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The Demon Drink



The Australian bush was fuelled on alcohol, particularly Dutch gin and Jamaican rum, which was consumed neat but hardly tidy. Landlords operating establishments ranging from dubious tent shanties through to grand hotels usually administered ‘Grog’, a colourful word applied to any type of intoxicating liquor. Because of erratic supply in the early convict era much of the grog was controlled by the military that traded in rum as a currency. The Sydney taverns had a raw reputation for fighting, skiting and generally uncouth behaviour where wenches could be had, black-market goods traded and, for those ships needing a crew, men shanghaied. The discovery of gold in 1851 did little to improve drinking conditions in the bush. As hopeful diggers arrived so too did sly grog sellers who mostly operated from wayside tents as they served alcohol diluted with all manner of strange additions including slops and tobacco juice. The miners, especially those on the celebratory ran tan, were prepared to drink whatever was served up, and buckets of it. As the goldfields grew proper hotels were built, many of these establishments offered meals, accommodation and entertainment. Meanwhile, the colonial cities were growing rapidly including impressive grand hotels that boasted special saloons, dining rooms and even fancy drinks. In the height of the goldrush special ships travelled down from North America, mainly Boston, with a precious cargo of ice, much of it purchased by the large hotels to be used in cold drinks.

Australia’s economy boomed from the 1840s through to the early 1890s. After the gold rushes we found a new wealth on the land, particularly wheat, sheep and cattle. Men who worked in the bush as drovers, shearers, fruit pickers, timber cutters and stockmen were said to ‘work hard and play harder’ and, considering the high percentage of the male population lived and worked in the bush, it is not surprising that they were renowned drinkers. An old drinking toast offered:

The German likes his half-and-half,
The Englishman likes his cider.
The Scotsman likes his whisky tot,
The Irishman likes his whisky hot.
The Aussie has no national drink –
So he drinks the bloody lot!

The consumption of alcohol in the bush was the cause of many the heartache, headache and lost fortune. It was also the inspiration for many songs, yarns and bush poems. Some are tragic stories of broken men whilst others are gut-wrenchingly funny stories with that particularly ‘dry’ Australian sense of the ridiculous. These bush poems come in all shapes and sizes – some are epic tales and others whimsy short pieces.

Why Do We Drink? anon
We drink for joy and become miserable.
We drink for sociability and become argumentative.
We drink for sophistication and become obnoxious.
We drink to help us sleep and become exhausted.
We drink for exhilaration and end up depressed.
We drink to gain confidence and become afraid.
We drink to make conversation and become incoherent.
We drink to diminish our problems and see them multiply.