The infant colony of Port Phillip, with hotels providing the major meeting place for its male-dominated immigrant population, was a fertile field for advocates of temperance, which, in the colonial context, meant total abstinence from alcohol. Temperance offered a personal philosophy, a political cause, business opportunities and an alternative social world that promised social mobility.
The Port Phillip Auxiliary Temperance Society, planted by Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, was active from 1837 to 1842, when the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society arose in its place. At St Francis' Church, a local branch of the Catholic Father Mathew Society operated from 1842. Female evangelist Mrs Dalgarno conducted temperance rallies in the city, and followers established suburban societies in Collingwood (1844) and Brighton (1846), with the movement as a whole claiming 2000 members by 1847.
In the aftermath of gold the temperance world offered liquor-free entertainment at central and suburban temperance halls and festivals, meals and accommodation at temperance hotels, medical dispensaries, newspapers, book rooms and libraries, lodges, friendly societies and an insurance company. Campaigners such as Dr John Singleton,
J.G. Burtt and Matthew Burnett measured their success in the number of pledges signed, Burnett claiming 70 000 in the period 1863-80. Youth wings such as the Bands of Hope, established from the 1850s, were the city's first youth movements. The extravagant coffee palaces built by temperance businessmen were emblematic of land boom excess. The movement was tarnished by the failure of temperance-backed building societies, but the growth of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) brought large numbers of women workers to the cause.
Politically the movement, co-ordinated from 1880 by the Victorian Alliance, sought to combat the 'liquor interest' through education and by restricting the number of licensed premises. They registered some success in 1891 when Thomas Brodribb, Inspector-General of Education, introduced a Manual of health and temperance into schools. The latter goal was harder, for although temperance members of parliament were able to have legislation passed in 1885 establishing a statutory limit on licensed premises, its implementation proved difficult. Much temperance activity, however, proved counterproductive, allowing advocates to be pilloried as wowsers. While most of the major denominations endorsed temperance in its original meaning, only the Methodists and the Salvation Army were directly associated with the movement.
The wartime introduction of six o'clock closing and the local option polls creating dry areas in Camberwell and Box Hill in the 1920s saw some temperance goals achieved, but the movement itself was in decline. Alternative social activities drew away many, although the WCTU remained active, drawing attention to the dangers of drink-driving, working in the schools and distributing non-alcoholic wines at the Royal Melbourne Show. But with alcoholism increasingly understood as a medical rather than a moral issue, their arguments were undermined. While temperance groups were able to prevent licensing hours being relaxed in 1956, when the issue was revisited ten years later they were unable to mount a similar campaign.