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Walter Edward (Bob) James (1905–1991)

by David Dunstan

This article was published:

Walter Edward Senior James (1905-1991), journalist and wine writer, was born on 22 June 1905 in London, the youngest of four children of (Sir) Walter Hartwell James, agent general and former premier of Western Australia, and his wife Gwenyfred Eleonora Marie, née Hearder. His father returned to Perth with his family in 1906 to resume a successful legal career. Young Walter was educated at Hale School, Perth, and The King’s School, Parramatta, New South Wales. He was, by his own admission, ‘a problem child,’ disappointed by boarding school and its sporting culture. By the age of seventeen, however, he had ‘formed the basis of good taste in literature’ (Turnspit 1938, 6), and learned to smoke his father’s cigars and to drink his best wines. He was known as ‘Bob’ James to distinguish him from his famous father, who was a shareholder and director of the West Australian newspaper, which Bob joined in 1923. (Sir) Paul Hasluck, a fellow journalist, became a lifelong friend.

In 1928 James joined the Melbourne Herald and by 1930 was freelancing in London, enjoying its cultural entertainments, lectures, bookstores, and galleries. He discovered ‘Chateau Margaux at 7/6d a bottle . . . [and] superb old ports,’ and travelled in Italy (Dunstan 1980, 16). Back with the West Australian in 1932, he became its features editor and edited the weekly Broadcaster. On 8 March 1935 at St Luke’s Church of England, Maddington, he married Noel Rose Johnston, the daughter of a retired banker who was also known by her family as ‘Bob.’ Paul and Alexandra Hasluck’s Freshwater Bay Press published his Venite Apotemus (‘Come, Let Us Drink’) in 1940, under the pseudonym of Tom Turnspit; a reviewer described it as ‘a reasoned—and seasoned—argument’ for greater consumption of local wines and for European-style café culture (Drake-Brockman 1940, 4). By now an experienced journalist and sub-editor, James worked briefly for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney before joining the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and moving to Canberra in 1941.

James reluctantly accepted the position of state publicity censor for Western Australia in 1942 following a recommendation by the chief publicity censor, E. G. Bonney. Unhappy in this role and in poor health (he was rejected for military service), he told Hasluck he was ‘revolted by the unhealthy dullness of my sedentary work’ (James 1942). Returning to Canberra in January 1943, he worked for the ABC news department until 1945. Inspired by the American champion of the simple life, H. D. Thoreau, he then took his wife and young family to the Perth hills, where he purchased the Glen Hardey vineyard and winery. With no practical experience, he produced sweet wines for Anglo-Australians and ‘claret’ for those of Continental origin, until a fire destroyed his vineyard in March 1949.

That year Georgian House (Melbourne) published James’ Barrel and Book: A Winemaker’s Diary, with illustrations by Harold Freedman. It ran to a second edition. James moved to Melbourne. Several books followed, including Nuts on Wine (1950), the influential primer Wine in Australia (1952), The Gadding Vine (1955), Antipasto (1957), A Word-Book of Wine (1959), and Ants in the Honey (1972). He also wrote for the Age, Home Beautiful, and Epicurean, and the wine diaries produced annually by Wynn Winegrowers.

James’s writings on wine coincided with changes in Australians’ tastes and led them as well. He could be mannered, witty, and epigrammatic, but also confident and informative, drawing on his accumulated literary and practical knowledge. He was convinced of the delights and civilising benefits of wine. He railed good-humouredly against ‘beerolatry,’ restrictive licensing laws, wowsers, and drunks alike. A stout, shy, and bookish man, his publications appealed to Australians who, in the 1950s and 1960s especially, were seeking greater worldly sophistication and knowledge of wine and food. Survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter, he died of cancer on 3 May 1991 at South Caulfield, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Drake-Brockman, Henrietta. ‘Zest in Life and Cafes for Perth?’ West Australian, 23 March 1940, 4
  • Dunstan, David. ‘An Autumn Afternoon with Walter James.’ Wine & Spirit Buying Guide, May 1980, 15-17
  • Dunstan, David. ‘The Wine Press.’ Meanjin 61, no. 4 (2002): 34-43
  • Dunstan, David. ‘Nuts on Wine: Walter James and Australian Wine Writing.’ In Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012, edited by Tanya Dalziel and Paul Genoni, 139-46. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2013
  • James, Walter Edward Senior. Letter to Paul Hasluck, 24 April 1942. Hasluck Papers. Private collection
  • National Archives of Australia. ST482/1, James, W. S
  • Turnspit, Tom [Walter James]. ‘The Pulings of a Problem Child.’ Pt. 1. West Australian, 24 September 1938, 6.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'James, Walter Edward (Bob) (1905–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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