Tag Archives: drinking

The Effects of Bad Rum

Archival Moment

May 12, 1879

Making swish, drink it in moderation!

Making swish, drink it in moderation!

We have all had the occasion when we might have imbibed a little too much alcohol. But none so much as was drunk on one of the wharves in St. John’s on a Saturday afternoon in May of 1879.

One man got so drunk or ‘spiritualized’  that one of the reporters with the St. John’s newspaper the ‘Evening Telegram’ felt compelled to write about it.

The newspaper reported:

“The effects of bad rum were practically illustrated at the South Side of St. John’s, on Saturday. Several casks that once contained the precious beverage were rolled together on one of the wharves for the purpose of being filled with oil, when the idea suggested itself to the employees that free drinks could be obtained for all round by simply rinsing some of them out.

The men who were gathered poured a quantity of water from one cask to another until the proof satisfied those immediately interested and then all present were permitted to freely test the quality.

As a matter of course, a general misunderstanding arose, and a scene of indescribable confusion followed.

One stalwart seaman, belonging to the Dot ( a fishing vessel) of Prince Edward Island, who imbibed rather too freely, became so spiritualized that he thought that he could walk on water to the other side of the harbor.

Divesting himself of the greater part of his clothing, he stepped off the wharf; but unfortunately his faith was weaker than the rum and, like Peter of old, he began to sink.

After considerable time had elapsed, during which work was suspended all round, some parties pushed off a boat and the infatuated man was rescued and placed on terra firma, wiser than before he tried the experiment.”

The newspaper reporter was describing an old practice, the men were engaged in making swish or liquor produced by pouring water into a recently emptied rum barrel.

In Newfoundland there has always been those with a passion for making ‘swish’ and did not take kindly to interference.

On May 2, 1973 the St. John’s Daily News posted a poem  that was critical of  John Crosbie, Minister of Finance  and  liquor taxes that were being considered  by the government of the day.

Hon. John Crosbie

Swish will cost ten dollars

Inflation isn’t bad enough
But Johnny Crosbie makes it tough
He’s putting up the drop of stuff
Swish will cost ten dollars

Into the barrels from the store
So much hot water you would pour
A three buck deal but now it’s more
Swish will cost ten dollars

Liquor soaked into the wood
Drawn out by water as it should
A swishy product make’s that’s good
Swish will cost ten dollars.

If Crosbie likes to spread his name
Quite sad will be his claim to fame
The jacked up price on him we’ll blame
Swish will cost ten dollars.

Making moonshine on one’s own
Will Mr. Crosbie now condone
Why not, the way that things are goin’
Swish will cost ten dollars

Archival Collection at The Rooms:  Temperance societies in Newfoundland had been advocating for prohibition dating back to the 1860’s. In 1915 the Government of Newfoundland held a referendum proposing prohibition. Prohibition, which came into effect  (1917 –1925), prohibited everyone except doctors from buying, selling or possessing liquors containing more than two percent alcohol.   Explore GN 2/5 271-G. Office of the Colonial Secretary. Correspondence and report of the Commission of Enquiry into the administration of the Prohibition Act and appointment of the Liquor Controller 1920-1925.


“Making raids on the shebeens”


January, 1888

19th-century-liquor-bottles-levin-rodriguezTraveling about Newfoundland in the 1800’s would likely have been more of an adventure then it is nowadays, you would (if you were a drinker) have an occasion to visit a SHEBEEN operated by some very colorful characters.

A “shebeen” is an unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold; in St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, the term used was “sheveen.”

In the 1880’s you would have been welcomed to Twenty Mile Pond (now Windsor Lake, St. John’s) by the astute Peggy Rose the proprietor of a “snug shebeen.”  Peggy was not known for giving credit, your attention would be brought to the existence of her premises with a sign that declared “I’ve trusted many to my sorrow. / Pay to-day and trust tomorrow.’

Shebeens in the 1880’s had become so numerous on the Island that the government authorities of the day decided that they had be eradicated.  In Harbour Grace and Carbonear a special effort was being made. The local newspapers of the day reported:

“The guardians of the public peace here have been busily employed lately in making raids on the shebeens.”

In just one week in January 1888 at Harbour Grace, the newspaper correspondent wrote:

I was informed that last week, £70 was collected in fines. (In today’s dollars that would be about $8400.00)   So strictly is the law carried out that persons entering any of the suspected shops are arrested and put on oath as to the purpose for which said shops were visited.”

There was also a brisk trade in illicit alcohol in Carbonear.  The newspaper correspondent reported.

“At Carbonear also, energetic measures are being taken to stamp out the evil. One woman, who refuses to pay the fine very properly imposed, has had a barrel of sugar and chest of tea seized, which might be sold by auction.”

The courts in the process of trying to prosecute the public who frequented these illicit parlors and their proprietors had to listen to listen to a number of amusing stories.

The correspondent for the Twillingate Sun reported on January 5, 1888:

“A policeman entered a shebeen and found a number of persons drinking. A panic ensued, and there was a general stampede.   The transgressor of the law, on being brought before the magistrate, pleaded that he was merely entertaining a few friends. The Judge duly remarked he thought it a strange way to entertain friends, when the said friends tried to hide themselves and their drinking utensils away, on the approach of a constable.”

It is needless to say such a flimsy excuse was proved inadmissible.

Newfoundland Term: shebeen n also sheebeen, sheveen: Unlicensed place where illicit liquor is sold. [Dictionary of Newfoundland English]

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms Provincial Archives explore the extensive newspaper collection. Read the “Letters to the Editor” to see what were the issues of the day.