The true story of how James Squire became Australia’s first brewer is a good yarn, and one we’re always keen (and proud) to share. He led a life that would make any man envious. It was a journey full of thievery, dishonesty and above all flavour.
From being a convict on the First Fleet, Squire turned his life around and rose to become one of the governor’s guards, the father of 11 children and, perhaps most significantly, the colony’s first and most sought-after brewer.
Dirty rotten scoundrel
James Squire was born in 1754 to parents Timothy and Mary Squire in Kingston-on-Thames, at the time some miles from the outskirts of London. It wasn’t long before he turned to crime as a way of life. At the age of just 20, he was arrested for highway robbery.
Squire had ransacked a house, but fled straight into the long arm of the law. Though sentenced to be transported to America for seven years, James instead elected to serve in the army, and so was able to return to Kingston just two years later.
In 1776, he married his childhood sweetheart, Martha Quinton, with whom he had three children, John, Sarah and James. At the time he managed a hotel frequented by highway robbers and smugglers in the rather aptly named Heathen Street.
At the age of 30, James stole five hens and four cocks from his neighbour’s yard – and yet again he was caught by the local constabulary. On 11 April, 1785, the British government chose to include him in the transported convict program. He was sentenced to two years in Southwark Gaol, and was then to join the First Fleet in Australia.
An unlucky break for him, but perhaps lucky for us…
The man of 150 lashes
And so it was in April 1787 that James Squire found himself bound for the British penal colony of New South Wales. He started the long, arduous voyage on the vessel Friendship, but in a reshuffle of the female passengers was transferred to the Charlotte.
Just a year after his arrival in Port Jackson, Squire was hauled before the magistrate charged with stealing ‘medicines’ from the hospital stores where he was working. These medicines were a pound of pepper and horehound – a herb that imitates the tangy flavour of hops. Though James claimed the stolen herb was for his pregnant girlfriend, he later revealed in an inquiry that he had been brewing beer since arriving in Australia, selling it for 4d a quart.
James’ beer was already proving popular with the British officers, which perhaps explains why his subsequent sentence was relatively lenient. Rather than facing execution (petty theft was severely punished in those days), he was fined five pounds and sentenced to receive 300 lashes: ‘One hundred and fifty now, and the remainder when able to bear it’, according to the order of 14 November, 1789.
Friends in high places
On 1 August, 1790, James’ girlfriend of a couple of years, fellow convict Mary Spencer, gave birth to a son, Francis. Sadly for Mary, she was forced to leave the baby behind when she was transferred to Norfolk Island. Unable to care for the boy, James enlisted him in the British army at the age of just 15 months. In what seems extraordinary now, Francis was enlisted into the NSW Corps as a drummer and started on the payroll on his seventh birthday.
Adventure was never far away in the nascent colony – particularly for James Squire. When Governor Arthur Phillip pursued Aboriginal leader Bennelong (who had escaped British custody) along Manly Cove, James and another armed convict were brought along for protection. Phillip stated he ‘felt safer with Squire than the Marines’. Despite Squire’s presence, Phillip was impaled through the shoulder with a barbed 12-foot spear. The other convict fled, but James was able to hold back the Aborigines until the governor could reach safety.
James and Bennelong were to strike up an unlikely friendship, until the latter’s tragic drowning in 1813. By then a wealthy man, James insisted that Bennelong’s body be buried on his own property at Kissing Point on the Parramatta River and even had Bennelong’s wife buried alongside him when she died several years later. James also erected a plaque on the site to commemorate his friend.
In 1791, James, a real ladies man, began another relationship – this time with Elizabeth Mason. Together they had seven children: Priscilla, James, Sarah, Martha, Timothy, Elizabeth and Mary Ann.
Quality drops from quality hops
On 22 July, 1795, James, by now a free man, was granted a 30-acre plot at Kissing Point. But noticing that other emancipists had not claimed the nearby land entitled to them, he marched them into the Colonial Secretary’s office to claim their land grants – and then purchased each property for just one shilling apiece. Thanks to suck roguish opportunism, James had built up an estate of 1000 acres by 1806 – stretching from what is now Gladesville Bridge to the Ryde Rail Bridge, and from the harbour to north of Victoria Road.
At the start of the 19th century, the revelation that the British army was trafficking in rum created uproar in the fledgling colony. Governor Philip King was concerned about the level of corruption, so he began to officially endorse the brewing of beer. English hops and brewing equipment were regularly transported on convict ships at the government’s expense. In fact, HMS Porpoise delivered an entire cargo of hops to plant on James’ farm.
In 1805, after three seasons of toil, James successfully grew the first Australian hops plants – earning the nickname 'the Whitbread of New South Wales' after the famous English brewer, Samuel Whitbread). The following summer, he attended Government House with two vines of hops. Governor King was so impressed with their flavour and quality, he ordered that a ‘cow be given to Mr Squire from the government herd’.
More significantly, this meant James Squire could officially be called Australia’s first – and finest – brewer.
The Generous Brewer
It was in 1806 that James’ brewery was built on the shore of Parramatta River at Kissing Point. He opened the Malting Shovel Tavern almost halfway between Sydney Town and Parramatta – the ideal spot to entice thirsty passengers from their vessels along the busy river thoroughfare.
Ryde historian Philip Greeves wrote at the time: Sailors of many nations who were vague about the locations of Nineveh or Babylon could find their way to Squire’s in a thick fog.
As the new century gathered momentum, so did James’ enterprises. As well as brewing, farming and running a tavern, James had a bakery in Kent Street and also often supplied meat to the colony.
In ironic contrast to his convict past, James even became a district constable. And far from stealing from his neighbours, he now acted as a banker and philanthropist to his poorer acquaintances. Noted colonial artist Joseph Lycett explained: ‘Had he not been so generous, James Squire would have been a much wealthier man.’
The end – and a new beginning
For many years, James had maintained an affair with his live-in housekeeper Lucy Vaughan-Harding, but in 1816 he made it official by moving into her private residence in Castlereagh Street.
Just six years later, on 16 May, 1822, at the age of 67, James died. His passing was marked with the biggest funeral ever held in the colony. He was buried in Sydney's Devonshire Street Cemetary (now the site of Central Station). It was thought that his headstone had long been lost – until an old photograph was recently discovered that proves that James was indeed Australia's first brewer. But we like to think he'd also have enjoyed a simple epitaph found in St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta, near his Kissing Point estate: Ye who wish to lie here, drink Squire’s beer.
In 1823, Squire’s brewery continued to operate under his son James. It produced around 100,000 gallons of beer a year until he died just three years after his father.
In 1828, the brewery was briefly reopened by Thomas Farnell, the husband of James’ daughter Mary Anne. However, his ill health forced the brewery to close in 1834.
Today, well over 150 years later, the James Squire name lives on with the James Squire craft beer range. With the same dedication to quality and desire to pioneer the best of flavours, we hope James Squire would be proud of the beers that carry his name.