Anti-alcohol measures like dry zones are not just a part of history: their legacy continues to feed into our approach to urban planning today.
When Melbourne’s two “dry zones” had compulsory ballots for restaurant and café liquor licences removed in 2015, some reports surmised that “a hangover from the anti-alcohol movement of the 1920s had finally been relegated to the history books”.
Yet the dry zones – where residents can vote directly on liquor license applications – are chapters in a longer, ongoing story. The 1920 poll that created these anachronistic alcohol-free pockets was the culmination of half a century of campaigns in Australia and beyond for local alcohol controls, prohibitions and vetoes including policies called “local option”.
Controls on alcohol, including local option, spread across many countries during the anti-alcohol temperance movement of the late 19th century.
Local option ideas held that local people ought to have the democratic right to decide by popular vote whether and to what extent to have liquor outlets in their area. By majority vote, areas could vote themselves “dry”, object to licenses, or close hotels.
In my research, I’ve tracked the rise and demise of local option policies, and the legacies for cities like Melbourne today, using archival records and historical Geographical Information System (GIS) techniques.
Tracking the emergence of local level controls from the 1860s, you can see the influence of policies like the “statutory limit” in 1885 – capping hotel numbers at a set ratio (1 per 250 people: very high by today’s standards). Later, the powerful License Reduction Board closed over 1,300 hotels across Victoria ahead of a compulsory state-wide poll.
On the terms of the 1920 local option poll, at least 60% of voters in a district needed to back "no licence" to close all the hotels in the area. If a simple majority (50%) voted “reduction” or “no license”, the number of liquor licenses in the district would be cut by a quarter.
In the end, two districts returned “no license”, while 71 voted for reduction. The remaining 143 districts voted for continuance. Had the “no license” threshold been 50%, there would have been a further 25 “dry zones” in Victoria. In other countries including the United States, New Zealand and Canada, hundreds of towns, counties, and states became dry by similar means.
Place-based alcohol controls have tended to be considered only as precursors (failed or otherwise) to total prohibition: perhaps overshadowed by the notoriety of national prohibition, the 6 o’clock swill, and wowsers (Australian for a grimly meddling non-drinker).
But local option controls are important in their own right: my research shows they reshaped not only the hotel industry, but the wider political landscape.
Temperance campaigners used emerging planning laws to legitimise local popular political power, and the control not only of alcohol but of land use.
For some, local option was a path to prohibition utopia. To others, including key liberal thinkers such as William Vernon Harcourt, it was an end in itself; local option emphasised property rights, decentralised governance, and rights to residential amenity.
The legacies today range from the idiosyncratic (restrictive covenants, as in Ocean Grove in Victoria’s south-west), to the more intrinsic: ideas of land use separation (zoning) and the rights of residents.
And as some temperance-era controls are being wound back, very similar policies are being reasserted. Debates about bottle shop densities, live music venues, “lock out laws”, fast food outlets, apartments, brothels, and gaming machines have corollaries in the temperance era.
Dry zones and wowsers are not so easily relegated to history: we live in a system of urban separation and regulation devised, in part, by them. And while seeking to balance residential amenity with change, we grapple with much the same dilemmas.
About the author:
Dr Elizabeth Taylor is a Vice-Chancellor’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research. This research was presented earlier this year at the Urban History Planning History conference. The story was first published in The Urban Observer.