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John Curtain (1835–1905)

by David Dunstan

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John Curtain (1835?-1905), publican, politician and entrepreneur, was born at Grange, Limerick, Ireland, son of Timothy Curtain, farmer, and his wife Susan, née Goggin. Reaching Melbourne, probably in the Queen of the Seas in September 1854, John travelled to the Ovens, Lachlan and Murray regions, where he worked as a teamster and goldfields carrier. He returned to Melbourne in 1860, settled at Carlton and opened a hotel. On 7 April 1861 at St Francis's Catholic Church he married Catherine Mary Josephine Peacocke, also from Limerick. They had eight children.

He built Curtain's hotel, in Elgin Street, in 1863 and other buildings, including Curtain Terrace. In 1870 Curtain was elected to Melbourne City Council as an inaugural councillor of Victoria Ward, created to represent the rapid growth of North Carlton. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in April 1871 for North Melbourne and held the seat until 1877 when the constituency was divided. Standing for Carlton, he was beaten by James Munro in a celebrated contest—the publican had a predictably testy relationship with the rising temperance leader. Curtain failed to win Carlton again in 1879 and 1883 and Melbourne in 1897. His municipal career had a similar pattern. Defeated for Albert Ward in 1876, he was returned for Gipps Ward, narrowly losing the mayoralty that year to James Paterson. Kate died in 1879. On 23 December 1882 at Carlton with Catholic rites Curtain married Ballarat-born Mary Woods. He was a justice of the peace, and remained a Melbourne city councillor until 1887.

Curtain was a speculator in suburban property, a director of several companies, chairman of the Licensed Victuallers' Brewing Co. and co-proprietor of the Melbourne Herald. In partnership with the expatriate Frenchman, town planner and winemaker Ludovic Marie, in 1875 he acquired a distillery on the south bank of the Yarra. In 1885 Curtain purchased 550-acres (222.5 ha), including about 25 acres (10 ha) of vines, on the northern slopes of Mount Saddleback in north-eastern Victoria, in which he had been a minority shareholder from 1881 with L. L. Smith, George Coppin and Marie. Expanding plantings, he brought it into line with the largest vineyard holdings in the region and sold his Yarra-bank distillery for £60,000 intending to relocate brandy production to the now renamed Chateau Dookie. A grand, Italianate mansion, large winery and well-equipped distillery were built and he employed many hands, including a Swiss vineyard manager. But Curtain and the turbulent Marie fell out and in 1887 were embroiled in legal conflict.

Following the collapse of the wine industry in the 1890s depression, Chateau Dookie was not sustainable; Curtain was ruined, but not apparently bankrupted, in 1892. In 1896 the Bank of Victoria appointed François de Castella as manager. Curtain claimed to have planted 700 acres (283.3 ha) of vines at Chateau Dookie; de Castella's more sober assessment of 497 acres (201.1 ha) still makes it an astonishing figure by world standards at the time. The winery buildings were destroyed by fire in 1907.

Ambitious, gregarious and flamboyant, Curtain embodied the aspirant values of Melbourne's inner-suburban, gold-generation immigrants. He was essentially a speculator and entrepreneur, and his later business and political associates included mavericks such as Smith and (Sir) Thomas Bent. His ambitions, like those of many of his generation who gambled on their luck and further prosperous times, crashed when the tide turned. He spoke with a rich brogue but believed the Irish had integrated in Victoria. While his Irish Catholicism, local interests and liquor trade associations provided a network, they also guaranteed opposition. An old age pensioner, he died of chronic bronchitis on 22 October 1905 in Melbourne Hospital, and was buried in Melbourne cemetery, survived by four daughters and four sons from his two marriages. Curtain Street, Carlton, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Dunstan, Better Than Pommard! (Melb, 1994)
  • Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian Series (Melb, 1878)
  • Leader (Melbourne), supplement, 6 June 1874
  • 28 Oct 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 Oct 1905, p 5
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Oct 1905, p 5.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Curtain, John (1835–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Grange, Limerick, Ireland


22 October, 1905 (aged ~ 70)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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