The thirsty town (part 1)

White Australia has always been a heavy-drinking nation, but we really aren’t to blame for our insobriety. When the first settlers/invaders arrived heavy drinking was already an established cultural norm in Great Britain, to such an extent that so-called ‘gin epidemics’ were devastating entire communities and a cause of deep social disquiet. Drinking culture was simply transported here, along with brutality, smallpox and the lash. Fun times indeed.

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In 1869 Marcus Clarke described Australians bluntly “They are not a nation of snobs like the English or of extravagant boasters like the Americans or of reckless profligates like the French, they are simply a nation of drunkards.”

In 1865 wine and spirit merchants Wood Brothers & Co. opened a store in Bolton Street and shortly afterward became the sole agency for the distribution of Castlemaine Ale. Demand for their products steadily increased, one reason suggested for their success was the reach of the railway; the Great Northern Railway reached Muswellbrook and Murrurundi in 1872 opening up the Hunter Valley for goods from Newcastle

In 1874 the company was dealt a savage blow when a fire completely destroyed its premises. Now known as Prendergast, Wood & Co. the company immediately engaged architect Oswald Lewis to design a magnificent brick and stone brewery which would become the centre of their ambitious new business. The site they chose was on the edge of Newcastle’s township, described as being ‘on the southern side of the Maitland Road, just beyond the Cottage [Creek] Bridge.’

After a two-year construction the brewery opened in 1876 and today this grand and ornate Victorian building still stands in the West End on the corner of Wood and Hunter Streets. It was so spectacular that the local newspaper the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate gushed that it was ‘perhaps the most imposing structure in Newcastle’. Soon the brewery was being described as ‘amongst the finest in Australia’ and as the company prospered and expanded significant extensions to the site were undertaken.

The brewery formed a limited company in 1887 and settled on a grand new moniker – The Castlemaine Brewery and Wood Bros. and Company, Newcastle, New South Wales Limited. The following year another brewery, the Great Northern Brewery Wine and Spirit Co. Ltd, was built in Wood Street, on the south-western corner at Parry Street. It was cheekily located diagonally opposite Castlemaine Brewery, who suspiciously eyed up its new rival and deciding it didn’t want any local competition in the lucrative brewery market took it over three years later

Some historians believe the end of the Great Northern was less to do with Castlemaine’s protectiveness of its market and more to do with the severe economic downturn of the 1890s, which saw alcohol sales slump and the brewery business suffer. Castlemaine Brewery hung on, but the first rumbles of change were on their way.

At their Annual General Meeting of 1899, in an eerie sign of things to come, the Directors complained that Sydney brewers Tooth and Co. and Tooheys had plenty of money and ‘were using it freely to secure businesses’. Again the railway played an intriguing part in the fortunes of Newcastle’s brewing history; this time the opening of the Sydney to Newcastle rail link in 1889 meant that local industries had powerful competition from our big southern neighbour. We were now simply another market, one which was just a direct rail trip away.

Tooth & Company were indeed on the ascendancy, just as the Castlemaine Brewery directors feared and they turned their gaze toward the Hunter, acquiring Maitland Brewery in 1913. Tooth’s regional push finally claimed Castlemaine Brewery in 1921 when this grand local brewery, once the pride of Newcastle, finally became part of the company’s hotel and brewing empire.

The owners may have been different, but brewing continued as usual, jobs were secure and the future looked bright. Newcastle’s prosperity was based on heavy industry, which always translated into good alcohol sales – it was ‘a thirsty town’. What could possibly go wrong? But by the late 1920s unforeseen change was on its way; economic turmoil would soon rock the world and bring the brewery, its workers and Newcastle itself to its knees.

The story continues next week.

Old photos of the brewery and its staff were taken by Ralph Snowball and are part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle. Local Studies, Newcastle Library also hold photos of the brewery in their photo database Hunter Photobank. The Illustrated Sydney News, 13 July 1878 has an early sketch of the Castlemaine Brewery. The Powerhouse Museum has a beautiful lithograph of the brewery in its Tooth Collection which can be seen online: 86/3270 Tooth Collection: Lithograph of Castlemaine Brewery & Wood Bros.& Co., John Sands Australia early 1900s. An excellent history of the brewery is ‘The Castlemaine and Great Northern Breweries, Newcastle, New South Wales’ by Damaris Bairstow in Australian Historical Archaeology, issue 3, 1985 (the journal is now known as Australasian Historical Archaeology).


Kimberly O’Sullivan

Have you chosen the West End as your home or as the perfect place to run your business? Do you have a West End tale which deserves a wider audience? What inspires and infuriates you about the West End? If you have a story to tell I would love to talk to you! Here’s how to find me:; 0413 250 155.



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