Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Vagaries of the Colonial Ginger Beer Trade






Ginger beer was a popular drink in Colonial Queensland.  It was easy to manufacture and could be produced in both non-alcoholic and alcoholic forms.  The latter was illegal if sold without a license. Ginger beer was often used as a popular mixer. A glass of brandy and ginger beer was known as a "stone-fence". A favourite of the ladies, it could contribute to some very unsociable behaviour.



At the Police-office, on Wednesday week, a vixenish-looking woman, with a child in her arms, accompanied by another child, about three or four years of age, appeared before the Magistrates, charged by Mr. Andrew Graham, of the Harp of Erin Tavern, South Brisbane, with making use of abusive language, and assaulting both him and his wife.

Mr. Graham stated that the Defendant came into his house on the evening in question, and called for a stone-fence, alias brandy and ginger beer. Having partook of what had been ordered, she was about leaving the place, and the landlord asked for payment, when she abused him and struck his wife, without the slightest provocation.

She then went outside, and in the true Lady Barrymore style, commenced throwing stones, one of which passed through the window and broke two panes of glass, damaging the counter of the bar; she was shortly afterwards given into custody, and confined in the lock-up.[1]

The Races at Ipswich were the main social event and refreshments were supplied on the course.  Local publicans, who sponsored many of the races, would set up tents by the course, which were well patronised. At the Boxing Day Races in 1848, a local shoemaker running a sideline in a beverage he called “gingerade” ran afoul of the licensing laws.  The prisoner passed his product to the prosecuting lawyer to sample, who in turned offered to the magistrates on the Bench.

On the summons list were three cases, all for "sly grog selling", which were prosecuted on the part of the crown by Mr. Ocock. Case the first was that of John Walton, a shoemaker, for selling ginger-beer without a license on the race-course on Boxing Day.


Starting line of a race course

In defence the prisoner produced two bottles which he called "Gingerade" (a cordial not fermented) handed to Mr. Ocock, who, tasting from the bottle, appeared to think it most palatable; after a good "swig," he offered it to the presiding J.P.s to test its qualities; the dignity of the Bench, however, requiring a tumbler, one was produced, but their Worships' innocence in all such matters would have left the case undecided, had it not been for the positive evidence of the attesting witness, who swore that the liquor sold, a bottle of which he drank, was ginger beer, and that it had been fermented.

As a coup-de-main[2], the prisoner stated that the witness could not tell ginger beer from buttermilk; but as the Magistrates would not coincide in such an opinion, they mulcted Walton in the usual penalty of £30 and costs.[3]   

Stoneware Ginger Beer Bottle ca. 1860
Unfortunate things could happen while a ginger beer seller was doing his rounds as was the case with a man named Lawrence whose wife fell under the spell of a local Lothario known for some mysterious reason as "Frank the Slasher".

A man known to his circle of acquaintance by the euphonious title of "Frank the Slasher" decamped on Tuesday last by the Clarence steamer, having, it was discovered in his possession a quantity of wearing apparel and a silver watch, the property of a person named Laurence, proprietor of a vehicle with which be perambulates the town and retails ginger-beer. It was discovered that the wife of Laurence was also missing, having, it is presumed, eloped with the thief. Lawrence states that she took away with her about sixty pounds in cash belonging to him. A warrant has been issued for the apprehension of "the Slasher."[4]




Rivalry between vendors was keen and could sometimes lead to violence especially in the market for ginger beer with that something extra, thus creating a more marketable and profitable product.  In 1863, a certain Edward Sullivan, a ginger beer seller, appeared in the Ipswich Circuit Court charged on breaking and entering and stealing charges.

The prisoner was then indicted for that, on the 24th day of December, 1862, he did feloniously break and enter the dwelling house of one Bridget Larkin, and thence did steal one pocket-book, six bottles of rum, and one blue bottle, the property of the said Bridget Larkin.

Over-proof Rum Label
The evidence went to show that the prosecutrix and the prisoner were rival ginger beer and lemonade sellers. It appeared possible too that their interests clashed slightly with reference to the black bottle[5], the contents of which, in the plenitude of their hospitality, many bush vendors mix with the "teetotal stuff."




Be that as it may, the facts of the case showed that on the day in question, Christmas Eve, about eight in the morning, the prisoner and his wife raged round the house of the prosecutrix for some time, uttering various threats against her. They did not affect an entrance at that time, and departed in quest of an axe to burst the door open. Mrs. Larkin, in the meantime, evacuated the premises, leaving in possession her little girl, Mary Anne Larkin, who bolted the hut door.

The prisoner and his wife returned to the scene of battle, and the former, seizing a camp oven, dashed it against the door, and thereby affected an entry. Once in possession, the prisoner and his wife, according to the evidence of the child, ran riot in the house. They sucked raw eggs, broke bottles, emptied rum into soda water bottles, and carried it away; and last, not least, the prisoner, seemingly incited by a whisper by his wife, put his hand into a safe and took away tho pocket book which he was charged with stealing. The pocket book was never recovered. He then departed, after kicking the little girl into the telegraph rut, and remarking that he would like to tear her mother's throat out and put her on the fire.

The jury found the prisoner guilty.

Sentence - Twelve months' hard labour in Brisbane gaol.[6]


Court House in Ipswich about 1860



If a woman of a certain reputation solicited a man on the street to “stand her a ginger beer” it was clear what she was really about.

In Elizabeth Street, a ubiquitous ginger beer shop offered other services in addition to the refreshing drinks, as one keen-eyed store keeper observed. In 1868 he wrote to the Brisbane Courier complaining that this business was allowed to operate so close to his own premises.

Last week I was amazed to discover that in a line with our business premises in Elizabeth Street, and only separated from them by sixty-six feet of fencing, a low brothel had commenced operations. Exactly opposite this was another, where ginger-beer was ostensibly sold. All passengers could see at once what these places really were.

Elizabeth Street ca.1900
Behind the ginger-beer shop, are four cottages and from the door of our stores is plainly visible all that goes on outside these cottages, and a good deal of what goes on inside, as the doors are always open.

They are conveniently accessible from both Queen-street and from Elizabeth Street; from Queen-street by the corner of Messrs. Dickson and Duncan's auction mart; at this corner the wretched inmates solicit at night. One of them was seen last Thursday morning to pass from the front door of one of the cottages to the privy directly opposite, with nothing on her person but a chemise and, indeed, this appears to be the only garment considered necessary to wear until they dress at night to ply their filthy occupation.[7]

And thus was the colonial ginger beer trade multifunctional.


 © K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.



[1] The Moreton Bay Courier 18.12.1847
[2] a surprise attack (French, literally a blow of the hand)
[3] The Moreton Bay Courier 20.1.1849
[4] The Courier 4.11.1861
[5] i.e. Rum
[6] The Courier 3.2.1863
[7] The Brisbane Courier 13.1.1868

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