Sydney Drinking and the History Of the Push

Rebecca Varidel
18th Aug 2015

Next time you gather for a beverage in Sydney, give a nod to the misfits who have gathered in Sydney before you, and three centuries of beer drinking in the name of The Push.

The Gangs

In 19th century Sydney, The Rocks was a dark and dangerous place. Most everyday people wouldn’t enter the area due to crime and the drunken gangs, the most notorious of which was The Rocks Push, who dominated the area from the 1870s.

Would you dong a bloody copper if you caught the cunt alone,

Would you stoush a swell or Chinkee, split his garret with a stone?

Would you have a moll to keep you, would you swear off work for good?

What? Live on prostitution? My colonial oath I would!

The Rocks Push spawned this saucy circa 1900 poem, The Bastard From The Bush (attributed by some to Henry Lawson) which is possibly a parody of the Lawson poem The Captain Of The Push.

Even their clothing was donned the label ‘push’ - “black bell-bottomed pants, no waistcoat, very short black paget coat, white shirt with no collar, and a gaudy neckerchief round the bare throat. Their boots were marvels, very high in the heel and picked out with all sorts of colours down the sides.” - evening dress by another contemporary poet, Banjo Paterson.

Other larrikin gangs such as rivals the Straw Hat Push, the Glebe Push, and the Argyle Cut Push also used the name.

Free Thinking, Sex and Nightclubs

Jump a century. Writers. Actors. Intellectuals. Students. And The Push was an ideological group of contradictions, a movement that was born from within Sydney University during the 1950s, but which took an anti-intellectual stance. The Push moved out of the university and instead met ‘downtown’ in cafes and pubs, including the back room of The Royal George Hotel .

Academic James Franklin suggests that The Push had some claim to bringing about ‘the Sixties’.

“If it is pointed out that the Sixties happened all over the world, and could not have been caused by a minute group at the bottom end of the planet, that of course must be admitted; still, certain essential aspects of the Sixties, even overseas, were in part the creation of two late hangers-on of the Push, Richard Neville and Germaine Greer.”

In the 1960s, it was largely forbidden for women to drink in a public bar. Yet, flouting the conventions of the time, the women of the male-dominated anti-moralist Push were encouraged to drink at the bar with men. And to swear, and to fornicate freely. Also a huge step outside the general post-war conservatism of the time. Though the sexual freedom of The Push became public knowledge soon enough, when the non-publicity seeking movement was in the media in one of the best known murder cases in Australian history.

Near the end of the movement, the name The Push was also synonymous with a Blues and Jazz Club that operated in Sydney and regularly featured Galapagos Duck. Saxophonist William Qua (aka Quill) remembers playing the drums there in the Sixties as an underage schoolboy, just the once, he says. Later, he reminisces, when the nightclub moved to the Latin Quarter, it was called The New Push.

In the 21st Century

In the 21st century, The Push like much of our current society has been embraced by commercialism. Take for example, the use of the name by The Rocks Push clothing - boardies I believe - as a marketing tool. A paradox perhaps when we think that the 20th century movement was not particularly interested in clothing, except perhaps as a bohemian anti-statement.

Filmmaker Margaret Fink has called the mid-century group “a dreary lot who wore dreary clothes, drank in dreary pubs and lived in dreary dwellings with nothing on the walls.”

Closer perhaps to its original meaning, The Russell Hotel has opened The Push Bar in The Rocks where they are serving up cocktails like The Larrikin, along with fashionable craft, boutique and international beers.

More Reading

Corrupting the youth: A history of Australian philosophy, (Chapter 5: The Push and critical drinkers), James Franklin

John Tranter review of Sex and anarachy – the life and death of the Sydney Push by Anne Coombs

Tales of the Royal George           

Ruth Park’s Sydney, Ruth Park (1999).