Australian Dictionary of Biography

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King, James (1800–1857)

by David S. Macmillan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

James King (1800-1857), merchant, manufacturer and vigneron, was the son of James King, a substantial farmer in Hertfordshire, England. His father suffered during the agricultural slump after the Napoleonic wars and in 1825, claiming a capital of £3000, applied for a land grant on one of the islands off Van Diemen's Land for the purpose of breeding rabbits. Nothing came of this application although he had already sent a shepherd and some prime merinos to the colony.

James, who had spent some years 'in the most respectable wool-stapling houses in Leeds' arrived in Sydney in 1827 and set up as a merchant. Soon after arrival he obtained a grant of 1920 acres (777 ha) near Raymond Terrace on the Williams River; he called it Irrawang, built a homestead, grew wheat, and raised cattle, and for ten years ineffectually complained to the government that he was properly entitled to a maximum grant of 2560 acres (1036 ha). His undertakings at Irrawang were supervised by overseers, as King spent most of his time in Sydney, where he shared in whaling and shipping ventures as well as carrying on general trade as an importer and purchaser of colonial produce.

Eager to explore and develop the resources of the colony, in 1831 he called the attention of the authorities to white sand deposits in the dunes along the South Head Road near Sydney. These, he claimed, were 'better suited for the manufacture of fine plate and flint glass than any found in England'. Manufacturers in England reported favourably on the sand for making both crystal ware and microscope lenses, 'a storehouse of philosophical power'. Since the colony badly needed payable ballast as well as exportable materials and King claimed that he had spent £400 on exploiting his sand discovery, he asked for a grant of fifty acres (20 ha) either at Grose Farm on the Parramatta Road, now the site of the University of Sydney, or in the Domain, then a closely kept government preserve. The claim was refused, but in 1833 the Colonial Office recommended that King be allowed a remission of £100 on the price of any crown land he might buy. It was found in 1834 that charges for carrying the sand to England would make its price prohibitive, but in 1837 the London Society of Arts and Manufactures recognized King's discovery by awarding to him its silver medal.

About 1835 he settled at Irrawang, where he manufactured pottery and was praised by Governor Sir George Gipps for his ingenuity, enterprise and perseverance. King's main interest, however, was to develop the wine industry. At Irrawang in 1832 he had planted a vineyard, using Spanish, French and Portuguese vines. In February 1836 he made his first wine and began to extend the vineyard. Realizing that expert workmen were needed, he and twenty-two other producers decided to bring out German vine dressers; three of them came to Irrawang in 1848. From this time his wine gradually made its reputation in the colony; as a result of discriminating selection of vines, proper care and processing, the quality improved under continual supervision by King who rapidly learned the improved techniques. He confined his annual output to 2000 gallons (9092 litres) and took special care in his cellar. In 1850 and 1852 he won the gold medal of the Horticultural Society of Sydney for white wines and light sparkling wines. In 1853 he helped to found the Hunter River Vineyard Association and was elected its first president. At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 he and other producers from the area, notably Mrs Maria Windeyer of Tomago, attracted favourable notice with their wines. King's entries won him a medal and some of his wine was served at the table of Emperor Napoleon III.

While in Europe for the exhibition of 1855 King visited the German chemist, Baron Justus von Liebig, who had earlier noted with approval the Irrawang experiments in blending and maturing wines. Von Liebig conducted King over some of the most famous German vineyards, and introduced him to such influential people as the Grand Duke of Nassau, who encouraged King by assuring him that the best Irrawang red wines were equal to the famous Assmannshausen vintages. This triumph probably led to King's publication in Edinburgh in 1857 of Australia May Be an Extensive Wine-Growing Country. A breakdown in health prevented King from returning to New South Wales. He died in London on 29 November 1857 aged 57.

He had married Eliza Elflida Millner (1812-1887) by whom he had three daughters and one son. His name is commemorated in the James King of Irrawang travelling scholarship, for which William Roberts of Penrith, who married King's widow, left £4000 to the University of Sydney in 1888. King was one of the first settlers to achieve reasonable success in viticulture, and his example, and the recognition he won, encouraged experiment by many of his neighbours.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Goold, 'James King of "Irrawang"', Monthly Journal (Newcastle and Hunter District Historical Society), vol 5, part 4, 1951, p 56.

Citation details

David S. Macmillan, 'King, James (1800–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/king-james-2307/text2987, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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