JAMES EDWARD SMITHSON AND HIS WINE BAR
Smithson’s Wine Bar was a landmark in the St George district, south of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was established and developed by James Edward Smithson, third son of Thomas Smithson, the founder of one of the district’s first secondary industries, the Cook’s River Tobacco Manufactory. The Wine Bar came into being after James had spent some time working as a tobacconist, builder and contractor. In later years, his son, Charles, and then his daughter Ethel May Smithson’s husband, Frederick Ball, took over the management of the Wine Bar. Although the Wine Bar was sold in 1934, the building survived until demolished in the 1950s.
JAMES EDWARD SMITHSON
James Edward Smithson was born in 1844 in Kirkgate in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England – although his place of birth was commonly reported as ‘Brigate’ (Briggate), which was the old market street nearby. James came to Australia with his family aboard the Ascendant in 1852. His obituary recalled that his first job was ‘blowing the bellows for a blacksmith on the banks of the Tank Stream’. 1 The Tank Stream was once a quiet sandstone brook that supplied drinking water to the fledgling colony of New South Wales. Unfortunately, sixty years of European settlement had reduced it to an open sewer and it was confined to a brick tunnel by the time James left Sydney. It still runs beneath Sydney to this day. James, the blacksmith’s hand, would have been between nine and twelve years old.
James moved with most of his family into the countryside south of Sydney, to Gannon’s Forest in the parish of St George, in about 1856. There his father established the Cooks River Tobacco Manufactory on a 25 acre block of land. Not much is known about this period of James’ life. His marriage certificate states that, in 1867, his residence was in Sydney and that he was working as a tobacconist. This may well have been the situation for some years before 1867; certainly, accommodation was available at the Sydney home of his brother, Charles Miles Smithson, at Woolloomooloo. James Edward married Martha Jane Craven in St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, in May 1867, and the couple settled permanently in Gannon’s Forest. Gannon’s Forest was later to be known as Kingsgrove, but the Smithsons were increasingly involved with the nearby and growing town of Hurstville.
Mystery has shrouded Martha Jane Craven’s early life for some time. She was reputed to have been born in Cork, Ireland, in 1849, orphaned in infancy and brought to Australia by her foster parents.2 The facts, as far as they have been established, reveal a more inspiring story of struggle and achievement. Martha was born in Sydney in 1845, the daughter of Thomas Craven and his third wife, Mary Dooley or Doolan. Craven was an ex-convict who, as a 17 year old stonemason, had been sentenced to seven year’s transportation for the theft of a silk hat in 1824 and arrived in New South Wales in 1825.3 Mary Dooley came to the colony as a free person and claimed to have come from Cork aboard the Palambam in 1830.4 The Palambam carried, among others, fifty orphan girls from Cork. Her story may have inspired the family tradition that Martha was an orphan from Cork. However, Mary Dooley has not yet been located on the Palambam lists – either of orphans, convicts or passengers – and the Palambam actually sailed in 1831.
Contemporary newspaper reports and gaol records suggest that Thomas Craven was far too familiar with the colonial underclass that dwelt in the squalid, crime-ridden lanes of Sydney town. It seems that Martha was able to escape this environment through the efforts of her uncle, Edward Craven. Edward, like Thomas, was a stone mason. He had come free to New South Wales aboard the Elphinstone in 1847. Edward would appear to have taken up Martha’s affairs at some point, perhaps after the death of Thomas in 1857, and reportedly found her a position with a milliner. Martha named Edward as her father on her marriage certificate and Mary Doolan as her mother.
Life for Martha at Gannon’s Forest /Kingsgrove must have been quite a change from a milliner’s shop in Sydney. James and Martha initially leased Pembroke Cottage, now a heritage listed building. It was near his father’s property and tobacco manufactory, but on the opposite side of Stoney Creek Road. Their granddaughter, Gloria Flynn, related that Martha had to wash clothes in nearby Bardwell Creek when she first arrived, kneeling on a large flat rock to perform the task.5 Martha was not to suffer discomfort for long. By about 1869, the industrious James had bought land across the road and built a stone house. In 1871, he purchased a block of just over two acres of land and went on to extend his holdings in subsequent years; one portion on the creek flats was leased to butchers, Stone and Keep, as a slaughter-yard from 1898. On his land, James developed a fine mixed farm with fruit trees, vegetables, cows, pigs, fowls, horses, bees and lucerne.6
James pursued dual occupations after 1867. Birth registrations and other documents establish his primary occupation as a tobacconist until the early 1870s, although there was also some timber-cutting done in the late 1860s.7 This was a period of expansion for Thomas Smithson’s tobacco manufactory.8 By 1877, however, James came to identify himself as a carpenter. The change in occupation is not surprising. James was obviously a handy individual when it came to building and the tobacco manufactory must have been struggling – Thomas Smithson had not been able to maintain payments on his mortgaged land and it was repossessed in 1878-1879.9
James’ building projects were varied. He built houses; baths at Brighton; a hotel at Bundeena, Port Hacking; constructed bridges (including a particularly useful bridge over Bardwell Creek near the Smithson property); and a water race.10 His most memorable project was the construction of ‘Sutherland House’ at Sylvania, a residence of Thomas Holt, a local landowner and a wealthy and influential businessman in the colony. James’ brother, Thomas Gawthorpe Smithson, had obtained the contract to build this mansion in 1875 and it took five years to complete.11 James also built additions to his own house as his family grew. Only on one further occasion did James identify himself as a tobacconist: in 1881, in the final years of Thomas Smithson’s struggle to maintain his tobacco manufacturing. By 1884, James had reverted to a carpenter, but he was already developing a side-line that would develop into a local institution.
SMITHSON’S WINE BAR
Smithson’s Wine Bar began at Kingsgrove around 1880 in a closed-in section of the front verandah of James Edward’s house, adorned with a window that announced ‘Smithson’s Wine Bar’ to passers-by.12 One wonders if James’ decision to venture into wine-making and selling was inspired by the activities of the Sydney tobacconist, Archibald Thompson. Thompson, described as ‘a self-made man’, operated a tobacco manufactory in George Street, Sydney – the Steam Snuff Mills – in the late 1850s to early 1860s. In the 1860s, Thompson expanded his business to sell wine and spirits from premises in Pitt Street, Sydney.13 Edward’s brother, Thomas Gawthorpe Smithson, reportedly obtained employment with Archibald Thompson as a tobacconist and perhaps James also worked there.14 Thomas Gawthorpe, at least, would have observed Thompson’s fortunes rise as he diversified into the wine industry.
Wine, in the early days of New South Wales, was the preferred alcoholic drink of the gentry. On the other hand, the majority of colonials had been weaned on gin in England and debauched by rum in Australia. As a spirit, rum travelled well and did not deteriorate as readily as wine or beer, making it the preferred drink in the British Navy and the Australian bush. The colonial authorities, however, were keen to wean the population off the various species of ‘rum’ that had created so many social problems in the colony. They promoted the consumption of beer and wine; the latter was also considered to have health benefits. After early plantings west of Sydney at Camden in 1817 and to the north of Sydney in the Hunter Valley during the 1820s and 1830s, the colonial wine industry expanded rapidly, especially around the time of the gold rushes. Landowners in many regions of the colony established vineyards of various sizes with a view to diversifying their agricultural operations.15 In addition, new waves of European immigrants drawn to the new ‘golden land’ brought their winemaking skills to the Australian colonies; and James Edward Smithson was a surprising beneficiary.
One local, F. G. Gates, drew on childhood memories of Hurstville to recall that,
There were some lovely vineyards, carefully tendered, the grapes from these were used for making different kinds of wine. Amongst the owners I remember there were Messrs Bayman, Smithson, Stephens and Evans16
and a local newspaper report claimed in 1940 that ‘some of the grapes [Jim Smithson] used were grown in the small vineyard on the slope at the rear of his house’.17
However, James Edwards’ grandsons, James Edward and John Ball, remembered only one grapevine on their grandfather’s land and that provided table grapes.18 Setting aside such doubts, it is certain, as the 1940 report concedes, that James Edward bought most of the grapes ‘from outlying districts’ to make his wines. Purchasing grapes to make James Edward ‘s wines was made far easier in 1884 when the NSW railway system reached both Hurstville and Mudgee in the New South Wales’ central west.19 After 1884, James Edward could purchase Mudgee grapes, the legacy of German immigrants who established vineyards there during the late 1860s, and have them delivered promptly to Hurstville by rail.20 By the 1920s, it is estimated that the Smithsons brought about 5 tonnes of grapes a year in ‘hundreds of boxes’ into Hurstville from Mudgee.21
Smithson’s Wine Bar prospered and, around the turn of the century,
a separate building was erected for the wine bar, but it was attached to the house on the western side and the roof alignment altered to incorporate this room. The wine bar was about 2 metres forward of the original house, with a verandah in front of that again. The original Smithson’s Wine Bar window was transferred from the verandah room to the new bar.22
A cellar, a bottling room at the rear of the bar and a large wine press were also part of the establishment. At one time, James Edward’s cellar contained fifty 100 gallon (450 litre) casks (capable of storing a total of 22,500 litres of wine, which suggests a value of around £3,500).23 At some point, James Edward brought his son, Charles Miles Smithson, into the wine bar business and Charles took up the role of wine-maker. Precisely when this occurred is unclear, but probably in the late 1890s.
The Smithsons concentrated on the production of naturally fortified wines – port and sherry, the most popular wines of the day – and no spirit concentrate was ever added.24 By the early 1920s, the Smithsons sold port and sherry in stone jars at two shillings a pint, three shillings a quart and 14 shillings a gallon. Muscat was sold at two shillings and threepence a pint. James Edward’s grandsons, James Edward and John Ball, recalled that one of Smithson’s labels read:
Fine Old Invalide Port
J. E. Smithson
Stoney Creek Road
The wine bar’s products were very popular locally – a Hurstville newspaper going so far as to proclaim them as ‘some of the best wines in the state’.26 At Christmas time, horses and carriages would line both sides of Stoney Creek Road as their owners stocked up for the festive season. At other times, families would walk great distances to the wine bar ‘to get a little wine for Granny’s stomach’.27
In 1919, the Smithson family assembled to celebrate the return of Percy Leslie (Les) Townsend, the son of James Edward’s daughter, Josephine, from the First World War. Les had enlisted along with his father, Frederick Townsend. Unfortunately Les returned alone. His father had contracted pneumonia in 1917 and died while in the care of the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance at Dernancourt, a village three kilometres south of Albert, France. A group photograph survives showing the family lined up in front of the wine bar and residence with Les. By that time, the Smithson vintners were beginning to retire. In 1920, James Edward and Charles Miles Smithson passed the management of the wine bar to Fred Ball, husband of Ethel May Smithson, James Edward’s sixth child.
THE LAST YEARS OF THE WINE BAR
In May 1926, James Edward Smithson died. Obituaries described him as ‘a good old sort’, having ‘a jovial disposition, always a friend and never an enemy to anyone’ and
Very popular with all who knew him. He was a keen domino player and rifle shot and it was indeed a good hand who could defeat him. He could always tell a good yarn of the old days …28
One obituary went on to relate a few of his favourite stories and one anecdote, which gently suggested that his enthusiastic story-telling, specifically concerning the shooting of an eagle that was stuffed and displayed in the wine bar, could sometimes stretch the truth to breaking point.29 Three years later, in June 1929, James Edward’s wife, Martha Jane, died and, barely five months later, his eldest son, Charles.
Upon the deaths of Martha and Charles, James Edward Smithson’s estate passed to his five remaining children. James Edward had given each of them a block of land on the occasions of their marriages and apparently all had built houses. Having been so established, it seems that most of the children wanted to keep the wine bar business running as before. However, in the midst of the Great Depression, the family decided to sell.30 Smithson’s Wine Bar was sold by auction on 11 June 1934 along with £600 worth of stock – the wine press was sold to a German winemaker from Orange. The land was acquired by Bexley Municipal Council, becoming Kingsgrove Park and then Bexley Golf Course. Bexley Golf Course’s clubhouse was built behind the wine bar and, as the club expanded, the old residence and wine bar was demolished in the 1950s.31
Today, all that remains of 80 years of Smithson settlement on the site are stone blocks, recovered from the Smithsons’ buildings, used by the golf club to build a wall facing Stoney Creek Road.