A Brewing Life: Howard Norman Sleigh (1870–1957)

Golden Fleece Petroleum: A more famous Sleigh endeavour

Sleigh is a name remembered in Australian history more in the contexts of shipping and petroleum than brewing, following from the greater business successes of Harold Crofton Sleigh than of his younger brewing brother, Howard. Harold came to Australia in 1888, and eventually founded the shipping company H. C. Sleigh Limited, and its subsidiary Golden Fleece Petroleum. Howard, on the other hand, followed in the footsteps of his father and became a brewer, enjoying a varied career but little celebrity.

Howard Norman Sleigh was born in Bristol, England, in 1870, the son of Hamilton Norman Sleigh, then a partner with Alexander Gripper in the Phoenix Brewery at Bristol. Howard came to Australia in 1888, with his father, but independently of Harold, who had arrived a couple of months before them.
I have discovered little of Howard Sleigh’s earliest years in Australia, although they seem to have been spent mostly in Victoria. Whether they included any brewing training or posts is not known. His brewing career probably did not begin, or did not begin in earnest, until late in 1893, in Perth. Howard was a passenger from Melbourne for Western Australia on the mail steamer Australia on her homeward voyage in December 1893, and seems soon after to have taken a position at the Swan Brewery.

In 1895, Sleigh was involved in the establishment of the West Australian Brewery at Barndon Hill, later known as Burswood, on the southern side of the Swan River at Perth. He pulled out of that venture at an early stage, in mid-1896, and returned to Melbourne. The brewery was continued as the West Australian Brewery for a few more years, and later became the Swallow Brewery (in 1905) and the more successful Red Castle Brewery (1912 to 1953).

Early in 1897, Sleigh returned to Perth with new plans. In partnership with John Hugh Gracie and two others, he occupied a wooden building on the river-side at East Fremantle, acquired a licence, and established the Castlemaine Brewery. For the nucleus of this, Sleigh purchased and dismantled the old brewery at Koondrook on the Murray River in Victoria. Gracie (1855–1927) was very much Sleigh’s senior, and had been involved in the brewing industry in Hobart for many years, both as an employee of the Cascade Brewery and as an independent brewery proprietor.

Sleigh remained in business at East Fremantle for several years. In November 1897 at St John’s Church, Fremantle, he married Tasmanian-born Eva Flora Bellion, and a daughter and a son were born to the couple in 1898 and 1901. Late in 1901, the partnership of Sleigh and Co. expired, and the Castlemaine Brewery was offered for sale by tender. A short while later Sleigh returned to Melbourne.

John Hugh Gracie, Sleigh’s former business partner, together with Walter Frederick Walkley, emerged as the new owners of the brewery at East Fremantle. They took over from the beginning of 1902, trading as Gracie and Walkley, with Gracie as the brewing partner and Walkley as the business manager. The Castlemaine Brewery continued to operate for many more years, until shortly after its acquisition by the Swan Brewery in 1926.

The Tasmanian Brewery Company in Wivenhoe

Early in April 1902, Sleigh sailed from Melbourne with his wife and two young children to begin a new brewing venture in northern Tasmania. With them on the ship was 40 tons of plant for a brewery that Sleigh intended erecting on land that he had leased at Wivenhoe, near Burnie. The new brewery came into production and was formally opened in January 1903.

The Tasmanian Brewery Company, as the venture was called, was carried on at first by Sleigh alone, then from early 1903 with a partner, and then from later in 1903 by a company formed for the purpose. The business failed, however, and the company was liquidated in 1904. The lease over the brewery site and the buildings and plant were sold to a syndicate of local residents, who recommenced operations in October 1904 as the Tasman Brewery Company. Production ceased again in 1907.

Sleigh was involved in a scheme late in 1911 to resurrect the brewery, but it probably did not succeed. When a Melbourne company took over the building in 1914 for conversion to a meat canning and freezing works, it was stated that the brewery had been idle for several years. Also, around the end of 1911, Sleigh went to New South Wales to find brewing work, which he may not have needed to do if the local brewery had come back into production.

Apart from the attempt to restart it, Sleigh seems to have had little, if anything, to do with the brewery at Wivenhoe after its closure about August 1904. His wife advertised the family’s furniture and others items for sale by auction in September 1904, and by early 1905 Sleigh was in business as a storekeeper at nearby Stowport, and soon after took up farming at the same place in addition. The inclusion of a microscope and a thermometer among the household items offered for sale suggests that a decision had been made by or perhaps for him that he should retire from brewing.

In New South Wales, Sleigh found work with Lincoln and Co. at their brewery in the western Riverina town of Hay, but that plant was closed by its owners later in 1912. Our subject took a lease over the brewery at Carcoar, which had been forced to close earlier in the year because of a shortage of water. Plans were well in train for brewing to resume at Carcoar when Sleigh changed his mind and returned to his former employer, Lincoln and Co., but at their Oakbank Brewery at Narrandera.

Apparently assured of some permanence to his new position, Sleigh returned briefly to Tasmania in January 1913 to arrange for his family to join him. Their household furniture and effects at Ulverstone, near Devonport, were auctioned without reserve in February, and later the same month Mrs Sleigh and their children, now numbering seven, set off from Devonport on their way to their new home at Narrandera.

Sleigh remained at the Oakbank Brewery until around the beginning of 1915. He was succeeded by a young brewer named Michael John Breheny, whose father owned the Gippsland Brewery at Sale in Victoria, and who later became prominent in brewing circles as the chief brewer for Tooheys Limited in Sydney. Sleigh went to Victoria, where he described himself as a ‘brewer, out of position’ when applying for a commission in the Australian Military Forces (which he did not receive) in September 1915.

Hamilton Norman Sleigh, the father of Howard and Harold, seems to have played an important guiding and supportive role in the early careers of both sons, although my evidence for this is mostly circumstantial. After his initial arrival in July 1888, Hamilton Sleigh spent most of his remaining life in Australia, punctuated by four brief stints back in England, so was mostly close to the scenes of their endeavours.

Hamilton returned to England alone early in 1889, then sent the rest of his family (his wife and five children) to Victoria early in 1890, following them out later in the same year. During 1891 he travelled widely around the colonies, visiting various mining districts as the representative of a syndicate of English capitalists in search of opportunities for investment.

After another visit to England in 1892–93, Hamilton Sleigh became the Melbourne-based managing director of Great Southern Tin and Gold Fields Limited, a company formed in London in 1893, through his earlier endeavours, to work alluvial deposits in Victoria’s Gippsland district. Sleigh died in England in January 1908, during another home visit, while promoting a scheme to revive the idle government-owned beet sugar factory at Maffra in Gippsland.

As for Howard Sleigh, his brewing post at Narrandera was not his last. Possibly in 1916, after a couple of years back in Melbourne, he secured work at Perkins and Co.’s City Brewery in Brisbane. He was retrenched by that company in 1917, and returned soon after to his family, who had remained in Melbourne.

Around the end of the war, late in 1918, the Sleigh family moved to Ballarat, where Howard probably had obtained a brewing appointment. I have been unable to verify this supposition, but if correct, then Sleigh’s final brewing post was at Ballarat; if not, it was in Brisbane or possibly Melbourne.

By the early 1920s Howard had become a grocer at Ararat, in far western Victoria. His entrepreneurial predisposition remained in evidence, for instance in his involvement in a scheme in 1922–23 to establish a knitting mill at Ararat, under the name of the Grampians Underwear and Hosiery Company Limited.

In 1923 Sleigh took over a storekeeping business at Goroke, near Ararat, and remained in that district for many years. He and his wife had retired to Tasmania by 1947, but Howard was again a resident of western Victoria at the time of his death, at the age of 87 years, in August 1957.

Sleigh’s brewing career encompassed perhaps as many as thirty years, far short of his entire working life, but a substantial proportion nevertheless. Its highlights were undoubtedly his involvement in the establishment of three new breweries—at Burswood, East Fremantle and Wivenhoe—although it is unclear to what extent the ultimate success of the first two can be attributed to his early input.

Brett J. Stubbs
20 March 2017

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