State Library of South Australia

Transcribing Tales: Henry Watson - Linking the State Library and the wine industry

Date: 12 October 2016

Last year I was invited to speak at the South Australian Wine Industry Association's 175th anniversary dinner. As background information, the organiser sent me a potted history of the Association, which referred to its founder, Henry Watson, a name new to me. Lo and behold, a catalogue search revealed the Library holds his 1838-39 shipboard diary (the Association was unaware of this). So I was able to include images from the diary in my slideshow and read extracts to the dinner guests, adding flesh to the bones of their founder, so to speak. Adding further magic to the occasion, Henry's first diary entry was also the date of the dinner!

Henry Watson PRG 456 13 1 2
Image of Henry Watson [PRG 456/13/1/2]

Henry Watson, pharmacist businessman and wine lover, emigrated to South Australia at the age of 36 with his wife Charlotte, to join his brother-in-law, business partner and fellow Quaker, John Barton Hack. The first page of Henry's diary reveals the entrepreneur at work:

October 8th 1838 Went down the river to Gravesend to join the Katherine Stewart Forbes which we were informed sailed the next morning. Found the quality of the provisions for the supply of the intermediate passengers very indifferent, remonstrated with the owners which had the effect of procuring superior sugar; decided at last to pay an increased price for Cabin fare … when we got past the Nore [sandbank], Hannah Fowler began to look very queer, helped her on the Quarter deck, & she was dreadfully ill; she was lashed to a hen coop to keep her from falling overboard.

Henry Watsons Diary PRG 456 13
Henry Watson's Diary [PRG 456/13]

It is one of the most amusing, beautifully written, and detailed diaries I have come across in my search for archival gems to transcribe, and it has a number of references to wine. On 29 November 1838, off the coast of Sierra Leone, Henry writes: 

... the night air now intensely hot, 82 degrees, several slept on deck last night, the nights are perfectly delicious. If I were asked the completest of luxuries I should say it was to sit on the poop of a vessel skimming before the Tradewind on a splendid moonlight night and to drink Sangaree [sweetened red wine].

When the ship calls in at Capetown, Henry visits several wineries including Constantia, which still exists today. He describes the vineyards in great detail and then observes: 

I do not wonder at the earthy taste complained of in Cape Wine, as the air is filled with red dust from the ferruginous soil. We could smell the land very plainly when on board in the Bay, and I quite believe the sailors' yarn about smelling the land at night before they can see it.

The ship arrives at Glenelg on 21 March 1839 and five days later Henry writes: 

Started before 6 in the morning with Barton to see the special survey that they have got at Mount Barker. We rode over a fine rich plain from the town to the foot of the hills. We ascended the 'tiers' with some difficulty, the road being very steep. The views down the different ravines became very grand, and much reminded me of the scenery of Wales and Cumberland, to which in this country is superadded the climate of Italy.

Long-time volunteer Peter Anson transcribed the diary, and observes:

"The diaries of passengers in sailing ships to the Colony of South Australia in the 19th century generally follow the same pattern. The diarist keeps a daily record of wind directions, the state of the sea, and immediately, on boarding the ship, adopts nautical language. The interaction among the passengers, crew and the Captain is also a common theme. Henry Watson follows this pattern. However there are two things which stand out in his diary.

The first is that it seems to have been one of the stormiest passages on record. Gales and storms predominated most of the way, with only a few gaps of fine weather. Things were so bad that one passenger was heard to remark 'There should be an act of parliament making it a hanging offence to take women and children on a sea voyage'. Watson gives vivid descriptions of the hardships everyone on board the Katherine Stewart Forbes suffered.

The second is his observations on his family - his parents, wife and two small daughters. After an initial bout of sea-sickness, Henry seems to have thrived on shipboard life, but the rest of the family had a very bad time of it. While he comes across as a loving and caring husband and father, there was little he could do in the face of all these difficulties. This is a diary of drama and poignancy." 

Henry Watson's diary at PRG 456/13 is part of the extensive Hack archive PRG 456, a collection which reflects John Barton Hack's interests in agriculture, winemaking, livestock, whaling, and public works.

As well as being a wine aficionado, Henry Watson was a bookish person, and was a member of the Adelaide Book Society. He was also Secretary of the Literary Association and Mechanics Institute, the forerunner of the State Library. The Mechanics Institute ran a program of evening lectures, and Henry himself gave a lecture on 'The cultivation of the grape vine'. He called for interest in a scheme to import 500,000 vine cuttings from South Africa to encourage the cultivation of vineyards. He said:

Can anything be more preposterous than under an Australian sun to muddle our brains with heavy beer or to inflame them with fire-water? The beverage that would be most congenial with our sunny skies would be a light French wine.

Henry Watson's 6,000 word lecture was reprinted in the South Australian Register the next day. A week later, on 16 October 1840, a Vine Importation Association was formed, South Australia's first wine industry association. In the same way, the State Library can trace its origins back to the formation of the South Australian Literary Association on 29 August 1834. So there has been a relationship between the State Library and our wine industry since Henry Watson in 1839.

After my presentation at the Wine Industry dinner, several vignerons talked to me about potential donations of their company records to the State Library, so the community minded Henry Watson is still making an impact in South Australia 175 years later.

Story by Carolyn Spooner, Community Learning Content Librarian

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