Of the many different names given to measures of beer throughout the Australian states, the most unusual is perhaps the ‘butcher’. This term, peculiar to South Australia, refers to a quantity of seven fluid ounces of beer, 200mL, and to the glass in which it is served. Look it up, and in most places you will find its origin attributed in some way or other to the Adelaide meat trade.
In his 1972 celebration of Australian pubs and beer, It’s Your Shout, Mate, John O’Grady said that he had been told several stories about the origin of the term ‘butcher’, but preferred to believe the following. There was at one time a pub near the abattoirs, visited by employees during their lunch hour. Because of the limited time available, they preferred to drink small beers, and the smallest glass available, then six-ounces, became known as a butcher.
O’Grady seems to echo the British travel writer Stanton Hope, who offered the following explanation in his 1956 traveller’s guide, Digger’s Paradise. Discussing beer glasses, Hope explained that what was called a ‘lady’s waist’ in some parts of the country, was known as a ‘butcher’ in South Australia. ‘This originated in bygone days when workers from the abattoirs came unwashed to the pubs after their day’s toil. A proportion of drinking mugs was kept separate for them, and a mob of slaughtermen would announce themselves as “butchers” and be given those mugs.’
A particular version of this theme, from the 1930s, explains that the term was originated by Carl ‘Charlie’ Anderson, general secretary of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, and a former slaughterman, who coined the term when drinking one day with a bunch of workmates at the Prince Alfred Hotel in King William Street, Adelaide. A flaw in this story is that the term was probably already in common use long before Anderson’s Adelaide beer-drinking days.
Edward Morris, in Austral English, a dictionary of Australasian words, phrases and usages first published in 1898, recorded the term ‘butcher’, which he attributed to the beer drinking habits of ‘the men of a certain butchery in Adelaide’. It is possible, however, to push back its origin even further.
Another version has it that Frances Badman, who kept the Newmarket Hotel on North Terrace in the late 1880s, kept aside special glasses for the use of the dust-choked butchers who would come in from the nearby cattle markets for a round of beers. She allegedly coined the term ‘butchers’ for these glasses.
It was in use by December 1880 at the Buck’s Head Hotel on North Terrace, according to the son of its then proprietor, Charles Snellgrove, and had been used even earlier, at the Squatter’s Arms at Thebarton. Another informant in the 1930s could recall that slaughtermen from Ballantyne’s butcher shop in Rundle Street would come into the Norfolk Arms across the street and ask for ‘butchers’ in the 1870s. A variation of this story is that innkeepers would give small glasses of beer to the butcher-boys who called at their hotels to deliver meat.
From all of this we see that the term seems to have ‘originated’ in many different pubs. It has also been in use for an indeterminate length of time, but clearly much longer than one hundred years; there is plenty of other evidence to prove that beer glasses called ‘butchers’ were in common use in Adelaide by the 1880s. Although the details differ widely, it is generally believed that the term originated in the meat-working section of Adelaide’s beer-drinking population.
From only a little more digging into the past it becomes clearly apparent that the butcher was not always a small glass, and therein arises a serious problem with the explanations of Hope and O’Grady. At one extreme, travel writer May Vivienne stated in Sunny South Australia (1908) that a butcher was ‘a long, wide glass holding more than a pint’. This does not seem credible, unless the primarily Cornish copper miners at Kadina, about whom she was writing, used especially large glasses. What is certain, however, is that by the 1890s the butcher was generally an intermediate measure between a ‘glass’ and a pint; smaller than a pint, but much larger than the six-ounce measure whose origins Hope and O’Grady pondered. Morris confirms that in 1898 ‘butcher’ was South Australian slang for ‘a long drink of beer’, not a short one.
Around the time of the introduction of the first beer duty in South Australia in 1894, there was a great deal of discussion about whether and how the new tax would be passed on by the publicans to their public. The tax of 3 pence per gallon equated to less than a halfpenny per pint, and a lesser amount for smaller measures. There was no coin of the realm small enough to exactly pass on the tax through an increase in over-the-counter glass prices, so the price per serve had to rise by a halfpenny or nothing.
The new prices proposed for beer in 1894 were 2½d. per glass, 3d. per butcher, and 4d. per pint. No exact capacities were given for the glass and butcher, but the prices indicate that the butcher was somewhat smaller than a pint and larger than a glass, which was probably half a pint at that time. This is consistent with the case of Mrs Badman at the Newmarket Hotel in the late 1880s. The story goes that her meat-working customers would get a bit shaky drinking pints, so she ordered glasses to be made for them that held three-quarters of a pint, and these she called ‘butchers’.
A similar scenario was described by Elizabeth Barratt, whose father, Thomas Henry Mildren, kept the Victoria Hotel in Hindley Street. During smoko at Leopold Conrad’s butcher’s shop, his men would swarm across the street to Mildren’s pub for a counter lunch. Ten minutes did not give them time to drink an imperial pint in comfort, and the only other glass was too small, so Mildren allegedly created an intermediate-sized 13-ounce glass, which became known as the ‘butcher’. Mildren’s tenure at the Victoria, from 1912, was far too late, however, for him to have been the originator of the butcher glass.
At some later stage, the standard beer glasses all shrank. By 1951 in South Australian pubs, the standard sizes as defined by the Prices Commissioner had become: a ‘pint’ of 16 ounces (down from its traditional 20 ounces), a schooner of 9½ ounces (similar to the original ‘glass’), and a butcher of 6 ounces. By some unknown process, the butcher had been transformed into a tiny vessel of less that half its late nineteenth century capacity.
By the early 1980s, with some further minor changes in capacity and with metrication, the standard beer glasses in South Australia had become the ‘pint’ (reduced to 15 ounces or 425mL), the schooner (enlarged slightly to 10 ounces or 285mL), the butcher (enlarged a little to 7 ounces or 200mL), and the pony (5 ounces or 140mL). All of this goes to show only that the butcher glass diminished greatly in size during the first half of the twentieth century, not to help with explaining the origin of the term.
Leaving aside meat and abattoirs, which seem to have led us nowhere except into confusion and inconsistency, there is another possible explanation, and a more believable one, for the origin of the term ‘butcher’. Some lexicographers have recently noticed the strong similarity between the word ‘butcher’ and a German word for a drinking vessel, ‘becher’, which would have been in common use among South Australia’s considerable nineteenth century German-speaking population. The first edition (1981) of the Macquarie Dictionary, for example, makes this connection.
The alternative theory, then, is that the German word ‘becher’ eventually became Anglicised to ‘butcher’. Much later, when the true origin of this mysterious beer-drinking term had been forgotten, the elaborate stories about meat-workers were conjured up to explain its existence.
So, despite popular belief, the origin of the butcher glass probably has nothing at all to do with meat-workers.