Bottle of Campaign Ale, 1906, NOM 78/0219

Behind the Scenes at North Otago Museum – Campaign ale

Work is underway at North Otago Museum on refitting the permanent exhibition area. The Museum has over 30,000 items in its care. Each item has its own story. They can’t all fit in the new displays so staff and volunteers have been researching the tales behind some of the objects to ensure those with the most interesting and relevant stories make the cut.

In the 19th century Ōamaru was known for alcohol-fuelled lawlessness. The town’s 5000 residents were catered to by 14 licensed hotels, 20 illicit grog shops and four breweries. Newspaper accounts from the time referred to Ōamaru as that 'drunken metropolis'. The town was also described as the 'best crime-producing district in Otago' and that crime was often associated with intoxication. The newspaper reports from the Resident Magistrate's Court frequently refer to cases of people charged with being drunk. The town’s reputation was such that the New Zealand Herald noted in June 1881 “there have been no prisoners in the Oamaru gaol for the last two days—not even a solitary drunk; this unusual state of sobriety has not been known in the town for several years.” 

A humorous take on Ōamaru’s alcohol fuelled night life appears in this article ‘Oamaru after dark’  but for many members of community this was no laughing matter. This wasn’t unique to Ōamaru. Globally the 19th century saw the rise of the temperance movement.  Sectors of the community began to argue for legal prohibition of alcohol. The successful women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand was connected to the temperance movement, with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union taking a leading role.

In the new Empire exhibition we will be exhibiting a bottle of stout and a weather vane from the North Otago Brewery. But in my opinion the most interesting item we are exhibiting that is connected with the story of alcohol in Ōamaru is a bottle of ‘non-intoxicating’ Campaign Ale from 1906. In 1905 the temperance movement was victorious and Ōamaru went ‘dry’. R. Shand and Co. brewing company started making a low alcohol beer. Whether this product breached the prohibition rules was unclear and the case went to court. Ultimately it was determined that the beer (at less than 3% alcohol) “could not possibly be intoxicating”.

It wasn’t until 1962 that prohibition in Ōamaru was lifted. The forward thinking curator of the Pioneer Gallery, Bill Burns, purchased the first bottle of beer sold in Ōamaru under Trust Control on Saturday March 24th 1962, which you can view via our collections online website. 

Chloe Searle