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Sly grog

The sale of alcohol on the diggings was limited to public houses on the road from Melbourne. The idea was to avoid accidents due to the "too deep indulgence of the rum jug" and drunk and disorderly behaviour on the gold fields.

Alcohol was commonly referred to as "grog" and on his first visit to Victoria, William Howitt was disappointed by the taste.

"Instead of the splendid home-brewed beer of England, there is rarely anything to be got but what they call grog – generally a vile species of rum or arrack, vilely adulterated with oil of vitriol, and therefore the finest specific in the world for the production of dysentery."

"Raise your nobblers"

Grog was always served in a glass known as a "nobbler" and a digger’s first day at the gold fields meant it was his shout, as Henry Brown discovered.

"My men intimated to me, that as it was my first appearance at the gold fields, it was my duty to shout nobblers all round; I therefore called for some brandy, but knowing that spirits of all kinds were strictly prohibited on the gold fields, and that the penalty was high, it was with some surprise that I found my order promptly executed…. There was not... the slightest hesitation shown, and our brandy was drunk in the face of day, just as if no such law ever existed."

Brown was quick to condemn the outlawing of alcohol on the diggings as a law made by others who did not understand the diggers’ situation.

"Now if people in Melbourne, with comfortable houses, good water, and exposed to no hardships, find that the dryness of the climate compels them to drink, how much more necessary must grog be to the diggers, who toil in the hot sun, sometimes compelled to drink foul water, are continually wet through, and live and sleep under canvas. Of course, such a law, made for us by others, is as vexatious as it is absurd, and is openly broken by most storekeepers selling spirits. As far as possible our magistrate, who is called Bendigo Mac, closes his eyes to what is done."

The bane of the diggings

Sly grog shanty
S. T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

Despite an understanding magistrate, sly grog selling soon became the "bane of the diggings" according to Ellen Clacy.

"Spirit selling is strictly prohibited; and although the Government will license a respectable public-house on the road, it is resolutely refused on the diggings. The result has been the opposite of that which it was intended to produce. There is more drinking and rioting at the diggings than elsewhere, the privacy and risk gives the obtaining it an excitement which the diggers enjoy as much as the spirit itself; and whenever grog is sold on the sly, it will sooner or later be the scene of a riot, or perhaps murder ... Some of the stores, however manage to evade the law rather cleverly – as spirits are not sold ‘my friend’ pays a shilling more for his fig of tobacco, and his wife an extra sixpence for her suet; and they smile at the storeman, who in return smiles knowingly at them, and then glasses are brought out, and a bottle produced, which sends forth not a fragrant perfume in the sultry air.

"I know nothing," says the seller

Edward Snell described in his diary how sly grog sellers often avoided having their goods confiscated.

"When the police discover a sly grog shop they set fire to the tent and burn it with all it contains, for this reason the grog is generally kept in a small tent adjoining the one in which the proprietor resides, who of course knows nothing about the tent with the grog."

Polish miner Seweryn Korzelinski noted the "English talent for drinking huge quantities of spirits" meant investing in a public house was a good business.

A public house could officially sell spirits only after a licence fee of 100 pounds a year was paid, he said.

"Public houses can count on a high income as long as gold lasts in the locality, but while it lasts the takings from a public house can be as high as 200 pounds per day. So even a few weeks’ business covers the licence fee and the cost of building the premises. It is a risky business because if gold peters out quickly the miners leave the field and the public house remains empty."

Sly grog: better business than gold

"That is one reason why the sale of spirits is restricted to the licenced premises. Owners of shops and tents caught selling spirits get their stock confiscated and pay 50 pounds fine or are jailed for seven months. Still, the income from this sly trafficking is so great that those severe fines frighten no one, but only serve to make them cautious. Often a sly grog trafficker pays a 50 pound fine one day and the very next day is in business again, knowing it won’t take long to recoup the fine."

The fines clearly did not frighten Korzelinski. After working three months at Bendigo and not finding enough gold to buy a pipe full of tobacco, he found himself smuggling grog too.


By Helen Pitt


Henry Brown, Victoria, as I found it, during five years of adventure in Melbourne, on the roads, and the gold fields; with an account of quartz mining and the great rush to Mount Ararat and Pleasant Creek, Newby, 1862.

Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.

William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.

Seweryn Korzelinski, (translated and edited by Stanley Robe) Life on the goldfields; Memoirs of a Polish migrant; 1850s in Victoria, Mentone Educational Centre, 1994.

John Sherer, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, Clarke, Beeton, 1853.

Edward Snell, The life and adventures of Edward Snell, Angus & Robertson and The Library Council of Victoria, 1988.

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