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Gavin Ralston and the Breweries of Sale, Victoria

May 12, 2014
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Gavin Ralston (c.1806–­1874) and the Breweries of Sale, Victoria

This brief history of the breweries in Sale was not written intentionally. I mean, it arose from some research that was begun for a very different purpose. It could easily have become a biographical article solely about a brewer named Gavin Ralston, for he is at the heart of the matter.

The name of Gavin Ralston occurs across a long span of time in Australian brewing history, and crops up in many different places, including Sydney and Maitland in New South Wales, and, necessarily, Sale in Victoria. Sale is where the solution to my historical problem lay, so has become the focus of this essay.

Sale, in the Gippsland district of eastern Victoria, for a long time had three breweries operating simultaneously. In 1880, for instance, when the Victorian government first imposed a duty on colonial beer, the three Sale brewers jointly announced to the public that they were obliged to raise their prices, in line with the course already adopted by the Melbourne brewers. The three Sale breweries in 1880, all geographically named, were the Sale Brewery (Michael Coffey), the Victoria Brewery (James Pettit), and the Gippsland Brewery (Maurice Coleman).

Breheny Brothers Brewery, Sale, Victoria, c.1918, long after Gavin and Arthur Ralston had operated another brewery in the same town. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Breheny Brothers Brewery, Sale, Victoria, c.1918, long after Gavin and Arthur Ralston had operated another brewery in the same town. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

The Gippsland Brewery, in Reeve Street, had been established in 1866 by John McIver, who had previously been in the brewing business at Sandhurst (Bendigo). After his death in 1872, his widow continued the business for several years, then leased it to Maurice Coleman. Coleman’s lease expired in mid-1881, and the brewery was advertised to let, but there were no takers and it was not continued. Thus, it lasted about fifteen years altogether.

The Victoria Brewery, in York Street, had been established in 1871 by James George Pettit. In 1878, Pettit intended selling out of the brewing business, and he placed the Victoria Brewery, and two others that he owned at Walhalla and Bairnsdale, on the market. He evidently had a change of heart, remaining at the Victoria Brewery for nearly twenty more years.

Immediately after the death of his wife in 1897, Pettit sold his brewery and retired. He died a couple of years later. The brewery was carried on from 1897 by the Breheny brothers, of whom Edward was the brewer and manager, and about whom I have written separately. The Brehenys changed the name of the operation to the Gippsland Brewery, the earlier brewery in Sale of that name having long since ceased to exist. They continued to operate their Gippsland Brewery probably until the 1930s. The exact date is difficult to know, as the premises continued to be used by the Brehenys as a warehouse for the products of Carlton and United Breweries in Melbourne, with whom they entered a distribution agreement. The brewery was eventually demolished in 1954. It operated, therefore, for about sixty years, by far the most enduring of the Sale breweries.

The Sale Brewery was in Foster Street, fronting Lake Guthridge. Michael Coffey, formerly a publican in Sale, had bought it from Richard Jamieson in 1877, at which time it was described as ‘the oldest established brewery’ in the town, having been founded in 1860 or possibly early in 1861 by Gavin Ralston. Ralston advertised his desire to purchase malting barley in the third issue of the Gippsland Times, on 14 January 1861, and perhaps in the two earlier editions, but they have not survived.

Ralston’s malt house burned down in February 1863, causing him considerable loss, and contributing to a decision to submit the brewery to auction, without reserve, early in 1864. It seems to have remained out of action for a few years, until in 1867 Richard Jamieson announced that it had passed into his hands. Jamieson had formerly been a ginger beer and cordial maker in Sale, and had added a brewery to his business in 1864. After a few years brewing at his original location, he took advantage of the availability of Ralston’s brewery to move his operation to Foster Street.

Jamieson rebuilt the malt-house, destroyed by fire in 1863, only to see it severely damaged by a gale in 1868. He rebuilt it again, resumed malting, then continued making beer until selling out to Michael Coffey in 1877. Coffey’s wife gave birth to a daughter at the Sale Brewery in February 1879, and in April 1880 he won the prize for the ‘best ale or porter’ at the North Gippsland Agricultural and Horticultural Society’s autumn show.

In May 1881, Coffey took Arthur Rankin Ralston (note the surname) into partnership, continuing the business under the name of Coffey and Co. Ralston produced the brew that won the prize for ale at the 1882 autumn show. Financial success did not follow the firm’s achievements at the shows, and in 1883 Coffey’s estate was assigned, and the brewery was placed on the market.

Coffey returned to his former vocation by taking the Prince of Wales Hotel in Sale, but died shortly after, in April 1885, at the age of only 44 years. Ralston took another publican, John Wishart, as partner, and resumed operations at the brewery. He continued it alone after Wishart died in February 1886, aged 56 years. A couple of years later, Ralston placed the brewery on the market, because, he said, of ill-health. It was sold in 1888 ‘at a satisfactory price’, and Ralston left Sale, becoming a publican. The brewery was not continued. Altogether, but excluding the hiatus in the 1860s, the Sale Brewery had operated for about twenty-four years.

Arthur Ralston was a son of Gavin, who had started the Sale Brewery in 1860 or 1861. Gavin Ralston was born around 1806 in Ayrshire, Scotland, and came to Australia in 1826. He married Emily Crocket née Vardon in Tasmania in 1832, then spent several years in business as a publican and storekeeper in Launceston and Longford, before leaving the island colony for New South Wales in 1837.

After living for a few years near Bathurst, Gavin’s first foray into the brewing business was in Sydney in 1842, when he leased the Albion Brewery in Elizabeth Street from the financially troubled John Terry Hughes. The Ralstons’ eighth child, and fifth son, Arthur Rankin Ralston, was born at the Albion Brewery in August 1842. He was thus exposed at an early age to the vocation that he later followed at Sale and elsewhere.

In Sydney, Gavin Ralston soon became insolvent, and his interest in the fourteen-year lease over the Albion Brewery was to be auctioned in June 1843. He moved to Maitland, where later that year he opened a new brewery, bringing the number there to three. He encouraged local farmers to take up the cultivation of malting barley, to save some of the thousands of pounds sent away annually to import English-grown barley. He remained in Maitland only two years, moving to Melbourne in 1845 to enter the wholesale wine and spirit business. He subsequently set up business as a commission merchant and shipping agent, and later as an auctioneer. He resided for some years at Collingwood and South Yarra, Ralston Street at South Yarra being named after him.

Although it becomes more difficult to track Ralston’s movements after his wife gave birth to their last (thirteenth) child at Prahran in 1852, he is known to have spent some time in New Zealand in the late 1850s, operating as an importer and shipping agent. He returned to Victoria in 1860 and founded the Sale Brewery. After selling his fire-damaged brewery at Sale in 1864, Gavin relocated to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, becoming the first person to start a brewery there, in 1866. He moved in 1867 to Grenfell, the site of a new gold discovery midway between Forbes and Young, and began brewing there. After only a year at Grenfell, Ralston returned to Wagga Wagga, brewing there for another year.

To confuse the matter, among the graves at the Sale Cemetery is one for a Gavin Ralston who died in 1873, and whom we might suspect to be our brewer. His age at death, however, was only 40 years, making him about ten years older than Arthur, so certainly not Arthur’s father. As it turns out, this Gavin was the eldest son of Alexander Ralston, of Ayrshire, Scotland, who was a younger brother of the Gavin who had run the breweries in Sydney and Maitland in the 1840s, and at Sale, Wagga Wagga and Grenfell in the 1860s. He was therefore the nephew of the elder Gavin, and the first cousin of Arthur Rankin Ralston, who operated the Sale Brewery in the 1880s.

Gavin Ralston, the brewer, returned to Victoria in 1870 after his stints at Wagga Wagga and Grenfell. He was working as a legal manager for a mining company at Bendigo when he died in 1874, aged 68 years. His widow, Emily Ann, lived much longer, dying at Kew, Victoria, in 1903, aged 90 years. Their son, Arthur, reached a similar advanced age, dying at Clayfield, Queensland, in 1933.

In the obituary of his brother, Alexander, who had predeceased him in 1861, Gavin Ralston was described as ‘a man of high gentlemanly bearing and independent character’, who had battled ‘manfully amidst colonial vicissitudes in Tasmania, New South Wales, and New Zealand’. As a brewer, he had conducted business in five towns and cities in two colonies, and, notably, had pioneered the making of beer in three of those places. He was undoubtedly a man of energy, vision and courage.

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