From 1840 New Zealand governments issued licences for the sale of alcohol, but there were few restrictions. Central government earned revenue from duties on alcohol and provincial governments from the issue of a licence.
Europeans introduced alcohol to Māori, who were not initially impressed, and called spirits waipiro (foul water). Until the 1850s few Māori consumed alcohol, but thereafter there were increasing sales to Māori and the first evidence of drunkenness. So in 1847, 1870 and 1878 there were measures restricting booze in Māori areas. Māori presented petitions supporting such restrictions, and in 1884 liquor licences were banned from the King Country.
The drink question could raise extreme passions. In Dunedin in 1908 fire hoses had to be used to keep 1,000 people from forcing entry into an already-crowded hall where a debate between a wowser and a drinker was being held. In the end the event was abandoned because no-one could be heard.
From the 1840s there were critics of drink. Many were religious dissenters who saw alcohol as undermining moral behaviour; others pointed to its effects in bringing violence and distress, especially to women. Groups like temperance lodges and bands of hope campaigned for voluntary abstinence, and with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885 and the New Zealand Alliance in 1886 the aim became total legal prohibition. Prohibition became a major, highly divisive moral crusade, with pamphlets, songs, processions, lectures and endless petitions. About half the New Zealand electorate for the three decades after 1900 supported the cause.
The results of the prohibition movement included:
- no new licences without approval of the ratepayers
- 12 of the 76 European electorates voted dry between 1894 and 1908
- Sunday drinking abolished (1881)
- the minimum drinking age raised to 18 (1904) and then to 21 (1910)
- new barmaids banned (1910)
- closing times reduced from midnight to 11 p.m. (1893), then to 10 p.m. and finally to 6 p.m. (1917 as a war measure, becoming permanent in 1918).
In December 1919 New Zealand avoided becoming completely dry by only 3,263 votes.
These legislative restrictions reduced the quantity, availability and visibility of drinking. The number of licensed pubs fell from one for every 328 people in 1880 to one for 833 in 1910. Between 1881 and 1919 the consumption of beer rose slightly on a per-capita basis, but spirits and wine both fell by about half. New Zealand consumption fell significantly behind the UK, and was lower than in Australia, the United States and Germany. Convictions for drunkenness (per head) dropped by a third.
Other factors reduced consumption. Alternative drinks became available – clean water provided to homes and in public fountains, as well as tea, coffee and fizzy drinks. Doctors turned against heavy drinking and stopped prescribing alcohol. The gender balance evened up and fewer single men rolled into towns from frontier pursuits.
The pub became less important as a social centre. Housing had improved. Pubs were stripped of ancillary attractions such as concerts, food and barmaids. Instead, alternative amusements such as theatres and libraries appeared elsewhere in towns and cities.
Drinking large amounts of alcohol did not stop. Without other attractions, the pub became purely a drinking establishment, and on occasion there were still outbreaks of drunken hooliganism.
In New Zealand the First World War training camps and troopships were officially dry, but when the soldiers visited towns or ports they often got drunk. 10 of the Third Reinforcement got so drunk in Albany they missed the boat. In Cairo and in England the camps had a wet canteen. On Armistice Day 1918 at Bulford Camp Kiwi soldiers did £800 worth of damage because beer was not served fast enough at a dance. In March 1919 there was £12,440 worth of damage at neighbouring Sling Camp in a disturbance led by drunken New Zealand soldiers.
These years saw changes in the types of alcohol drunk. Neither table nor (especially) fortified wines were popular, and the small local wine industry was hit by phylloxera. Brandy and rum fell in popularity to under 10% of imported spirits by 1915, while whisky comprised about two-thirds.
Local breweries flourished, even if consumption per head did not rise. After Moss Davis installed a lager plant at the Captain Cook brewery in Auckland in 1900, lighter German-style beers began to replace English-style pale ales.