1947 Greymouth beer boycott

Page 3 – The boycott begins

In mid 1947 there were rumours that the price of beer was about to rise. It was a decision that no publican wanted to take alone because customers might move to another hotel where prices were lower. So the local branch of the Licensed Victuallers' Association (LVA) on 29 September 1947 announced that the price of a 10-ounce beer would increase immediately from 6d to 7d in all West Coast hotels. Publicans were issued with posters saying 'All beer 7d'.

How much was a 'd'?

A 'd', or penny, in October 1947 was roughly the equivalent of 26 cents in today's money. So when the price of a 10-ounce (300 ml) beer went up from 6d to 7d it was like an increase from $1.60 to $1.85 today.

Although the publicans knew that this would be unpopular, they did not expect any organised resistance. The price of beer was an emotive issue with working men, though, and there were demands that the unions take action.

To meet the unified action taken by the LVA, the West Coast Trades Council (which represented most unionised workers) called a public meeting. There was unanimous support for a motion calling for a boycott of hotels that put the price up - derisively called the 'sevenpenny pubs':

That this meeting of the Trades Council and officers of the local trade unions recommends to all workers that, if the price of beer is increased, they boycott hotels from the date of such increase, this decision being based on record profits being made by breweries, and on large sums paid for goodwills in the sale of West Coast hotels, thus indicating that an increase in the price of beer is not warranted.

There was a good deal of scepticism about whether a boycott would work, but it was remarkably effective from the start. On 2 October the Greymouth Evening Star reported:

Plate after plate of food - counter lunches barely touched - providing ample testimony to the apparent effectiveness of the boycott ... A tour of Greymouth hotels about five o'clock yesterday afternoon made it obvious that so far the boycott has been at least fairly successful in reducing custom.

That night a rash of posters proclaiming that ‘7d beer is black' appeared around the town.

A rebel hotel

Although the publicans tried to maintain a united front, Paddy Keating of the Central Hotel in Greymouth's Albert Street decided to keep the price at 6d. He had only a tiny pub in a side street (near the site of the present-day Kingsgate Hotel), but his business boomed. The Star reported that crowds spilled out onto the pavement, and extra barmen had to be called in. At a nearby hotel the same reporter found only a solitary drinker, who said he was prepared to pay an extra penny to enjoy his beer in peace.

There was consternation a few days later when the Central Hotel ran out of beer. The local brewery was unwilling to provide supplies, but a well-stocked local citizen gave the publican a 36-gallon keg until further kegs arrived from Speight's Brewery in Dunedin.

Death of a politician

In the midst of the boycott, on 28 September 1947, the long-serving Labour MP for Westland (and Minister of Transport) James O'Brien died. The by-election was held on 3 December. The West Coast was a Labour stronghold and the result was never in doubt, but the campaign led to a succession of visits by Cabinet ministers. Invariably, locals wanted to know what the government was going to do about the price of beer - and rising prices generally. Labour politicians gave evasive answers, generally trying to claim it wasn't a political issue. They were clearly uncomfortable, and wanted to see the beer boycott resolved without having to get involved.

How to cite this page

'The boycott begins', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/greymouth-beer-boycott/begins, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Jan-2017

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