Finding Irrawang: James King, scientific transnationalism and colonial wine heritage

A significant colonial vineyard and winery among the original Lower Hunter properties in Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region was actually located about fifty kilometres east of the present-day hub of cellar doors at Pokolbin.

In the mid-19th century a key figure in this original siting – James King  – conducted a robust correspondence with European scientist Justus von Liebig.  From his Irrawang property near Raymond Terrace, King directed questions and samples of his wine to Liebig at the University of Giessen (now named for Liebig), in Germany.

I have written about this in recent years in First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales (NewSouth/UNSW Press, 2012) – as have Ian D. Rae and William H. Brock in Historical Records of Australian Science 2013: v24 – pp. 189-206.

One of Liebig’s pupils visited King at Irrawang, and King is credited with encouraging the recruitment of German vinedressers to work in the burgeoning colonial New South Wales wine industry, particularly in the Hunter – which resulted in forty-three vineyard workers, coopers (barrel makers) and their families locating to the colony in 1848.

King and Liebig exchanged letters on the problems and progress of other colonial industries. But of greatest interest here is the correspondence on wine, including that Liebig provided King with predictions of the likely relative wine styles from the Old World that could be developed in the Hunter – judging from existing samples sent to him; and he particularly mentioned Hungarian Tokaji (see earlier post).

Even so, King’s story runs far deeper than this and is in fact quite gripping in its embodiment of colonial ambition and the processes of transplanting a highly desirable European cash crop in colonial Australia. Yet this has been forgotten as there are no living descendants of King involved in wine making in Australia. Indeed, he and his wife Eliza’s three daughters died in childhood. Surviving son Edward became a surveyor in Sydney. Memory of King  does exist in a University of Sydney scholarship named for him, and his property is memorialised in street names and a school at Raymond Terrace.

Until September this year however, I did not know the location of Irrawang’s vines and winery as my research on King had been limited to his very lively archival record. This shows him to have been a tenacious advocate for his region in colonial development. (As yet I have to understand his relationship with the Wonnarua – though an increasing concentration of research at the University of Newcastle on Hunter Aboriginal-setter relations will soon enough reveal this.)

With all of that explained, it was with much anticipation that I undertook a field trip to the former Irrawang property. This resulted from contact between University of Newcastle colleague Prof Lyndall Ryan and Anne Bickford, one of the original student archaeologists on a University of Sydney dig at the Irrawang pottery site – under the supervision of Judy Birmingham in the 1970s. Anne Bickford also later completed a heritage study on Irrawang for Hunter Water during the process of deciding how to manage the site when it acquired it as part of catchment management in the Lower Hunter.

At the time of the Birmingham-led dig at Irrawang the Hunter wine industry had only just begun to experience a revival after the near dormancy of the lean years in Australian wine production, trade and consumption between World War I and the 1950s.  As such, little record keeping and analysis of King’s enterprise occurred as part of the dig project.

Anne Bickford organised the September field trip to Irrawang with the support of Sydney Water and Hunter Water employees Yvonne Kaiserglass and John Simpson, respectively.  And my grateful thanks to each of them – they are pictured, l to r: Yvonne Kaiserglass, Anne Bickford, John Simpson and Lyndall Ryan (standing).


As a result of this research, I now know that Irrawang was located on Hunter Water land between the old spillway on the Pacific Highway just north of Raymond Terrace and Grahamstown Dam. The Google Image of the former pottery site (below; provided by John Simpson) is a decade old and does not indicate the extent of vegetation present when we visited in September.

Irrawang site

To visit the pottery site requires permission for access through a locked gate, and there is very little evidence of the pottery site or the subsequent dig due to a riot of volunteer conifers and ground cover. Nonetheless, our field team traversed the site to locate the remnants of the dig and then undertook to determine whether the slight rise of land just to the west of the dig might have hosted King’s colonial vineyard.

An 1830s sketch by a contemporary of King  (below – being consulted from Anne Bickford’s report, on the field trip) suggests the vineyard may have been planted to the north of the pottery not the west. The pottery is the round building in the sketch – just above the highest point of the shadow of John Simpson’s hat.  The vineyard is portrayed in the top right hand corner of the sketch.  Moreover, after close attention to the lay of the land, we concluded it was unlikely that the area to the west had been planted as a vineyard as the rise is much less than shown in the sketch – though the sketch may very well not have been to scale, nor indeed accurate – and there are no signs of the distinctive corrugations on the landscape caused by vineyard plantings. Vineyard corrugations may remain many decades after grape vines have been removed from a paddock and the land re-purposed for crops or grazing. It is not possible to access the more likely vineyard site.


As for the homestead and winery – shown in the sketch as behind and to the left of the pottery’s round building, Anne Bickford recalled that during the 1970s the remains of King’s winery were sufficiently intact to be used as camping accommodation for the Birmingham dig, though the land had long been turned to dairying.

The team hoped to sight the homestead and winery site.

There is a considerable obstacle to achieving this however as the main features of Irrawang’s former built environment are now bisected by the Pacific Highway, and due to the siting of the former dam slipway – with the pottery dig site on the southern side of the highway; the former house and winery site to the north – it is not possible to safely access nor even see where the homestead and winery once stood.

It is our understanding that there are no longer any remains of the winery on the site. This is indicative that King’s wine enterprise has no current heritage value; its built heritage has not been preserved and little attention is paid in Australia to colonial agricultural heritages landscapes. If, hypothetically, tourists could access the site to view the landscape and imagine its historic colonial uses this would require interpretative signage with text and images to evoke activities that occurred at Irrawang, and encounters that took place between colonial figures such as Jane Franklin – peripatetic wife of a colonial governor, and Ludwig Leichhardt, colonial expeditioner and scientist; among others.  As public access would not be possible without new infrastructure, visitation is not likely to be possible.

The problem with this is that connections could be valuably made using Irrawang as a site of transnational exchange to realise colonial ambition through the transformation of nature. But in the absence of buildings or other material culture visitors ideally need to at least see the landscape. Currently it is not possible for motorists to even determine with much certainty where Irrawang was as the area can only be passed at 100 kilometres an hour; hurtling along with other highway traffic.

The solution?

The location of Irrawang relative to other colonial properties producing wine and other products can be represented using the digital historical tools of online mapping. This is one of the aims of my current project: Vines, Wine & Identity. More on this next year.

But the question remains: what is kept (and therefore valued) as heritage and becomes the extant material culture of a region’s industries – and what is permitted to disappear?






About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
This entry was posted in #vineswineidentity, Australian history, colonial history, environmental history, Vineyard landscapes, wine and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Finding Irrawang: James King, scientific transnationalism and colonial wine heritage

  1. turandotz says:

    Dear Dr Julie

    As a newly minted resident of Raymond Terrace I found this fascinating. Isnt the soil in this area too sandy for wine grapes? Should I put a few in my back yard and experiment? What is the significance of the word Irrawang? All of his should of course be discussed over the ceremonial draw knob hand over. xb



    • Lovely Bronween! Yes, the soils aren’t suitable. I think you certainly should put a few vines in your backyard just the same. I’d be very interested to know how they fare. There are other reasons that Irrawang did not continue as a vineyard and winery, though I’m still piecing these together. Lack of water would be one, and King fought pretty hard for many years to extend his land ownership to river frontage but couldn’t convince colonial authorities to give land without payment; that is, for services rendered to colonial progress, which did for some time allow other colonists to build their holdings. Other factors were the limited market for colonial wine. Then, when King died in Scotland on a return visit in the 1850s Irrawang continued to produce wine grapes but they must not have proved economically viable for the new owner/lessee of the land (this is one of the parts of the story I’m still pursuing). The name Irrawang is considered to be an Aboriginal word for water view. I do hope this was the case, though a water view is precisely what King didn’t have and longed for. Now of course where the pottery used to be is so close to Grahamstown Dam that we might say King’s water view came very belatedly. And – yes – the door knob! Once work settled at my end …?


  2. Geoff burg says:

    I liked your story as my ancestor Heinrich Burg worked for him


  3. Del Foster says:

    My grandmother’s grandfather, Joseph Croft (Mangles 1835) was assigned to James King on arrival in the Colony. The ship’s indents say he was a ‘brick and tile maker’. He stayed there until receiving a ticket-of-leave in 1843 when he moved to Cooley Camp on Galt Smith’s grant at Woodville. I suspect the pottery kiln was part of his handiwork.
    In 1848 he gained the licence to the George and Dragon at Clarencetown. It was made locally from hand cast bricks which following the G@D’s demolition prior to world War1 was used to build the butcher’s shop on the corner diagonally across from the Clarencetown Post Office. I suspect he had a hand in making those bricks too. When I last visited in the 1980’s there was a pile of unused bricks covered by kikuyu on the footpath. Some had thumbprints on them. My grandmother’s father was born in the G@D in 1848.
    Del Foster
    St Lucia Q.


  4. Rowan Harrison says:

    Hi Julie, interested to read this information about James King and Irrawang. King is my great grandfather and although I have lots of information about him, don’t think I have anything that you don’t already know about. I remember my father corresponding with Judy Birmingham quite a few years ago. I understand that he is buried in a churchyard in Scotland near where he came from. Must have been very interesting times considering the endeavor required and the lack of comforts that we take for granted. Sadly, only his son Edward survived, as his three daughter’s all died when young, One from a gunshot whilst a convict was cleaning a weapon and the other two within days of each other from Scarlettina.


    • Dear Rowan,

      Thank you for your comment. How tragic about King’s daughters. I had no idea. I’m working on a book that extends my research on your G-grandfather and others in Hunter wine growing and would like to speak with you further. Do you for example know the family stories about King’s relations with Aboriginal people? The Carmichael etching of Irrawang contains an Aboriginal family. Do you know the names of the convicts assigned to Irrawang? Perhaps we can continue the conversation by email or phone? James King is a fascinating figure.


  5. Pamela Watson-Bateman says:

    Hi Julie, My great great grandfather Philipp Warzelhan was one of the vinedressers who came from Germany, arriving in early 1855. All of the records I can find pertaining to the family refer to Raymond Terrace, and my great grandfather Jacob has his birth recorded as “Gill’s Brush”. The only reference to this I can find is that the piece of land to the west of King’s original Irrawang – between there and the Williams River – was originally settled by a man named Gill. I gather that King purchased this land from Gill’s family after his death. I am interested in trying to find out whether Philipp worked for King or not.


    • Hi Pamela – I’m in transit, or else I could give you a more detailed answer. I have a Philipp assigned to William Kelman in the Hunter, and the Germans did move around between masters, and then often become tenant farmers. My new book with John Germov called Hunter Wine: A history is due out from NewSouth in September, and may contain material of interest to you. There is a whole chapter on the southwest Germans. I have some files in my office that I can check about your ancestor if you would like to email me directly through the university – and there is a historian of the southwest Germans, Jenny Paterson, who is by far and away the authority on these matters, and I can put you in touch with her.


  6. Geoffrey burg says:

    Could you please tell me when your book comes out my ancestor Heinrich burg came out as a vinedressor to king also also known as henry


    • Hi Geoffrey, the book will be available in bookshops in late September. We’re interested to gather some descendants of German vinedressers at Newcastle Museum during the upcoming exhibition, from 4 August. No definite plans yet, but if you live in the Newcastle and Hunter area you may be interested.


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