Towards a History of the Breweries of Walhalla, Victoria

Our historian-in-residence Brett Stubbs has filed another of his occasional series on the history of early brewers and breweries of Australia, this time looking at the breweries of Walhalla in North Gippsland. Aside from facing bushfires and floods, our early breweries also had their own versions of social media it seems with enthusiasts declaring whether a brewery’s product ‘honestly brewed’.

When the Government of Victoria first started counting breweries in that colony, and first published the results of such tallies, the number had already begun to decline from its unofficial peak. It is impossible to know the maximum number of breweries that were operating at one time in Victoria in the nineteenth century. It was certainly greater than 126, the number reported to be in existence in 1872.

Many of those were small establishments in isolated settlements, supporting populations of thirsty gold-miners. One such place was Walhalla, in North Gippsland, where gold discoveries in 1863 had generated an influx of fortune-seekers.

In 1867 the township of Walhalla was said to have a population of about 100 souls, who supported two stores and one hotel. By the mid-1880s, the population had grown to about 1,800. In the early 1890s there were five hotels in the town, and 500 children were on the school roll.

Walhalla is situated in a narrow, crooked valley, through which winds a stream called Stringer’s Creek. Most of its houses and public buildings fringed the main street, occupying every piece of level ground that could be found, while others perched on the steep hillsides. It was said that one could never see more than one-fifth of the town at one time because of its sinuosity.

An early sketch of Walhalla, Victoria

Walhalla c.1871 (picture supplied)

Messrs Perkins and Co.

Among the earliest known references to brewing at Walhalla is an announcement in July 1866 that ‘some speculative brewers’ from Wood’s Point had issued tenders for the erection of a brewery, which would afford ‘temporary occupation’ for some of the town’s unemployed.

Messrs Perkins and Co. were revealed some month later to be behind the new venture. This ‘large brewery establishment’ was expected to be completed in October, when it would become the third brewery in the small town.

One of Perkins’s two predecessors at Walhalla was Samuel Boyd and Co., which comprised James Rice, Samuel Boyd and Arthur R. Ralston. This brewing partnership was dissolved in November 1866, after which the business was continued by Samuel Boyd and James Rice, the latter holding a two-thirds share.

Although the end of this partnership is thus clearly documented, its beginning is not. Nor has any record of the commencement of their brewery yet been found. Nor has it been discovered precisely where in the town this brewery was situated.

It remains to be discovered whether Perkins’s new brewery was completed in October 1866 as expected, but it was in operation by the middle of 1867, when Thomas Perkins was seeking to recover a debt due for the supply of his beer through the Walhalla Police Court.

Later in 1867, a gathering was held in Baller’s Hotel to farewell John ‘Borlindar’ (or Borlinder), late manager for Perkins and Co., who was leaving Walhalla for Melbourne.

Thomas Perkins and his brother Patrick had already established a brewery at Wood’s Point, another gold-mining settlement, about fifty miles north of Walhalla. It had come into operation around the beginning of 1864 and was given the name Alpine Brewery.

The Perkins operation at Walhalla was overseen by Thomas, while Patrick remained at Wood’s Point.

The Perkins brothers bought land at Toowoomba in Queensland towards the end of 1868, and in mid-1869 commenced building a brewery there on a scale larger than any erected previously in Queensland.

Thomas was the managing partner in the new venture, which came into production in December 1869. Thomas had left Walhalla and gone to Toowoomba by November 1869. He died near Toowoomba in 1876 as a result of a horse-riding accident, soon after which Patrick shifted permanently to the northern colony.

The fate of the Perkins brewery at Walhalla after it was opened in 1866 or 1867 is unclear. In fact, no record of it after 1867 has come to light. There is reason to believe that it continued in operation under the new ownership of Boyd and Co., who must therefore have closed their original brewery in the town.

Boyd and Co.

It does not seem feasible that Perkins’s new ‘large’ brewery would just close and disappear, so its continuation by Boyd and Co. seems to provide a better explanation.

If Boyd and Co. did succeed to the premises of Perkins and Co., the change must have occurred late in 1867 or in 1868.

It was observed towards the end of the latter year that two breweries were in operation at Walhalla: one belonged to Boyd and Co., and the other to a Mr Austin. The anonymous source of this observation made regular visits to both breweries to obtain his ‘diurnal glass of beer’. He had read about the alleged adulteration of beer by brewers in the United Kingdom, and was concerned to know that the beer brewed at Walhalla was not similarly drugged.

Through ‘keeping [his] eye upon the mysterious operations’ of the brewers at both local establishments over a long period, he felt ‘bound to express [his] honest conviction’ that in Walhalla the beer was ‘really made from malt and hops’.

The same concerned citizen referred to the Walhalla brewers as ‘Messrs Ralston and Green’, and it is supposed that the former worked for Boyd and the latter for Austin. It makes sense that Arthur Ralston continued to brew for Boyd and Co after he ceased to be a formal partner in the firm.

Arthur Rankin Ralston was the son of Gavin Ralston, a notable Australian brewer about whom I have written elsewhere. Arthur, born at the Albion Brewery in Sydney in 1842 when his father ran it, was twenty-six years of age when he retired from Samuel Boyd and Co. in 1868.

He had been married in 1866 and his wife gave birth to their son, Malachy, at the Alpine Brewery, Walhalla, in August 1869.

The use of the name Alpine Brewery by Boyd and Co. is also consistent with their occupation of the brewery established by Perkins and Co., as it was the name applied to the Perkins brewery at Wood’s Point.

It may also have been used originally for the Perkins brewery at Walhalla, although no record of this has come to light.

Ralston had become insolvent earlier in 1869, as a result of an adverse verdict in the County Court at Sale. He had, whilst riding dangerously one Sunday afternoon near Walhalla, run over and maimed an infant child. The court awarded a substantial compensation to the child’s mother, which Ralston effectively evaded by recourse to the insolvency law.

Samuel Boyd died unexpectedly in March 1873. He died intestate, and letters of administration of his estate were granted subsequently to James Rice, farmer, a creditor of Boyd and his partner in the brewing firm. It is not known what disruptive effect Boyd’s untimely death had on brewing operations, but they did continue, and Arthur Ralston remained as the brewer.

The Alpine Brewery

The Alpine Brewery was a weatherboard building, 50 feet long by 21 feet wide. The main part of it was on two levels (cellar below; storeroom and gyle room above) with a loft (containing a wort cooler). Two additional levels formed a tower containing the mash tun, hot liquor boiler, malt tank and cold-water tank (upper) and wort boiler (lower).

Late in 1874 when the brewery was offered for sale by auction, it was said to be ‘now doing a good business’. It was purchased at that time by James Rice. In 1876, James Rice re-sold the Alpine Brewery to James George Pettit, owner and founder of the Victoria Brewery at Sale.

Two years later, Pettit offered to sell the Alpine Brewery and two others of which he was proprietor (one at Bairnsdale, which he had acquired in 1876, and the one at Sale). He intended relinquishing brewing altogether, but decided instead to stay in business at Sale, where he remained for nearly twenty more years, retiring in 1897.

The outcome of Pettit’s sale, or attempted sale of his brewery at Walhalla in 1878 is unclear. It appears to have been still in operation late in 1879, when a teenage lad employed there was bitten on the hand by a snake.

It was offered for sale again in 1880, but may have ceased to function by then. Arthur Ralston, the brewer, had gone to Sale by the end of 1879, and went into partnership in a brewery there in 1881. Pettit’s son, also James George, who had been married at Walhalla in 1879 and had been involved with his father’s brewery, also returned to Sale.

Soon after its closure, the Alpine Brewery was converted for use as a hotel. The Alpine Hotel, as the place was aptly designated, was purchased in 1884 by Vittorio Campagnolo. He was still its licensee in 1891 when, in quick succession, the hotel was damaged by a flood then burned to the ground.

Austin’s brewery

The second brewery at Walhalla mentioned in the December 1868 report already cited, Austin’s, was stated elsewhere in the same month as being the starting point of a track being surveyed by Government road men from Walhalla to Donnelly’s Creek. This track joined the main street of Walhalla at the junction of the eastern and western branches of Stringer’s Creek. How long before that time the brewery had been established is yet to be discovered.

Austin’s brewery was connected with the Star Hotel, opened by James Austin (or Austen) in 1873. It became the property of Lewis Loan when he purchased the hotel, probably shortly after Austin’s death in May 1876. It was referred to as Loan’s Star Hotel in February 1877, when it was threatened with destruction by an extensive bush fire, which also threatened to obliterate the town.

The fire sent sparks flying over the houses ‘in all directions, from one end of the creek to the other, even down to Pettit’s Brewery’ (at the southern end of town), but a fortunate change of wind direction soon abated the danger.

Loan was elected as mayor of Walhalla in 1878, after having served for three years as a councillor. A visitor to Walhalla a few years later noted that it was possible to get a beer from ‘the old established firm of Fitzgerald and Newman, Castlemaine’ in many of the town’s pubs, but the local brewery, Loan’s, was not well supported by the publicans.

It was further noted that Loan had his brewery in ‘first class order’, although the principal part of his business was done in the ‘cordial line’. Indeed, he won several awards for his syrups, soda water and cordials at the Melbourne International Exhibition early in 1881.

Loan was the winner of an award, a bronze medal, for his ale at the Calcutta Exhibition in February 1884. It is supposed that he was still brewing at the Star Hotel at that time.

Lewis Loan built a new brewery at Walhalla in 1885, and to celebrate its opening he held a charity ball in aid of the local hospital. More than 300 people attended, and Loan supplied all the liquid refreshments free of charge.

A visitor to Walhalla several months later noted the existence of a ‘tall and most imposing as well as picturesque building situated between the stream and the hillside’. It had a shingled roof and was ‘quite a distinct feature in the valley’. The building, the purpose of which was evident from the pile of casks outside, was Loan’s Walhalla Star Brewery and Mountain Spring Waters factory.

The writer, who had an antipathy to colonial beer, consumed a glass of Loan’s beer and admitted afterwards to feeling no ill effects. It was, be believed, ‘honestly brewed’.

Another visitor a couple of years later was shown over the brewery and cordial manufactory by its proprietor, and was ‘fairly astonished’ by its extensiveness, its elaborate scale, and Loan’s ingenuity in erecting time saving machinery.

Later in 1888 Loan received a ‘special mention’ for his running ale at the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne.

An attempt was made early in 1891 by Loan to float his brewing business into a limited liability company under the lengthy title of The Mountain Spring Brewing, Aerated Water and Cordial Manufacturing Company Limited. It was proposed that Loan would act as brewer for the company at a moderate salary. No company eventuated, and the business remained in Loan’s hands. A report of a visit to Walhalla early in 1892 reveals that the brewery continued in operation at least until that time.

Lewis Loan died at his residence at Walhalla in May 1898. His brewery, plant and land, and adjoining residence, were sold by auction in 1899. It is understood that the brewing business came to an end at the time of Loan’s death. The brewery and plant changed hands again in 1907, for a small sum, from which it is assumed that it was no longer a going concern.

In December 1951, decades after brewing had ceased at Walhalla, the declining town suffered a major blow when the Star Hotel, its only surviving pub and the site of Lewis Loan’s first brewery, was destroyed by fire. As if that was not tragedy enough, six months later teeming rain caused a landslide that buried many of the town’s remaining buildings under a mass of mud and rubble.

As suggested by the use of the word ‘towards’ in the title of this article, it is not intended to be the final word on the matter of the breweries of Walhalla. There are still some important questions that remain unanswered, and any reader with new knowledge is invited to contribute to a conversation.

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