central role in resistance to capitalism in Australia. This took many forms, such as gentleman bushranger Mathew Brady, the 1851 Rocks Riots, the formation of trade unions, the central role of German immigrants in mid-19th century radicalism, and the 1872 formation of the Democratic Association of Victoria — considered Australia’s first socialist organisation.
McIntyre recounts the various “beer strikes” that took place in Western Australia between 1901 and 1925, where patrons — usually white males with unofficial union backing — organised boycotts of certain pubs in protest at unreasonable prices.
Other struggles, from the 1912 Broken Hill Hotel and restaurant strike, the 1918 Brisbane beer strike, the 1937 Castlemaine brewery dispute, to the 1962 Victorian beer ban are also featured.
The book portrays activists, such as JW “Chummy” Fleming, Cecilia Shelley, John "Jocka" Burns and Jack Clancy. We get a picture of the vital role drinking and pubs played for activists in Sydney’s Balmain and the post-war Sydney “Push” pub scene, and the pubs that Brisbane student radicals met in, in the late 1960s.
Australia’s racist history is confronted in essays on the 1857 Buckland anti-Chinese riots in the Victorian goldfields, the life of Chinese publican Jimmy Ah Foo, the fight to integrate the Walgett RSL during the 1965 Freedom Rides, and the 2022 actions by bar staff at Melbourne’s Irish Times pub in confronting and expelling Neo-Nazis.
While Aboriginal people drink on average less alcohol than non-Aboriginal people, instances of problem drinking are often amplified by the corporate media, leading to racist stereotyping. The relationship between Temperance groups and Aboriginal rights activism is explored in essays such as “For Aboriginal Humanity: The Social Justice Agenda of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Australia” and “Confrontational Temperance activism among Indigenous women” by Allison Holland and Maggie Brady.
An essay on First Nations union activist Chicka Dixon and an interview with longtime activist Gary Foley examine the role of alcohol and pubs in Aboriginal activism, while Ettling’s essay, “Whitlam and the Gurindji Land Rights Ceremony” explores the effects of the lifting of the alcohol ban in the Gurindji community after the Whitlam government handed over their land title deeds in 1975.
Feminist and queer activism is explored through essays on the struggle by women to drink at the front bars of pubs, struggles for equal pay, an essay on the Kingston Hotel run by feminists in Melbourne in the 1980s, the 1979 Woolshed “kiss-in” by queer activists and Bruce Carter’s interviews with 1970’s queer activists.
Later essays feature disability rights activist pub crawls in Queensland’s Rockhampton region, which took place between 1989 and 2022, to build community and assess how “disability-friendly” the pubs were. Ettling interviews unionist Simon Burn, who played a key role in wildcat strikes at Melbourne’s Liquor Distribution Centre in the 2010s.
These are just a few of the more than 60 essays recounting the people, moments and struggles in Australia’s history with alcohol, told from the vantage point of indentured convicts, immigrants, unionists, Indigenous people, women, socialists, communists, anarchists and queer activists — justifying its claim to being a people’s history. I highly recommend it.