Foundations of Basic Brewing: Beer’s Formative Role in the Making of Western Civilisation

Archaeology, Pre-history, Social History

If you delve into the story of beer’s prehistoric origins, you are instantly struck that its trajectory parallels that of another contemporary alcoholic beverage, wine. Just as with wine, drinking beer❈ was perceived from the earliest times not only to have an euphoric effect on consumers, but to contain tangible nutritional and medicinal properties.

Clay tablet – Sumerians drinking beer through elongated bent straws
The consensus among historians is that the production of beer probably started in Western Asia, more exactly in the ancient lands of Mesopotamia. Dating its beginnings is hard to say with precision, the best evidence lies in discoveries of ancient drinking vessels and utensils. The earliest such artifacts are possibly some 7,000-year-old pottery jars with traces of beer substances that were found in Iran (Persia), and a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet of people drinking a beer-like beverage through reed straws[1]. Another finding, a tablet recording a poem written in the 19th century BCE in honour of the Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi, also represents the first known recipe for the craft of brewing beer[2].

Bread or beer – what came first?
In the beginning there was the domestication of cereal grains, the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists … well not quite the beginning, this occurred (very roughly) 10,000-year-ago in the Neolithic period. The precedence of cereal grains is incontrovertible. What the next step was is not so black-and-white. The conventional wisdom has been that the cultivation of cereals was undertaken for the production of food. The grain would permit crops such as emmer wheat, einkorn wheat and barley to be grown … this led to the baking of bread and other food items.

Beer came about, according to this view, by association with bread, possibly by accident. A likely explanation for this might entail a situation where a farmer or a baker samples water in which bread had been sitting for some period of time. The water having undergone spontaneous fermentation, the natural spoilage of the germinated grain created a beer substance. The sampler liked the taste and it caught on, and thus a beer culture was born[3].

Beer the conduit for permanent human settlement?
But did humankind get serious about crop cultivation solely to produce flour for bread-making, this theory is still the orthodox view but a body of research over recent decades suggests that the earth’s grains were possibly domesticated for beer before they were for bread. This counter-view has its genesis in the early 1950s with two scholars, Robert J Braidwood and Jonathan D Sauer. It was anthropologist Braidwood who posed the question “Did man once live by bread alone?” As a result of research on a site in Jarmo (present-day Iraq) Braidwood hypothesised the earliest farming of wheat and barley was more to do with the taste that had been acquired for beer. Botanist Sauer proposed that “thrist rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grain agriculture”. Beer being a “palatable and nutritious beverage” (was a) “greater stimulant” for the cereal producers[4]. The desire for the beverage according to this view was the lever that prompted humans to begin forming permanent settlements[5].

Building on this argument, Katz and Voight in the 1980s argued that beer had a dual appeal in antiquity: people enjoyed “the altered state of awareness” that sufficient intake of beer engendered, and at the same time they benefitted from beer’s nutritional superiority to every other food in their diet aside from animal proteins[6]

Recent anthropological studies conducted in Mexico support the contention that beer took primacy over bread. Teosinte, the ancestral grass of modern maize common to Meso-America, was much more suited to beer making than for making corn flour for bread or tortillas. Mexican farmers only managed to domesticate the grass into the diet staple maize much later[7].

First draughts: Sumer, Mesopotamia and the Levant
Although the Greeks traced the genesis of beer to Ancient Egypt, the general consensus of scholars would attribute its origins, based on clear archaeological evidence, to Mesopotamia, and more specifically, mainly to sites in modern-day Iraq. Recent research from Simon Fraser University (Canada) suggests the importance of the brewing of beer to Natufian culture (the Levant) in the Late Epi-Paleolithic period (around 10,000-9,500 BCE[8]. The Godin Tepe (“Grand Mound”) site (Tepe Gawra settlement) in Northern Iraq is one of the oldest in the world to yield evidence of beer production and consumption.

Chinese rice-beer brewmasters
As is the case with the origin of wine, the Orient has thrown up a worthy contender for the mantle of the first known instance of the brewing of beer. Recently a team in Jiahu (Yellow River Valley), Northern China, found pottery residues of a 5,400 to 4,900 year-old⊛ beer made from rice, barley and other grains[9]. Just as the Chinese used rice in their beer, other early brewers experimented with different materials aside from wheat and barley – rye in Thracian beer (as did the Russians later to make kvass), date palms and pomegranates in Babylon. Excavations at a 2,500-year-old Celtic site in Eberdingen-Hochdorf (Germany) unearthed the remnants of beer mixtures which had added the ingredients henbane, mugwort and carrot seeds to a base of barley malt[10].

Beer, a healthy option?
The Mesopotamians and Ancient Egyptians believed that beer had health benefits. The brewing process involved in producing beer killed off any inherent bacteria and viruses, this made drinking beer preferable to water which retained various pollutants that made it unsafe by comparison. It was also nutritionally advantageous – providing much-needed carbohydrates, proteins and minerals. The Ancient Egyptians moreover thought that sage and thyme contained anti-cancer properties and integrated these herbs into their beers. Positive medicinal effects in ancient beer included the essential amino acid lysine and the brews were high in B-vitamin content. The Egyptians identified the existence of some 100 remedies in beer. Further south on the Nile the Ancient Nubians 2,000 years ago infused their beers with antibiotic medicine, tetracycline[11].

Ancient Egyptian brewster making beer
A heavenly brew
Beer in ancient times was integrated into mythology and religion, thus elevating its status. It was part of the Sumerian “god myth” with Babylonians believing that beer was “a gift from the gods’ – or more precisely the ‘goddesses’ (Ninkasi – the ancient Sumerian titular goddess of beer). Egyptians associated their main goddesses, Hathor and Heqet, with the creation and consumption of beer (zytum¤), as was Tenenet (or Tjenenyet) who was the “Goddess of Beer and Childbirth” … beer was an integral part of the religious festivals and state occasions of Ancient Egypt (for which ‘special’ beer brews were produced)[12].

Wine Vs Beer
Ancient Greeks and Romans were generally less enamoured with beer than other ancient civilisations – although each still produced the beverage. In both societies wine was the preferred drink and one that bestowed social status. The great Ancient Greek philosophers and historians (eg, Xenophon in Anabasis) derided beer as a low-class drink for ‘Barbarians’. An indicator of the Greeks’ low opinion of beer as a beverage was that they exported it to Mediterranean ports as an aid to craftsmen to soften ivory in the making of jewellery[13]. A common perception concerning Ancient Egypt is that whilst the lower echelon of society drank beer (the “poor man’s” liquor), the upper strata right up to the Pharaohs drank wine only which was much more expensive. It would appear though that, to the contrary, beer was a staple in the diet of all Egyptians regardless of class, the Pharaohs included[14].

PostScript I: Women – the original home brewers
Sumerian society was structured around the home, the men hunted and the women collected and prepared the ingredients for eating and drinking. Within the domain of the home the first beers were brewed – by women! Women brewers in Sumeria were often also priestesses and thus held in high social esteem. When Babylon eclipsed the Sumerian Empire Babylonian women also enjoyed a similar prestige – having the right to divorce and own a business and property, and to work as brewsters (professional female brewers) and as tavern keepers (and as well as bakers)◘[15]. Early beer making elsewhere was also the preserve of (elite) women! eg, the indigenous Wari (Sp: Huari) society in the Andes in Southern Peru that flourished before the rise of the Inca Empire[16].

Beer brewing and the product’s distribution and sale remained women’s work until brewing moved away from the home when beer-making took on a commercial-scale of activity. By the Industrial Revolution the brewing of beer had been fully taken over by men[17] .

The Mesopotamian symbol for beer

PostScript II: The world according to beer
In 2011 a documentary, How Beer Saved the World, screened on the Discovery Channel. The film, once you get past the irritatingly over-the-top, megaphonic introduction, makes a reasoned case for beer’s fundamental role in shaping the world as we know it. A battery of scientists and anthropologists take turns explaining the breadth of the ancient (and the modern) world’s debt to beer – eg, it fuelled the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza (workers were paid in beer۞); it prompted the invention of mathematics and the world’s first form of writing, Cuneiform (the film argues that arithmetic and writing was necessary to account for beer’s production and distribution); it contributed to the modern process of pasteurisation. It also reinforces the view that barley was grown for beer before bread, and that the brewed beverage came about by accident.

╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼
❈ with the seemingly inexorable onslaught on the market of craft beers today, brewers are sifting increasingly exotic and sometimes weirder ingredients into their brew concoctions (so much so that lentil beer for instance seems almost a mild deviation from orthodoxy). For the ancient pioneers of beer-making though the basics comprised water, barley (or similar grain, eg, emmer, malt), yeast, but not hops … this last naturally growing plant ingredient was somewhat of a late-comer added to the composition of beer, it seems that the human cultivation of hops came much later (ca. AD 12th century), ‘The Short and Bitter History of Hops’, (D Martorana, Philly Beer Scene, Apr/May 2010), www.beerscenemag.com
⊛ early Yangshou period, flourished c.5000BCE
¤ the honey-flavoured Hqt or Heqet was the most popular of the beer brews in Ancient Egypt
◘ this brings us back to the beer or bread debate – was beer-making an offshoot of bread-making or vice versa? Evidence from Ancient Egypt doesn’t resolve this question, but we do know that specially made bread was the basis for some of the beer brewed (beer loaves); also in Sumeria bippar (twice-baked barley bread) was used in the brewing of beer, Hornsey, loc.cit
۞ each one received a daily allowance up to one gallon of low-alcohol beer

[1] ‘History of the word Beer’, (Beer100.com Your place for everything Beer), [NDP] www.beer100.com
[2] ‘Discover the Oldest Beer Recipe in History from Ancient Sumerian, 1800 B.C.’, (Open Culture), 03-Mar-2015, www.openculture.com
[3] B Mauk, ‘When was beer invented?’, (Live Science), 18-Jan-2013, www.livescience.com
[4] JW Arthur, ‘Beer through the Ages: The Role of Beer in Shaping Our Past and Current Worlds’, Anthropology Now, 6(2), Sept 2014), www.jstor.org; D Spector,’How Beer Created Civilisation’, Business Insider Australia, 27-Dec-2013www.businessinsider.com.au
[5] although the “beer first” thesis has enjoyed a vogue, some scholars reject the argument wholly, eg, Paul Mangledorf: “Man cannot live on beer alone … Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?”; [6] Spectorloc.cit.
[7] JP Kahn, ‘How Beer Gave Us Civilisation’, The New York Times, 15-Mar-2013, www.mobile.nytimes.com
[8] ‘What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic’, Hayden, B, Canuel, N & Shanse, J. J. Archaeol Method Theory (2013), 20:102. Doi:10/1007/s10816-011-9127-y
[9] J Wang et al, ‘Revealing a 5,000-year-old beer recipe’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (113:201601466), 23-May-2016, www.pnas.org
[10] B Bower, ‘2,550-Year-Old Celtic Beer Recipe Resurrected’, (Science News), 17-Jan-2011, www.wired.com
[11] C Seawright, ‘Ancient Egyptian Alcohol: Beer, Wine and the Festival of Drunkenness’, 02-Jan-2013, www.thekeep.org; ‘Wiki History of Beer’, (Wikipedia), www.em.n.wikipedia.org; S Webb, ‘Did Beer create civilisation?’, Daily Mail (Aust), 21-Dec-2013, www.dailymail.co.uk
[12] SH Katz & MM Voight, ‘Bread and Beer: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet’, www.penn.museum/bread.pdf; IS Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing (2003)
[13] Hornsey, ibid.; JJ Mark, ‘Beer in the Ancient World’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02-Mar-2011, www.ancient.eu
[14] ‘Ancient Egypt Online’, www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/index.html
[15] T Nurin, ‘How Women Brewers Saved the World’, 21-Apr-2016, www.bearandbrewing.com
[16] RR Britt, ‘Elite Women Made Beer in Pre-Incan Culture’, (Live Science), 14-Nov-2005, www.livescience.com
[17] ‘Women in Brewing’, (Wikipedia), www.em.n.wikipedia.org

Fountainhead of the Fermented Grape: Wine’s Ancient Origins

Archaeology, Pre-history, Regional History, Social History

Where did the story of wine and wine-making begin? As with many things whose beginnings are shrouded in the mystery of ancient and even pre-historic times, it is very hard to pinpoint a one hundred percent, definitive answer to this question. The evidence for when and where humans might have first cultivated Vitis vinifera va. sylvestris (the wild grape fruit)❈ lies in the realm of archaeology.

Today’s Transcaucasian republics – physical map
The timeline for the first experiments with wine-making, thanks to a wealth of archaeological evidence, puts it in the pre-recorded history stage of humanity, more precisely in the Neolithic Era (in Eurasia this was, very roughly, from 9,000 to 4,000 BCE). The consensus view has traditionally tended to be that the rudiments of viticulture can be located in the area around Mesopotamia and the Caspian Sea.

The Fertile Crescent: home of Ur-winemakers
Transcaucasia (the Caucasus), that relatively narrow strip of multi-ethnic lands separating the Black Sea from the Caspian, stretching south to include the northern parts of Turkey and Iran, has perhaps the best claim to the honour. Archaeologists have discovered early signs of wine activity and implements in southern Georgia, north-western Azerbaijan, and northern Armenia, suggesting that “Stone Age people took advantage of a temperate climate and availability of wild fruit species to experiment with cultivating grapes”[1].

Wine expert Caroline Gilby identifies three basic pre-conditions for successful wine-making in the Neolithic era, (i) a stable human population settled in the one place for some time, (ii) invention of pottery/clay vessels for storage✜, and (iii) existence of wild grapevines (plus a self-fertile plant to cross-pollinate with). Transcaucasia fits the bill – plant cultivation for most of the major agricultural crops began in the Middle East region around 10,000 years ago. Within the greater Caucasus, Georgia for which wine is a national obsession has 500 distinct varieties of the vine, whilst Turkey and Armenia have around 600 and 200 respectively[2].

Not to be outdone, Iran itself has a claim worthy of contention for longevity of vine production. In the mid 1990’s evidence of mey (Persian: wine), dating to about 5,400 BCE, was found in excavated jars at the Hajji Firuz Tepe site in the Zagros Mountains of north-western Iran. What was especially significant about this location was that it also contained evidence of the preservation of wine (in the form of a resin from the local terebinth tree)[3].

Armenia: site of oldest known vineyard
In recent years archaeologists discovered and excavated the Areni-1 Cave – the earliest known site of wine production (pre-historic “wine-making on an industrial scale” not hitherto unearthed)[4]. Items found at the vineyard at Vayots Dzor included a wine-press, fermentation vats, jars and cups[5]. The clay receptacles with their wine traces were radiocarbon-dated after being chemical analysed at between 4100 BCE and 4000 BCE. A side-effect of the recent vinaceous archaeological discoveries has been squabbling among the various Transcasusian states as to who were the first wine-makers[6].

Egyptian winery, 2nd millennium BCE
Mediterranean wine culture
Transcaucasian wine production and consumption clearly predates those from the Mediterranean region. Egypt is closest in time to the northern Eurasian area, its oldest traces of wine (yrp or irep), found inside the Tomb of the Scorpion King (Abydos, Upper Egypt), is about 5,000-years-old. Interestingly they were found to be spiked with natural medicines (effectively herbal wine). These medicinal additives were later adopted by Greek and Roman winemakers who followed the Egyptian practice[7]. The ancient Egyptians, who had a preference for red wine, were the first to depict wine and wine-making in their hieroglyphics.

Roman wine jars – great & small
In Grecian Macedonia fragments of crockery and assorted pottery with wine traces have been found dating back to around 4,500 BCE. Evidence of wine cultivation – dating from the mid-3rd century BCE – was also found on the Greek island of Crete. For ancient Romans wine was the drink de jour … initially Roman attempts at the craft of wine-making were derivative of the established Greek (and Etruscan) methods of viticulture but the Romans later drew on the ample supply of indigenous vines in southern Italy to produce their own varieties. With the ever widening reach of Roman imperial expansion – through war, trade and settlements – the Romans spread wine consumption and viticulture to the countries and regions it conquered (especially France, Germany, Spain and Portugal)[8].

Vino in eastern Asia: China’s early wine origins
In the mid 2000s China emerged as a candidate for the world’s earliest consumers of wine. An international team of archaeologists (Chinese, American and German) dug up an early Neolithic village (Jiahu) in Henan Province, unearthing pottery with traces of “wine-like drinks”(sic) (a fermented mixture comprising rice, honey and hawthorn fruit and grape). The beverage has been dated somewhere between the year 7,000 BCE and 5,500-6,000 BCE[9].

Whether China has the bragging rights to being the earliest consumer of wine (and perhaps the first centre of wine production), or Transcaucus does, one point remains clear: the interest and active, on-going work of archaeologists in this field, ensures that ownership of the title has a fluidity to it. Yet more candidates for the world’s earliest pioneers of viticulture are likely to be unearthed in the future.

∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸∸
❈ the European grape-vine common to western Eurasia – between the Mediterranean and Caspian seas
✜ ceramic containers were invented around 20,000 years ago

[1] T de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, (2010). For instance, discoveries in the 1960s of domesticated grape pips in N/W Azerbaijan have been dated at around 6,000 BCE; in Shulaveri, Georgia, University of Pennsylvania academic Patrick McGovern found wine residues in the shards of 8,000-year-old ceramic vessels, A Friedrich, ‘Georgia’s Vintners Thrist for the Past’, The Washington Post, 22-Feb-2004
[2] C Gilby, ‘The Birthplace of Wine?’, Decanter, (Jan. 2012), www.winesofturkey.org. The domesticated form of the grape has hermaphrodite flowers which self-pollinate, KK Hurst, ‘Wine and its Origins – The Archaeology and History of Wine Making’, (About Education), www.archaeology.about.com
[3] ibid.; M Berkowitz, ‘World’s Earliest Wine’, (Newsbriefs) Archaeology Archive, 49(5) Sep/Oct 1996, www.archaeologicalarchive.org/9609/newsbriefs/charlesfort.html
[4] Dig project co-director Boris Gasparyan, cited in Gilroy, op.cit.
[5] ‘History of Wine’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] Gilroy, loc.cit.
[7] the Scorpion I wine did not emanate from a local production point, but was imported to the Nile from the Levant, B Handwerk, ‘Scorpion King’s Wines — Egypt’s Oldest — Spiked with Meds’, National Geographic News, 13-Apr-2009, www.news.nationalgeographic.com; J Butler & R Heskett,
Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age, (2012)
[8] ‘Ancient Rome and wine’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
[9] ‘Chinese People were Drinking Wine 9,000 Years Ago’, (Phys Org) 19-Dec-2004, www.phys.org

Walama Redux: Ballast Point’s Cyclical Journey

Archaeology, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

In the time of Aboriginal Australia, the indigenous clans which inhabited the Balmain peninsula, the Wan-gal and the Cadi-gal, called the chunk of land that juts out between Snails Bay and Mort’s Bay, Walama (meaning “to return”). And in a sense, that is what has happened to Ballast Point, once a bushy promontoryφ. From the earliest encounters of the First Fleeters’ with the Point, it has gone full circle from a spot of untouched natural beauty to a grimy industrial site and is now being returned to something reminiscent of its natural state, in time perhaps becoming a palimpsest of what it once was.

Ballast Point Park was opened as a two-and-a-half-hectare public space in 2009 (also called ‘Walama’ as a mark of respect for the traditional custodians for the area). The restoration of the Point as public land was a victory for the people of Balmain, achieved only after a long struggle of determined local activism and community support to overcome the commercial plans of developers and the vacillation of state governments.

Before I outline the details of the end-game for the Ballast Point story I should recount the headland’s history from the initial colonial contacts. The British settlers’ first use of Ballast Point seems to have been as a fishing and hunting spot. The name “Ballast Point” is derived apparently from the occurrence of rockfalls from the high point above the shoreline crashing to the bottom of the outcrop[1]. Ships having unloaded their cargo from Europe found the stones, small broken rocks, gravel, etc which accumulated on the shore ideal material for ballast for their empty hulls to give the vessels stability for the return journeys.

Display remembering 'Menevia'  which once occupied BP site
Display remembering ‘Menevia’ which once occupied the Ballast Pt site
Part of colonial surgeon William Balmain’s early land grant, Ballast Point passed through many hands in the first half of the 19th century including Fred Parbury, James Goodsir, Henry Smith, George Cooper and John Gilchrist (who subdivided it as ‘Glenelg Crescent’ but this enticed few if any buyers)[2]. Merchant and draper Thomas Perkins acquired the promontory in 1852. By 1864 Perkins had built and occupied a large two-story, sandstone villa on the headland, which he named Menevia§. For some years after it was built Ballast Point was known as Menevia Point. After Perkins’ death the mansion became a boarding house until after World War I.

By 1928 Menevia had fallen into disrepair and was up for sale. Balmain Council expressed an interest but public funds were tight at the time and it couldn’t afford to buy it. Texas oil company Texaco snapped it up. Texaco, who later merged with Standard Oil of California to form Caltex, used it as a depot to store very large quantities of petroleum (and later as a grease plant).

Old 1960s Caltex sign: 'Grease Plant'
Old 1960s Caltex sign: ‘Grease Plant’
Over time Caltex built 30 large storage tanks at what became known as the Balmain Terminal. However this large scale enterprise did not enhance the quality of life for local residents, with trucks coming and going through the narrow, congested streets of Balmain an ongoing irritant to those living in the, mainly humble, dwellings nearby[3].

Ballast Point became less important to Caltex after the company opened a new, larger oil terminal at Banksmeadow (South Sydney). From the late 1980s through the 1990s Caltex tried to prepare the way to unload its Balmain operations in a commercial deal, twice petitioning Leichhardt Council to have its land rezoned from waterfront industrial to residential, but without success. The local community in Balmain had formed an opposition group called Ballast Point Campaign Committee (BPCC) in the mid Eighties to save Ballast Point by returning the headland to public land. Leichhardt Council eventually supported BPCC in its actions[4].

The Walker Corporation (formerly McRoss Developments) sought to purchase the 2.6ha headland site from Caltex to build a 138 unit apartment complex, but the deal was blocked by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority’s (SHFA) compulsory acquisition of the land in 2002[5]. Caltex received nearly $14.4 million in compensation. Walker Corp was offered $10.1 million by the state government (as they had acquired an option on the land), which it disputed in the High Court of Australia as grossly undervalued (Walker Corporation P/L v Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (2008). Initially the developers were awarded compensation of $60M but this was overturned on appeal and the original amount of $10M reaffirmed[6].

The Menevia artefacts display cabinet (as it used to look!)
The Menevia artefacts display cabinet (as it used to look!)
After the SHFA took control of Ballast Point it took another seven years during which the Caltex site was remediated, followed by planning, designing and landscaping, before the post-industrial park was opened in July 2009. The design of the new park includes walls composed of recycled rubble enclosed in wire mesh gabions (cylindrical baskets), sandstone plinths, artworks commemorating the former industrial role, eg, Tank 101 (storage tanks) as well as reminiscences of Menevia – artefacts of the Victorian house excavated whilst the site was being remediated. These comprise domestic utensils (crockery, glassware, bottles, etc) mounted in a display case in the park. Unfortunately, recently the glass cabinet was smashed by mindless vandals and the archeological items have been removed.

Ballast Pt Park's Gabion walls: cylinders of recycled stones
BP Park’s Gabion walls: cylinders of recycled stones
The final form of Ballast Point Park has come in for some criticism from various quarters, especially from Paul Keating (who originally championed its creation) for “its lack of romantic verdancy” and the failure of the architects to erase all reminders of the past “industrial vandalism” of Caltex (as the ex-PM described it)[7]. Opponents of this viewpoint have attacked it as representing an attitude that seeks to ‘sanitise’ history by omitting the full story of the place’s industrial past[7]. With the full passage of time, they advocate, vegetation will bring this public park back to something like the wooden headland it was prior to European colonisation.

_ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _
φ At the time the British came in 1788, the pioneering settlers reported that indigenous hunters of the Wan-gal and Cadi-gal clans would hunt kangaroos through the densely wooden and bushy peninsula, driving them towards the north-eastern point of Balmain (down the hill into present-day Illoura Reserve) into a cul-de-sac at Peacock’s Point where they were able to trap the animals and easily kill them
§ The name ‘Menevia’ was apparently derived from a cathedral in Swansea, South Wales which bears the name

≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡
[1] Peter Reynolds,’Ballast Point’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/ballast_point,viewed 15 May 2016
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ‘Ballast Point Park Opening’, The Peninsula Observer, Vol 44 No 3 Issue 312 (Sept 2009)
[5] Ex-PM Keating, Tom Uren, et al, apparently influenced the Carr Labor Government’s decision to make the Caltex site a public space, K Legge, ‘How Paul Keating saved Barangaroo headland park on Sydney Harbour’, The Australian, 3 October 2015
[6] B Makin, ‘Ballast Point: from oil terminal to public park’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Oct 2005
[7] L Harding, ‘Ballast Point’, ArchitectureAU, 2 Jan 2012, www.architectureau.com

Balmain’s Legacy of Industry, Workers, Pubs and Architectural Heterogeneity

Archaeology, Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

The Balmain peninsula, just to the west of Sydney’s CBD, has a long post-settlement history of European mixed land use, both as a magnet for industry and a place for workers and their families – and room also for those financially well-heeled enough to afford the pick of the land and a waterfront property with magnificent views of Australia’s finest harbour.

From the 1840s industry had started to make inroads into the Balmain landscape, and the types of enterprises were becoming many and varied. Over the next 150 years the suburb’s diverse industry has included power stationsφ, an English-owned colliery (from 1897) located just north of Birchgrove Public School, whose long-term productivity proved disappointing. After the mine’s closure in 1931 it produced methane gas until the early 1940s. Eventually houses were built over it and today an exclusive residential complex known as Hopetoun Quays sits atop the site.

Thames St Ferry Wharf, Mort's Bay
Thames St Ferry Wharf, Mort’s Bay
At Mort’s Bay a shipyard and dry dock (Australia’s first) was created in the 1850s, the shipyard similarly was not very successful, and the business eventually morphed into a maritime engineering enterprise employing in excess of 1,000 men. Thomas S Mort, the dock owner, created ‘Mort’s Town of Waterview“, a subdivision of land to provide housing for his dockyard workers[1]. There was also a ferry service built at Mort’s Bay c.1895. The Thames Street Wharf, with its distinctive curved shelter, transported between 20,000 and 24,000 workers to and from Circular Quay daily (it is thought to be the only Victorian era ferry still operating in the Sydney Harbour network)[2].

Colgate-Palm apartments
Colgate-Palm apartments
Other industrial enterprises on the peninsula included a saw mill at the end of Nicholson Street, owned by Alexander Burns, the location later taken over by the Adelaide Steamship Co which employed more than 600 men in its ship repair business; a coal loader; US soap and toothpaste giant Colgate-Palmolive with a factory employing over 140 operated in Broadstairs Street, later renamed Colgate Avenue (the Colgate building, which was known locally as “the Olive” is now renovated apartments)[3]. Interestingly, grimy industrial Balmain had no shortage of soap as a second company, Lever and Kitchen (later becoming Unilever), also manufactured soap and glycerol in a huge (10ha) plant near Booth Street and Punch Park. At its zenith Lever and Kitchen had a workforce of over 1,250, many of whom lived locally.

imageThe co-existence between home-maker and industry in Balmain has not always been an easy one. The peninsula developed as an industry hub and a desirable place to dwell more or less concurrently. Its proximity to Sydney Town made it attractive to industrialists and to the workforce. By 1846 Balmain housed 19.6 per cent of Sydney and was the largest residential area of the colony – predominantly working class as the workers in the main wanted to be close to where the industrial work was[4].

Notwithstanding the numerous working men (and their unpaid women folk) in the early days[5] there was also a significant middle class component, after all someone had to live in those magnificent Post-Regency and Georgian mansions. “Captains of industry” like Ewen Wallace Cameron and Robert (RW) Miller lived in such palatial homes on the peninsula, as did local developers and businessmen like Robert Blake and JJ Yeend.

The peninsula’s population in 1848 was just 1,337, however there was a spike in numbers over the remainder of the century reaching a straining 28,460 by 1895[6]. The working class parts of Balmain were clearly overcrowded and the suburb’s pattern of development disorganised and haphazard, eg, factories were springing up alongside workers’ modest houses and public schools[7].

Because of the historic heavy concentration of blue-collar industry in Balmain, a strong trade union presence (in particular the maritime industries with the Painters and Dockers Union) has always been part of the landscape. That Balmain/union nexus led to the formation of the Labor Electoral League (which changed its name to the Australian Labor Party) at the relocated Unity Hall Hotel (290 Darling Street) in 1891. The ALP has dominated state elections in the seat covering the Balmain area (in 1978 capturing 82.4 per cent of the two-party vote), although the current MP is a Greens politician, which continues the traditional left-leaning trend of peninsula politics.

Birchgrove, btwn Snails Bay & Long Cove: 1855 map
Birchgrove, btwn Snails Bay & Long Cove: 1855 map
Birchgrove in Balmain’s north-western point is thought of as the classiest area of the whole peninsula, well, not all of Birchgrove, just one street … actually just part of one street, Louisa Road, the end part. Birch Grove House, believed to be the first house built on the Balmain peninsula, was located at 67 Louisa Rd. It was constructed in 1810 for army regiment paymaster John Birch and demolished, sadly, in 1967. In the 1860s and 70s Hunters Hill developers, the Joubert brothers, subdivided Birchgrove land backing on to Snails Bay§. The estate was advertised as “a miniature Bay of Naples” but few of the villas were ever sold[8].

Home owners today in the exclusive bits of Louisa Rd (properties starting at well in excess of $3 million) include movie producers and directors, famous writers, members of platinum record-breaking rock bands, as well as the more mainstream common, garden variety” type of professionals. But it was not always so – 150 Louisa Rd at one time was the headquarters of the Bandidos bikie gang. After the 1984 Milperra Massacre involving rival Comancheros and Bandidos bikie gangs, the Bandidos members were turfed out of the 1897 Federation/Queen Anne house[9].

From pub to friendly society to medical centre
The houses in East Balmain don’t tend overall to match the price tags of Federation-rich Louisa Road, but they represent some of the best and most interesting, as well as the oldest, architecture in the peninsula. Darling Street, starting from East Balmain Wharf, is dotted with 1840s-1860s sandstone hotel buildings. Some are no longer functioning as pubs, eg, the Shipwrights Arms, 1844 (10 Darling St), the original Unity Hall Hotel, c.1848 (49 Darling St), the Waterford Arms, now ‘Cathermore’, 1846 (50 Darling St). These 1840s buildings have a plain Post-Regency style to them, simple stone and wooden roofs, clean lines with little or no ornamentation. The contrast is with the later Victorian buildings, such as ‘Bootmaker’s Cottage’ 1860 (90 Darling St) which is more ornate (if restrained) with stone quoins (corner blocks) plus a combination of stone and brick materials and elegant cast-iron balustrading[10]. The enhanced use of decoration and superior materials in the grander later Victorian houses, reflect the affluence of Sydney after the colony’s Gold rushes.

Datchett Street
Datchett Street
The extent to which Balmain had become an architectural zoo can be glimpsed from comparing Cameron’s Cove with its Victorian Italianate mansions like ‘Ewenton’ 1854-72 (1 Blake St)[11] with the delightful but ramshackled old timber cottages in little Datchett Street, a narrow, steep side lane-way just across the Cove. Some of the Datchett dwellings look a bit like holiday shacks and would not be out-of-place in a sleepy little backwater up the coast.

From the 1960s Balmain’s character began to change. A slow process of gentrification was occurring as property values rose and more people renovated their old houses. Industries moved out, partly because of a trend toward decentralisation, and partly because many were dying off[12]. The prospect of a waterfront home tantalisingly close to the CBD was a lure for many a “cashed-up” punter!

In the eighties and early nineties industrial areas of the peninsula were re-zoned as residential by a development friendly Leichhardt Council to the glee of developers like Leda Group who were free to carve out new middle class estates from the old Unilever site and the like. All of which meant the suburb became beyond the reach of most working class home-owners.

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φ strictly speaking, these two power stations, White Bay and Balmain (Cove), which book-ended the peninsula east and west, were located in Rozelle, but within the Balmain district
§ the Wan-gal (Aboriginal) name for the point jutting out from Birchgrove is Yurulbin which means “swift running waters” as it is the point of confluence where the two headwaters meet (Port Jackson and Parramatta River)

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[1] LA Jones, ‘Housing the Worker’, (unpublished BA(Hon) thesis, University of Sydney), Oct 2011
[2] ‘History of Balmain Thames Street Ferry Wharf’, (NSW Transport), www.rms.gov.au
[3] G Spindler, ‘A Sydney Harbour Circle Walk 2011-12’ (Historic Notes & Background), Apr 2011, www.walkingcoastalsydney.com.au
[4] ‘Wyoming’ (Balmain Italianate Mansion), NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, www.environment.nsw.gov.au
[5] so much so the mainstream Sydney press in 1889 described Balmain with its 5,000 dwellings as “working men’s paradise”, Illustrated Sydney News, 11 Jul 1889
[6] ‘Balmain: Local History’, Inner West Council/Leichhardt Municipal Council, www.leichhardt.nsw.gov.au
[7] ‘History of Balmain’, www.balmainlodge.com.au
[8] ‘Wyoming’, op.cit.. Didier Joubert named Louisa Rd after his wife and the adjoining streets after his children
[9] Spindler, op.cit.
[10] ‘Humble to Handsome – Balmain Architecture 1840-1860s’, (Balmain Walks, Balmain Association Inc), www.balmainwalks.org.au
[11] ‘Ewenton’ itself is something of an architectural mélange with its mixture of Moorish arches and Georgian and Victorian features, ibid.
[12] eg, the 14 or so old shipyards of Balmain have all closed down, ‘Old Balmain: Paddocks and Shipyards’, Local Notes (2012), www.localnotes.net.au