Sober and Orderly: A Short History of Policing Public Drunkenness in New South Wales

Dr Matthew Allen1
1University Of New England, Armidale, Australia

In this paper I use a historical analysis of the offence of public drunkenness in the jurisdiction of New South Wales to demonstrate the importance of police powers against perceived problem drinkers for the maintenance of a modern ideal of public order.  In the early colony traditional amateur forms of policing proved incapable of controlling a convict population.  In response, policing was increasingly professionalised and this process is tracked by steadily increasing rates of arrest for drunkenness.  From c. 1830 to the 1970s, public drunkenness was the leading cause of arrest, typically comprising over 40% of all charges brought before a magistrate.  Though non-aggravated drunkenness was decriminalised during the 1970s, a series of legislated detention and move-on powers have allowed police to resume their control over perceived problem drinkers at reduced but still significant rates.  This historical predominance and continued importance does not simply reflect a society with serious alcohol problems; indeed for much of this period alcohol consumption was considerably lower than it is today.  Rather, the power to control drunkenness became crucial to the policing of public order, a catch-all charge that was and is used to remove deviants of all kinds from public spaces and maintain ‘respectable’ values.


Dr Matthew Allen is a Historical Criminologist whose diverse research is focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth-century British world and particularly colonial New South Wales.  He is currently writing a history of alcohol in the colony which will explore the political symbolism of both celebratory drinking rituals and the regulation of public drunkenness in the period 1788-1856.  Another major project examines the changing nature of deviance in New South Wales through a quantitative and qualitative study of magistrates and summary justice in the era of gubernatorial government, c.1810-1850.  He is also researching secularisation and the role of religious faith, and especially protestant dissent, in the emerging colonial public sphere, c.1820-1840.  All of these projects share an interest in understanding the unique and extraordinary transition of New South Wales from penal colony to responsible democracy, and the way that this process was shaped by the conflict between liberal ideals and authoritarian controls within the British world.



The society is devoted to promoting criminological study, research and practice in the region and bringing together persons engaged in all aspects of the field. The membership of the society reflects the diversity of persons involved in the field, including practitioners, academics, policy makers and students.

Conference Managers

Please contact the team at Conference Design with any questions regarding the conference.
© 2018 Conference Design Pty Ltd