The November 1908 licensing poll saw Masterton electorate introduce ‘no-license' and vote itself ‘dry’. Its 15 pubs closed on 1 July 1909, and remained shut until the town voted to restore liquor licenses in 1946.
The Masterton Prohibition League (later the Masterton No-License League) was formed in December 1892, after prohibitionists had failed to close the bars through the licensing committee in 1891. The Prohibition League, affiliated to the New Zealand Alliance, was mainly composed of members of the local non-conformist churches, particularly the Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and Salvation Army. Its members were prominent in the town's business community, and sank their organisational energies and wealth into promoting the no-license cause.
Masterton soon had a ‘moderate’ league fighting the publicans' cause, and the two sides slugged it out every three years on election day. The local newspapers were flooded with advertisements and cartoons lampooning the other side, and speakers scoured every corner of the electorate. From the first decade of the 20th century, both sides used motor cars to bring voters to polling booths. The results were sometimes thought to hinge on who made the best use of cars.
November 1908 finally brought success for the prohibitionists, though the victory was narrower than many had expected. No-license was introduced to Masterton on 1 July 1909. The Wellington press arrived on 30 June, hoping for signs of riot and dissent. A large crowd thronged the streets when the pubs closed at 10 p.m. They sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a bagpiper played, a cow was released into the streets, and a minor fire at the Prince of Wales Hotel was extinguished by the Fire Brigade.
What effect would this have on the town? Prohibitionists hoped it would make Masterton a safer, healthier and wealthier place. Some businessmen feared that no-license would drive country customers away to towns where the booze still flowed. The publicans' losses from the closure of the public bars were estimated at £17,300. All of the hotels closed but one, which became a ‘coffee palace'.
Masterton voters had the chance to reopen the pub doors every three years, albeit with the same three-fifths hurdle that had haunted the prohibitionists. The poll campaigns now hinged on whether Masterton's experiment was a success or a failure. The debate was lively. Prohibitionists cited statistics showing a huge drop in all kinds of crime. Masterton coroner J.T.M. Hornsby wrote in 1914:
The streets are no longer made repulsive to decent persons by the presence in them of drunken and foul-mouthed victims turned adrift from the bars and other inner recesses of licensed houses. The police records no longer contain strings of names of offenders against the laws of decency and of the land. All classes of crime have shrunk to almost nothingness.
Not everyone agreed. Critics argued that Masterton's population was falling. Some people ignored the law, and there were regular prosecutions for making and selling liquor. Others brought alcohol into town from outside the district, which was perfectly legal (if it was for personal consumption). ‘The facilities for obtaining liquor are so numerous, and are so freely availed of, that the whole business has become somewhat of a farce’, wrote a local newspaper in October 1914.
The business community – other than publicans – didn't suffer unduly from no-license, though the town didn't boom either. By 1932 Reverend James Cocker felt able to describe no-license in Masterton as ‘a successful experiment’. Support for restoration of licenses remained, though, and the pub doors almost swung open again in the 1928 poll.
The tide finally turned against no-license in Masterton in 1946, when restoration triumphed by 6777 votes to 4019. Times had changed, and the generation of temperance activists who had fought for and won no-license for Masterton was dead. The issue of prohibition slowly slid from view, and the community reclaimed the right to decide for themselves.