Henry Edmeades began his extraordinary Australian brewing career working with his elder brother in a small Tasmanian brewery in the late 1850s, and fifty years later he owned a much larger one in Western Australia. In the intervening period he had worked at, managed and owned breweries in most of the Australian states, and in New Zealand. His attainment of the age of one hundred years in November 1937 made him a celebrity in his then home state of Western Australia.
Henry’s experiences as a brewer and businessman ranged from great success to hardship and misfortune. His life spans that most interesting period of Australian history when breweries were numerous and geographically widespread, and encapsulates many of the significant themes in the industry during that period: the disappearance of family-owned brewing enterprises, and brewing dynasties; the rise of the joint stock company; frequent small business failures; industry concentration; brewer mobility; and the British roots of Australian brewing.
Edmeades was born into a brewing family in Kent, England, in 1837. His father, Thomas, was a brewer, and his elder brother, Alfred, had also adopted that profession. Alfred migrated to Victoria in 1855 with another brother, Thomas, but soon moved to Tasmania where early in 1856 he took over a small brewery at Westbury, near Launceston. Henry, who arrived in Sydney in 1857, soon joined Alfred at Westbury.
After working for a short time with his brother, Henry took a brewing position at Latrobe, on the Mersey River in northern Tasmania, early in 1858. He returned to Westbury after a few years, then held the licence for the brewery there from early in 1862. Alfred returned to England, where by 1871 he was managing a brewery in Winchester (Alfred’s only son, Tasmanian-born Alfred, later became a long-serving mayor of Winchester).
Henry continued to run the brewery at Westbury for only a couple more years, then closed it and moved to New Zealand. He bought the defunct Albion Brewery at Te Aro, Wellington, and reopened it in mid-1864. His wife, Charlotte, whom he had married at Westbury in 1863, gave birth to a daughter at their new home in August 1864.
The Albion Brewery failed late in 1870, but it was probably a subsequent family tragedy that caused Henry to leave New Zealand. Charlotte died in February 1872, aged only 28 years, hours after giving birth to their sixth child, who also died. Soon afterward, Henry and the rest of his family went to England, where he remained for about three years.
Henry left England again in 1876, and sailed for Adelaide, where his brother, Thomas, a Wesleyan minister, had made his home many years before. Henry had remarried in 1873, at Manchester Cathedral, and the family group that arrived in Adelaide in July 1876 comprised himself, his new wife, and four children — three from his first marriage, and one, much younger, from the second.
In Adelaide, Henry Edmeades bought and re-opened the Anchor Brewery in Morphett Street, near North Terrace, which had been idle for several years. His brewing business was floated in 1881 into a limited liability company under the name of H. Edmeades and Co. Limited. The company purchased the Kangaroo Brewery at Hindmarsh, an inner Adelaide suburb, in 1883, and discontinued brewing at the Anchor Brewery.
Business did not prosper after the move, and at the beginning of 1884 Henry’s personal estate was assigned, and soon after that H. Edmeades and Co. Limited was forced into liquidation. The company’s properties, comprising the two breweries and two freehold, one leasehold, and two tied hotels, were auctioned in December 1884. The causes of the company’s troubles are unknown, but they can only have been exacerbated by a tragic accident that occurred at the Kangaroo Brewery in October 1883.
Henry’s assistant brewer fell into a vat of boiling beer at the Kangaroo Brewery, and died from the effects the following day. The jury at the coronial inquest returned a verdict of accidental death, but offered the opinion that the premises were unsafe and dangerous for carrying on the business of brewing. This episode cannot have done other than harm to the reputation of H. Edmeades and Co. Limited.
As Henry’s private financial affairs were being sorted out in Adelaide, and as H. Edmeades and Co. Limited was simultaneously being liquidated, he moved in 1884 to Sydney to take the job of manager of the Pyrmont Brewery, on the western shore of Darling Harbour. In September 1885, after barely a year in Sydney, he bought the Victoria Flour Mill at Inverell in northern New South Wales. There he started a brewery, which he ran in conjunction with the milling business. This venture soon failed, and Edmeades assigned his estate in September 1886, and left Inverell early the next year.
In July 1887, a new brewery was started at Ipswich in Queensland, with Henry Edmeades as the brewing manager. He stayed at the Ipswich Brewery for only a short time, and the following year was in business as a bottler in Roma Street, Brisbane. Early in 1889 he took a partner and opened a new brewery — the Lion Brewery — in the inner Brisbane suburb of Spring Hill. This soon failed due to Henry’s illness, and in April 1890 he was again adjudged insolvent.
Early in 1892, Henry took the position of brewer at the Kent Brewery, Rockhampton, but by the time his certificate of discharge was granted in February 1893, he was carrying on business in the same city as a vinegar and cordial merchant.
By February 1895, Henry was living in Melbourne, but it is not known (yet) where he was working. In 1896, he went to Western Australia, to work as brewer at the newly-opened Eclipse Brewery at Northam. He was one of the directors of a company formed in 1897 to take over the Eclipse Brewery, and remained as brewer for the new concern — the Northam Brewery Company Limited.
Edmeades bought out the Northam Brewery Company Limited in 1901, and continued the business as H. Edmeades and Co. In 1903 he took a partner to handle the financial matters, while he concentrated on the brewing. Henry dissolved the partnership in April 1905, and continued to run the business alone. In the meantime, Henry’s son, Alexander, who was a one-year-old when the family returned to Australia in 1876, and had later trained as a brewer under his father, was appointed in 1898 as brewer to the Federal Brewery, Kalgoorlie.
A second brewery was started at Northam in 1907, by the Northam Brewery and Refrigerating Co. Limited. Competition from this firm probably caused the decline of the Eclipse Brewery, which ceased to operate in 1909. Henry must have been aware of this risk, and took shares in the new company when it was floated. Several years later, from his retirement in Subiaco, Perth, Henry attempted unsuccessfully to have the Northam Brewery and Refrigerating Co. Limited wound up on the grounds that it was grossly mismanaged, had never paid a dividend, and was impossible to resuscitate.
As has already been mentioned, Henry attracted newspaper attention in November 1937 when he attained the age of 100 years. He died several months later, in April 1938; his second wife, Annie, had predeceased him in 1935 at the age of 98 years. The newspapers of 1937 and 1938 focussed, however, on Henry’s extreme age, overlooking his remarkable brewing career.