Sunday, November 10, 2013


In my last post, I continued the story of Richard Henry, founder of the Australian Blackwells. We saw him established in business in Melbourne (wool and tallow brokering – not very appealing, but bear with the man). And we saw him, in 1884, take a bride, Tasmanian spinster Catherine Sadler, 29 – or Kate, as she later appears in some official records.

I’ve recently discovered, though, that Kate may not have been R.H.’s first wife. The following birth announcement appeared in The Argus of Tuesday, May 18, 1880: “BLACKWELL. – On the 12th inst., at 59 Drummond-street, Mrs R. H. Blackwell of a daughter.”

It is possible there was another R.H. Blackwell living in Melbourne at the time, but if so, he doesn’t appear in any other records I can find. Richard Henry arrived in the colony alone, he did not have a wife with him. Did he marry a Melbourne woman soon after arriving in 1878? The fact of an announcement would seem to suggest the baby survived birth, and I can find no death notice for a Mrs. or infant daughter Blackwell between that date and the beginning of 1884. Still, my best guess is that baby and mother perished shortly after the event, and R.H. was in the market for a new wife, which of course, he found in Kate.

After the wedding in Van Diemen’s Land, the newlyweds came back to Melbourne, to Prahran, the same suburb where Herbert Lillies and his bride would settle the next year, and wasted little time starting a family. Matthew Drummond, grandfather to baby boom Blackwells and Breens, came into the world on December 6, 1884, great uncle Richard Marsden, a few years later on August 8, 1888.

Most of what we know about R.H. before the turn of the century (and after for that matter) comes from The Argus and other newspapers of the day, which are available online, digitized and indexed at The National Library of Australia’s fabulous Trove website. The keyword indexing is based on largely uncorrected optical character recognition (OCR) text generated automatically after the pages were scanned. This means there is no guarantee that when you do a search you’ll find every instance of “Blackwell,” for example,  because in some cases the word may be rendered as “Bdaokwoh” or other difficult-to-predict manglings. But it's still an invaluable resource.

In my early searches in Trove, I found the already reported mentions of R.H. arriving in Melbourne and dissolving his partnership in the tallow and wool brokering business that he would continue operating on his own – all in The Argus. More determined searching has since turned up quite a bit more, including much evidence of the family business that our grandfather would eventually carry on well into the 20th century: distributing champagne in Australia. When we were children, this is what we were always told the family’s fortunes were based on. What I hadn’t realized is that it was a business originally started by our great grandfather, not grandfather Matthew. 

R.H. somehow wangled a contract with the George Goulet champagne company in Reims, France, to be its “sole” agent in the Australian colonies. It is not clear if Champagne George Goulet still exists today. You can find bottles for sale on the Web with vintages at least to 1999. And one winery directory has a listing for the vineyard – in Celles-Sur-Ource, about 170 kilometers south of Reims – but it’s not listed in other directories. The company has no website, or not that I can find, and doesn’t rate an entry in either the English or French Wikipedia. (There, I’m giving away all my research secrets.) But in the late 19th century, George Goulet was a highly regarded brand, patronized by royalty, which probably gave it its currency in Australia.

Half-bottle of Goulet champers recently auctioned on Web

The first evidence I found of R.H.’s involvement with George Goulet was an April 1883 ad in The Argus. It was the briefest of line ads – “Champagne, George Goulet’s extra dry, quarts and pints. R.H. BLACKWELL, agent, William-st” – probably aimed at the trade. The timing in relation to the dissolution of his partnership with Herbert Wallace in March of that year is interesting. Did they disagree about a direction for the company, with R.H. wanting to concentrate more on the champagne trade and Wallace wanting to stick exclusively with tried-and-true tallow and wool?

Then the next year, in The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, we get some insight into what R.H. was doing to spread the word about George Goulet champagne. Wagga Wagga is in an inland city of about 45,000 today, in New South Wales, midway between Melbourne and Sydney. It was mainly an agricultural town then. You have to wonder if the article, under the heading “A New Brand of Champagne,” was paid for by R.H. (Consider the name of the publication.)

“Yesterday morning we had the pleasure of an introduction to Mr. Blackwell, a representative from the firm of Messrs. George Goulet and Co., of Rehims [sic]. This gentleman has been commissioned by this new and popular firm with the duty of introducing their famous champagnes in Australia. Consequently, at his invitation, several local connoisseurs attended at the Commercial Hotel in order to pass an opinion on its merits.”

Wagga Wagga Commercial Hotel after 1890 flood

“There were some fifteen gentlemen present, including the agent for Krug and Co. [another French champagne company]. The wine was introduced in “magnum” bottles, and the decision of the fourteen well and truly tried men was decidedly in favour of Messrs. Goulet’s wine. After the wine had been thoroughly tested, a gentleman proposed “Health and prosperity to the firm” which was warmly pledged, and followed by a graceful and appropriate reply from Mr. Blackwell, who directed those present to an infallible test apart from the palate [huh?].”

“Upon this Mr. Armstrong [who he?] requested the respected host of the Commercial to bring up a bottle or so of Krug, in order to test the difference. The gentlemen present then gradually seized their hats and retired, apparently declining the kind of invitation of Krug’s agent. Mr. Blackwell comes among us with the best recommendation, from the fact that the firm he represents was honoured with a commissison to supply champagne to the Russian Emperor [Alexander III (1881-1894), “the Peace-Maker”] on the occasion of grand festivities upon his accession to the Throne last year.”

Coronation festivities for Alexander III - is that George Goulet wine on the table?

Most of the rest is a reprinting of a Times of London article describing a “special” correspondent’s visit to the Goulet winery. There is so much in the Advertiser article that is weird and not of our time that I itch to parse it, but this is probably not the place. Suffice to say, standards of “journalism” were quite different then.

In 1885, we see R.H. again reaching out to end consumers in the Bendigo Advertiser, the newspaper of a former gold rush town north west of Melbourne, today a mid-size city of 80,000. It’s a display ad (see below), although there is no picture, just text. Including an image would probably have meant commissioning an engraving, which would be expensive. Most news organs of the day, except the “illustrated” papers, appear to have been 100% text.

A big part of marketing a champagne at this time was playing up the fact that the rich, famous and noble drank it, or that it was served at prestigious events. So we have this interesting item from the June 13, 1885 Launceston Examiner (Tasmania): “The following telegram was received by the Melbourne agent for George Goulet Champagne [i.e. R.H. Blackwell], and forwarded to the Messrs. Irvine and McEachern, the local agents: We are sure you will be pleased to hear that we have received further orders from the Queen of England, for her house at Aix-La-Bains, where she is staying for three weeks, from the Queen of Wurbomberg [Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, later Queen Olga of W├╝rttemberg] at Nice, as well as a very considerable one from Lord Lyons, the English Ambassador at Paris.” 

Queen Olga of W├╝rttemberg

And R.H. placed a display ad in the April 1, 1890 Argus, trumpeting the fact that George Goulet champagne had been “Selected against the World [?] For Banquet given by Municipality of Paris - Occasion of Opening Universal Exhibition, 1889 [the one at which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled].” 

Contemporary photo of Paris Exposition of 1889 showing Portuguese Pavilion and Eiffel Tower

This is just the beginning of the family connection with George Goulet. Next post: Matthew enters the business, meets and marries Vera Lillies, gets shirty about interloping champagne competitors, etc.

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