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Hans William Irvine (1856–1922)

by David Dunstan

This article was published:

Hans William Henry Irvine (1856-1922), by Broothorn, 1900s

Hans William Henry Irvine (1856-1922), by Broothorn, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24219551

Hans William Henry Irvine (1856-1922), vigneron and politician, was born on 2 August 1856 in Melbourne, son of John William Henry Irvine and his wife Mary, née Gray. His father was a flour-miller of Irish parentage who established a business at Learmonth, near Ballarat. Hans was apprenticed to a printing firm to learn lithography, but being of 'exceptionally spirited enterprise' he became foreman and, aided by his father, acquired a share in the business; it would appear that his skills lay in sales and management. Sir Alexander Peacock remembered him as 'a solid worker' for the Australian Natives' Association. On 7 October 1885 at St Paul's Church, Ballarat East, Irvine married 36-year-old Mary Jane Robinson, daughter of a coppersmith; they had no children.

While still a young man he became wealthy, investing in land, mining and viticulture. He sold his interest in the printing trade and in 1888 acquired Joseph Best's Great Western vineyard, cellars and winery, as well as some grazing land. Between 1888 and 1890 he acquired more vine-growing land at nearby Arawatta. He was also fortunate to obtain the services of the Frenchman Charles Pierlot, a former employee of the champagne house Pommery & Greno. Irvine was aware of the potential market for this popular and protected type of wine. In 1890 2000 bottles of sparkling wine were laid down in the cellars and another 52 acres (21 ha) planted for production of base material for sparkling wine. Irvine made the first of many journeys to Europe in 1891 to investigate the possibilities of an export market in Britain, and wine-making practices in France. Next year he entertained the Victorian governor, another potential market, in lavish style. He was also a pioneer of wine advertising.

In the early 1890s Irvine purchased two-thirds of the produce of local vignerons. Much of this was distilled into his brandy, which became quite as well known as his claret, hock, chablis, burgundy, hermitage, sparkling hock and sparkling burgundy. Keenly interested in wine science and the latest technology, Irvine maintained expert standards in his cellars. He employed for a time Leo Buring, son of T. G. H. Buring. By 1906 he had 250 acres (101 ha) under vine at Great Western, cellars in Melbourne and a depot in London. By 1907 over one mile (1.6 km) of 'drives' had been excavated at Great Western for the underground maturation of wine.

Irvine's personal success stood in stark contrast to the difficulties faced by other Victorian wine-growers during the period. In 1894 he suggested a conference of vignerons to discuss problems facing the industry. He supported moves for a college of viticulture and the systematic introduction of phylloxera-resistant American root-stocks at a time when government policy opposed it. Although phylloxera never reached Great Western he maintained a nursery of American vines on his property. He also supported industry self-regulation by an elective board of viticulture, the establishment of regional wineries, and cheaper finance for investors in the industry. First president of the Viticultural Society of Victoria in 1905, he initiated the important mission of inquiry to Europe in 1907 by François de Castella, later Victorian government viticulturist. Irvine's Report on the Australian Wine Trade was produced at the request of the Victorian minister of agriculture in 1892.

His other interests included mining, especially in the Black Range in Victoria; he earlier had used the cyanide process to yield rich profits from disused ore dumps. He owned Mininera Estate in the Hamilton district which he later subdivided. In July 1901 Irvine was elected to the Legislative Council for Nelson Province, acquiring a reputation as one of that chamber's most liberal members. He resigned in September 1906 to contest Grampians in the House of Representatives where, until defeated in 1914, he occupied a corner seat and supported Alfred Deakin. While not particularly active or ambitious in parliament, he won respect as a 'robust, self-trained man of action and affairs'.

Described by Punch in 1910 as 'a man of about middle height, with a fair, ruddy face, a large white moustache, a large beaming smile, white hair sparse in places, and a large cigar', he was dubbed 'the wine king of Australia'. Both an entrepreneur and an innovator, he succeeded in the commercial production of a champagne style where others had failed.

In 1918 Irvine sold out to Benno Seppelt, son of J. E. Seppelt, bought a grazing property, Kerrisdale, and retired to South Yarra. He went to England in 1922 to seek medical attention for a gastric ulcer. He died in London on 11 July after an operation, and his body was returned to Victoria and buried in Great Western cemetery. His wife had predeceased him in 1915. He left his estate, valued for probate at £173,356, largely to relations, and to friends and employees.

Select Bibliography

  • L. R. Francis, 100 Years of Winemaking — Great Western 1865-1965 (priv pub, nd, Melb)
  • Wine and Spirit News and Australian Vigneron, June 1894, p 25, 29, July 1894, p 43, Sept 1906, p 350, July 1910, p 271, 31 July 1922, p 289
  • Punch (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1907, 24 Mar 1910
  • Ballarat Star, 13 July 1922
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 July 1922
  • Irvine papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Irvine, Hans William (1856–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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