Friday, 19 July 2013

Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid

On Monday night we launched Susan Upton's history, Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid at the Thistle Inn, Wellington's oldest pub. Historian Charlotte Macdonald launched the book, and has kindly provided her speech below.

"Like all of you here tonight, I am delighted to see Susan Upton’s research project on women in the hotel industry now complete – and here before us in handsome book form, between two covers, as Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid. Sue, warmest congratulations on all your work to reach this stage. And also to Victoria University Press for recognising such an excellent project and bringing it to us in published form.

As I started to read this book however, I have to say I began to get worried.

Sue had completed an MA thesis which I had supervised some years ago – a good thesis. Part of what an MA thesis is supposed to demonstrate is a high level of research skill, systematic modes of thinking, and especially a knowledge of how to go about doing research in sources found in archives, manuscripts in places such as the Alexander Turnbull Library. But here in the Introduction, on p.17, Sue was telling us that in writing this book ‘Going to a party was often more productive than a day at National Archives’.

I was shocked!

But only for a minute.

There is in fact, a great depth of research behind the history that this book tells. Research that uncovers experiences ranging across nearly 150 years and across the gamut of human experience from the tragic to the hilarious, triumphant to the dismal. What Sue was, of course, pointing to in making this comment was just how close to the heart is the subject of drinking – where we drink, how we drink, who we drink with. And who serves those drinks. Everybody, it seems, had a grandmother or an aunt who was a barmaid. Everybody has a story, and a view, about the good and the bad of New Zealand bars.

The part of that general history that most people know is that of the long era in which New Zealanders lived under the restriction of 6 o’clock closing and its ugly spectacle, ‘the swill’. What began in 1917 as a wartime efficiency measure lasted through until the light dawned in 1967, when 10 o’clock closing opened the door on the more civilised possibility of bars with seats and tables, on leisurely rather than frenetic socialising.

That story, in turn, is part of a wider view of New Zealand that depicts the nation’s history as once a battleground between puritan wowsers and hard drinking men ‘from the bush’, a battle that got stuck in the attrition of public bars with their culture of ‘vertical drinking’, hotels as no more than denizens of male bacchanalian excess.

The story told in Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid gives us a part of the history that is much less well known; and in doing so very considerably enriches that all too often caricatured picture we have of our drinking history.

What Sue sets out in this fine book is the story of many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of women who worked in pubs and hotels as barmaids, as publicans, as managers, and most numerously - as family (wives, daughters, sisters) –  whose work came under that wonderfully encompassing and understated job title: ‘family assisting’.

At the heart of the book is the story of attempts to limit women’s employment in bars and hotels – a campaign that began as early as 1869 when barmaids on the goldfields were prohibited from dancing with their patrons. And which took on particular force with the campaign to prohibit barmaids from working at all in any bars. That idea was first mooted in 1874, but took on momentum in the 1880s and finally succeeded in 1910, though there was a residual provision for those already in work to stay there through the Register of Barmaids drawn up in 1911-13. The anti-barmaid campaign had its parallel in efforts to prohibit women from holding licenses as publicans unless they were widows or married women solely supporting their families. The power of the interests lined up against women in bars was considerable, and long-lasting. And sometimes surprising. Even when legal restrictions against women working as barmaids were lifted, in 1961, there remained efforts to keep them out. Instead of worker solidarity, the hotel-workers’ union, with the support of FOL leader F P Walsh, was determined to keep the women out, fearful that barmaids would undercut the wages of barmen.

The labyrinthine reach of New Zealand’s licensing system, especially in that period from the 1880s to the 1950s, was not just an attempt to limit drinking by making it unattractive and restricted in place and time, but also contains a labour and social history of workers and their workplaces. Most pointedly, it includes these attempts to push women out of what was a comparatively lucrative occupation.

For all those efforts of legal restriction, however, perhaps it will come as little surprise to learn that what actually went on was often somewhat different from what legislators had intended. The realities of earning a living, of serving local communities, of meeting demands from thirsty patrons, often meant the doors were open, the women were behind the bars and the glasses were full – despite what the letter of the law might have said.

Throughout the book the feel of people, of lives of energy, of hard work, of ingenuity and opportunism, are all very apparent.

Here are just a few of those we meet on the pages: -

Elizabeth Donnelly on p.67. Her miner husband was killed in a landfall on his claim at the Dunstan in 1879. She had 11 children and a 12th on the way. With the money she  invested well, she was able, 6 years later, to become the owner of Black’s Hotel at Ophir and had built the Railway Hotel at Lauder.

Or the barmaids in Nelson in 1908 who took exception to local brewers who had been persuaded by local temperance supporters to stop employing barmaids in their hotels. In retaliation, the barmaids dissuaded the locals from drinking their beer (p.113).

In 1896, at the height of temperance campaigning, Wellington publicans Emily Clark and Mary Moynihan stood outside polling booths canvassing support for the Licensed Victuallers’ Association – against the efforts of women seeking support for the WCTU. Their presence, it was said, was ‘very subduing’. (p.106)

Or there is Rebecca Tabor, publican at the Prince of Wales in Masterton, who was held in such warm esteem by her customers, they made her an honorary male and vice president of their rugby club (p.101).

In this respect there are people you meet on these pages that you definitely feel you don’t want to mess with. Mrs Murphy, the proprietor at Palmerston North’s Princess Hotel from 1939-64, took a very dim view of women drinking in her pub in the evenings (p.138). She simply refused to serve them and sent them packing: ‘Don’t come back’ she told them, ‘and they didn’t’. Or there is the diminutive ‘Ma Blainey’ at Dunedin’s Tattersall’s Hotel, dressed demurely in black but running her establishment in such a manner that intimidated her customers and kept them in check (pp.128-9).

For her ingenuity and entrepreneurship rather than forcefulness, I have to say I have a soft spot for Mary Ann, the (briefly) hard done by barmaid in Central Otago at the height of the goldrush. Mary Ann’s future husband failed to show up at the church in Cromwell where their wedding was to take place. Instead of quailing, Mary Ann hotfooted it to the pub where she raffled her wedding cake. She then took up position behind the bar and proceeded to serve customers while in her bridal robe and orange blossoms. The sight of Mary Ann at the Junction Hotel in Bendigo Gully was such a novelty that she caused a riot as miners crowded into the pub. They drank it dry in 2 hours. Fortunately more supplies were obtained from down the valley and pandemonium went on for most of the week! (p.45)

Reading across this history – of escalating restriction – as the squeeze gradually made it harder and harder for women as publicans and as barmaids to keep working – it is easy to be struck by the extremity (perhaps even ludicrousness) to which efforts to keep women out of bars extended. And to be struck by the glaring contradiction running through the arguments set down to exclude women from bars – on the one hand bars were seen as places which were inimical to female respectability, hence the sooner women were removed from them the better it would be for their own sakes. On the other hand, the argument made that excluding barmaids, ‘decoy birds of the liquor traffic’ (p.109), would remove temptation proffered to men luring them to hotels to drink via the siren call of the temptress behind the counter.

Yet what the book illustrates is how multi-sided has been the ‘drink industry’ (and ‘drinking culture’) in New Zealand’s history. For many people it has provided a place of work, a livelihood, pubs at times have been centres of community activity. The place of widows in this story is one of the prominent and very interesting themes to emerge. What is evident also is the great reliance, in this industry, on the unpaid and often unrecognised work done by family members – wives, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers in making sure businesses ran and in keeping people’s economic heads above water (and sometimes even to make a tidy profit).

The book offers an important addition to how we understand ‘the demon drink’ within New Zealand’s gender history. Too often we have presented a black and white picture of women as wowsers up against drinking men. And with that sometimes comes a rather saccharine or genteel image of the women’s vote in New Zealand as a triumph of the white ribbon of the temperance movement rather than the hard headed and skilful public campaign run by Kate Sheppard around the various political interests involved in the New Zealand Alliance, in the mixed affiliations of Seddon and Ballance’s Liberals and their cross-bench opponents, and the mixed reputations and political followings of people in the trade, including their political representatives – none more aptly named than the Dunedin MP Henry Fish.

Wanted, a Beautiful Barmaid adds another dimension to the story of men, women and alcohol. It reminds us, first of all, that many men, including those in the liquor industry and unions, acted to exclude women from bars as workers. And second, that many women did not share temperance beliefs – indeed, they were involved in hotel industry as owners, licensees, managers and barmaids.

It is good to see here in Sue’s book, that fact that is often lost, that there is no evidence to show that the women’s vote (exercised from 1893) increased the vote for prohibition. That campaign was strong but drew support, and opposition, from male and female electors.

On this score, there are moments of indignation in reading this book. One of the sharpest for me was in the campaign call by Tommy Taylor (in cahoots with ‘good cold tea Isitt’  Methodist Rev Leonard Isitt p.89), one of the most energetic prohibition voices in Christchurch in 1890s and early 20thC when he challenged his audience with call: ‘Isn’t your vote as good as the vote of two barmaids!’ (p.96) Casting aspersions on the respectability of barmaids is a recurrent chorus through these pages – occasionally, just occasionally they get a chance to answer back in public (I’d like to hear their private remarks – possibly unprintable).

The story Sue Upton’s book tells of attempts to push women out of bars can be read as anachronistic, as a failed history, as simply an account of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of history, what we were once – long ago. But I think it is more than this (and such a view does a disservice to History). The question of how to regulate alcohol, and the perception of the need to regulate alcohol – or not – remains a vexed one. Alcohol use, and abuse, is still with us. And one of its disturbing aspects is its part in the ugly side of gender relations (particularly domestic violence) in our society. Effective forms of control, ways of minimising harmful use, remain challenges in the very different circumstances of the market and moral economies of the early 21stC. I am not so much suggesting that there is a neat lesson to be learned from history (it doesn’t work like that), but I think it can be useful to reflect on how issues and questions have been perceived and addressed in the past. History forms part of the evidence available to draw on in knowing ourselves in the present, and thinking about how we act in the time that is ours, the time in which we have the possibility of acting.

I want to conclude with a salute, a toast – first to two women from The Thistle Inn who appear in the book: Ellen Keeney, who held the temporary license for the Thistle in the first decade of the 20thC when married women were generally legally excluded from being licensees but who took over responsibility while her husband was being treated in the Asylum. And the unnamed barmaid who lost her job at the Thistle in 1965 because she was employed to serve drinks in the public bar without consent of the union. Second part of my toast is to Susan Upton, author, historian, for bringing us a rich and measured history, one with a great touch for the human story at the same time as giving us the larger canvas on which those stories unfolded. Perhaps the perfect result of research in the archives and at parties. Congratulations.

And do read the book!"

Charlotte Macdonald

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