Temperance movement

Page 3 – The no-license era

The ‘no-license’ era, 1893-1911

The ‘three-fifths majority’ required to introduce local prohibition was a major hurdle for the temperance community, but they soon mobilised to campaign for votes. They organised ‘No-license Leagues’, which acted as local branches of the New Zealand Alliance. These leagues were usually led by ministers of the local Presbyterian and Methodist churches, and by prominent members of their congregations, who met the costs of campaigning in their area.

No-license campaigners produced posters and newspaper advertisements and held colourful public demonstrations. These campaigns were launched about six months before each poll, and a well-organised no-license league could organise public speakers to regularly address audiences throughout their electorates. The New Zealand Alliance churned out pamphlets to be distributed by the local leagues.

The trade fights back

Publicans, brewers, and spirit merchants were naturally horrified, and moved swiftly to protect their trade. They had a lot to lose if local prohibition spread. The liquor trade organised itself into the National Council of New Zealand. With the backing of many wealthy and prominent businesses, this organisation was generally better-resourced than the New Zealand Alliance.

The National Council spent lavishly on advertising, and used cartoons to portray temperance advocates as joyless puritans – 'wowsers' – who wished to choke all the pleasure out of life and trample on others' liberties. ‘Moderate’ leagues sprang up in many electorates, arguing that people in a free society should be able to choose to drink or not drink.

The liquor trade's lawyers also kept a close eye on the polls, and delivered long lists of electoral ‘irregularities' to the courts whenever no-license was voted in. 

A hard-fought struggle

The campaigns were fiercely contested, and very expensive for both sides. Voter turnout at the first poll (in 1894) was low, but the fight intensified from 1896 when licensing polls were held on election day, ensuring higher participation. By 1900 the liquor issue was one of the key political struggles of the age – press coverage of licensing polls often eclipsed coverage of the parliamentary elections. 

Between the first poll in 1894 and no-license's high-water mark in 1908, 12 districts, out of a total of up to 76 nationwide, voted to go ‘dry’. They centred on provincial towns like Masterton, Oamaru and Invercargill, the suburbs of Auckland and Wellington, and rural districts in Otago-Southland.

Most of the no-license districts remained dry for many years, even when many people disliked local prohibition and wished the pubs would re-open. This was because opponents of no-license had to reach the same difficult three-fifths majority at the licensing poll to get the beer flowing again.

No-license districts, 1894-1908

Year

Electorate

No. of
Licenses

No-license vote

Total valid votes

% vote for no-license (threshold: 60%)

1894

Clutha

12

1642

2478

66.3%

1902

Mataura

15

2939

4825

60.9%

1902

Ashburton

10

2870

4625

62.1%

1905

Invercargill

16

3902

6489

60.1%

1905

Oamaru

21

3142

4988

63.0%

1905

Grey Lynn

1

3426

5408

63.3%

1908

Bruce

22

2988

4897

61.0%

1908

Wellington South

4

4054

6381

63.5%

1908

Wellington Suburbs

7

4334

6879

63.0%

1908

Masterton

15

3290

5423

60.7%

1908

Ohinemuri

14

3346

5408

61.8%

1908

Eden

4

4057

6430

63.1%

Note: Ohinemuri voted no-license out in 1925. Licensing districts were also affected by electoral redistributions determined by the Representation Commission. In 1918 a new 'dry' electorate, Roskill, was created out of Eden in Auckland. The Bruce electorate was abolished in 1922, and its territory split between 'dry' Clutha and 'wet' Chalmers and Tuapeka. The Ashburton seat was abolished in 1927 and its territory assigned to two new 'wet' electorates. The same year, boundary changes made Wellington East and Auckland Suburbs 'dry', and a new 'dry' seat, Auckland East, was created. A 1937 redistribution saw Wellington Suburbs shrink and become 'wet', while a new 'dry' seat, Wellington West, was created. Boundary changes also saw Grey Lynn become 'wet' that year. The link between electoral districts and licensing districts was removed in 1945.

Sources: AJHRs, local option poll results, 1894-1908; J. Cocker & J.M. Murray, Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand (Wellington, 1930), pp. 271-2; Alan McRobie, New Zealand Electoral Atlas (Wellington, 1989).