The old Swan Brewery on the Swan River, Perth, Western Australia
In 1837 a small brewery opened in Perth, it was called the Albion Brewery. The man behind it was James Stokes, a 27 year old settler from Bristol in England. It came into existence because there had been a push to start a brewery – this was fuelled by the belief that imported spirits were ruining the colony. The Albion brewery did well producing traditional top fermented ales. Stokes built a second brewery (the Stanley Brewery) in 1848 at the foot of Mt Eliza using compensation he had been paid by the British Government after his attempts to start a distillery were thwarted by an Act of Parliament which prohibited such ventures. Stanley Brewery was later leased by John Ferguson, a seaman in the shipbuilding business, who appointed the German William Mumme to manage the brewery. Mumme was from a brewing family and had great skills in this field but Stanley Brewery’s contaminated water supply prevented him from producing beer of the quality that he wished.
Fredrick Sherwood, the son of a bricklayer born in Surrey, England, a pious man who had experienced some difficulties in making his fortune in the colony as an architect, established a new brewery in Perth in 1857 – he called it the Swan Brewery after the black swans that he had seen on the river. The advertisement that appeared on 10 November 1857 will be inserted soon.
After Sherwood’s death in 1874, the family offered the Swan Brewery for lease. The lease was taken up by Ferguson and Mumme who appreciated the value of its pure water supply. Mumme loved sailing and in 1876 was one of founding members of Royal Perth Yacht Club. The Club which over a century later included another owner of the Swan Brewery and infamous Aussie yachtsman, Alan Bond.
In 1879 the Swan Brewery was moved to a site at the foot of Mt Eliza not far from the Stanley Brewery and another start up – the Lion Brewery. By this time Swan had market dominance, 24 hotels were tied to the brewery – three quarters of all of Perth’s hotels.
In 1887 Montague Cohen, a Melbourne lawyer, helped to float the Swan Brewery as the Swan Brewery Co Ltd. He was also a director of Fosters Brewery Co Ltd and later masterminded the formation of Carlton and United Breweries Pty Limited. There were some rumblings in Perth as it was realised that most of the stock in the Swan float had been taken by Victorian investors and that the head office of the company would be in Melbourne. The Stanley Brewery incorporated in the same year.
In 1888 the Swan Brewery took over the neighbouring Lion Brewery. However, locals were still drinking a lot of imported beer, more in fact than they drank of the locally brewed product. The issue may have been quality, loyalty towards mother England – or just snobbery.
After very difficult times during the depression of the early 1890s, the gold rushes of the later part of the decade turned around the fortunes of the Swan Brewery and brought it back from the brink of insolvency turning it into a highly profitable business. The Hardwick family were the head brewers during these halcyon years.
The gold rushes also encouraged the establishment of rival breweries which opened up in great numbers all around the colony. In 1900 there were 38 breweries in Western Australia. But as the economic conditions worsened and miners began to leave ghost-towns behind them, the breweries began to collapse and by 1914 there were only 14 left.
In 1902 the Swan Brewery was doing exceptionally well financially and was praised in Great Britain’s Brewers’ Journal as having some of the most modern and up to date machinery anywhere in the world. However it all almost came to an end in 1906 when a fire in the bottling works almost destroyed the whole brewery.
In the 1920s under pressure from encroachments by Foster’s Lager, Swan produced its first bottom fermented beer – Swan Bitter. But this was not the only change that came in this decade, the teams of Clysdales (large strong draught horses) that had been used to deliver beer to pubs and their drunk handlers back to the brewery began to be replaced by lorries. It was no longer possible for the delivery men to have their obligatory two beers at every pub they called into.
On 6 March 1908, the Stanley Brewery changed its name to the Emu Brewery so that it would be more identifiable with its extraordinarily popular Emu bottled beer.
In 1927 Swan acquired control of Freemantle’s Castlemaine brewery. This was shortly followed by a more important acquisition, Swan’s major competitor - the Emu Brewery. A decision was made to expand and modernise the Emu Brewery and to run it as a separate concern rather than entirely amalgamate it with Swan. The popularity of the Emu bottle beers saved them from extinction.
The Great Depression hit Western Australia very hard and beer sales plummeted. In 1933 Western Australia actually voted by a two-thirds majority to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia and become a separate country. The vote was found to have been unconstitutional – secession would require the British or the Federal Parliament’s consent, or civil war.
Also in 1933 Swan Lager began to be brewed for appeal to the widest market. Over the next few years great expansion and modernisation took place at the Swan and Emu breweries.
The second world war, as the Great War had done before it, again saw many of the breweries’ best and brightest sail to the slaughter on distant shores. However, unlike during the first world war, beer consumption did not dip but despite rigorous controls continued to increase.
In 1945 Swan bought the last large Western Australian brewing company, the Kalgoorlie Brewing Co which serviced the parched throats of thirsty miners throughout the Western Australian interior. The was owned and managed by the remarkable Alice Cummins, a female entrepreneur who achieved great success in a male dominated industry in a male dominated era. She refused to sell out to Swan but after her death the executors of her estate were forced to sell the brewery and Swan made the best offer.
Kalgoorlie Bitter - A slice of WA History
On 5 September 1981 Alan Bond, through his Bond Corporation, made a $150 million offer for the Swan Brewery. On 26 October 1981 Bond Corporation triumphantly declared that the take-over had succeeded. To find out more about Bondie’s exploits click here.
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