Legend has it Richard Hamilton was in trouble.
A mild-mannered tailor by day, it is believed by night he was a vital cog in a smuggling operation.
If the stories his ancestors tell are to be believed, he would, under the cover of darkness, leave his shop premises in Dover’s Snargate Street – today the street which lies opposite the marina – and head to the beach. There he would collect crates of wine arriving on small boats, smuggled across the Channel from France.
He would then ensure the wine would make its way up to London. Or so the story goes.
But then there is a great deal of mystery surrounding a man who would go on to emigrate to Australia and help create an industry which is today worth an estimated £350 million.
The chances are you will be intimately familiar with it, because he was the man behind one of the very first vineyards to be planted in South Australia, the state which today is the Aussie grape capital.
And his remarkable life and times has spanned the generations, with his descendants, who now run the vineyards he first started, using his story as key marketing tools for their latest products.
Mary Hamilton runs Hugh Hamilton Wines and is a sixth generation direct descendant of the former Dover tailor.
“He was a colourful black sheep,” she says of him from her vineyard near Adelaide. “He was a man who marched to the beat of his own drum and made decisions that were quite outlandish.
“It takes chutzpah to decide in the last years of your life to turn things upside down, literally.
“He took his very large family on a boat to a ‘concept colony’ at the bottom of the world.
“Then he had the fortitude to reinvent himself from a tailor to a farmer and then topped that by being the pioneer of grape growing and winemaking in his new home where no grape vines had ever existed – he had to have them sent in from South Africa.
“It’s also rumoured that he used the beach at Dover to its full advantage with a little Bordeaux dealing from across the English Channel.
“He was conveniently positioned in Dover to be able to pop down to the beach and receive contraband.
“It must have been a real shock to arrive here and discover there was not a drop of wine to be had.”
Especially after the family had spent 16 weeks on board the Katherine Stewart Forbes boat to get there.
It had set sail from London, calling at Gravesend, before heading to the other side of the world with around 200 passengers on board.
He is believed to have travelled with eight of his nine children, his son Henry remaining in England to complete his schooling before sailing out to join them several years later.
When his father arrived in 1837 the country was very different to how it was today. For a start just a little over 600 people lived there. Today, Adelaide alone boasts a population of 1.3 million.
The Hamiltons were among the first settlers who had not been sent to the island to serve a prison sentence. The newly-formed state of South Australia looked to establish itself as the first to be created by those choosing to go there rather than in shackles.
Adds Mary Hamilton: “They did all the dirty work themselves. South Australia is the only free settler colony of Australia, so there was no ball and chains around these parts. The settlers had to pay their own way out here and Richard bought land here sight unseen.”
But he had some green-fingered experience as he is believed to have owned an orchard in nearby Ewell, near Dover, before putting his life on a very different path.
Before leaving he had bought an 80-acre plot of land in the new colony for the grand total of £80.
Here history gets a little murky. Some suggest he had previously considered emigrating to the USA – buying up 50 acres of land on Long Island in New York.
It is not known if he sailed there and didn’t like it, or, possibly more likely, he traded that in to help fuel his purchase of the land in Australia.
But their arrival saw delays over their plot of land and their savings dwindle. According to Mary Hamilton he wrote an “SOS” letter to friends in South Africa, to send him vine cuttings.
“The health of the family requires a little wine,” it is believed to have read.
Adds his relative: “The start of their new life here did not go according to plan. When they arrived expecting that the land they had paid for would be granted, they were given the bad news that the land had not been surveyed yet.
“The family of eight children and the parents had to live on the banks of the river in a tent to begin.
“They later built a mud brick house nearby on another piece of land Richard negotiated while they waited for their 80 acres. Once they finally got to their land he planted a mixed farm right away to be self-sufficient. He added the vines once he received them dipped in wax from South Africa. From little things big things grow.”
By 1838 they were planted in the fertile soils of what had become Curtis Farm – the new home of Richard Hamilton, his wife Ann and their children.
Adds Mary Hamilton: “We do know that he had a real green thumb. He was productive with his grape vines very quickly and had his first vintage in 1841.”
From selling to neighbours, the entrepreneurial Hamilton would load up the fruits of his harvest and sell bottles of wine from the back of a horse and cart as his reputation spread.
He also helped set up the St Mary’s Church near the vineyard – a church bearing the same name as that in which his family had worshipped in Dover.
Richard Hamilton himself died from pneumonia in August 1852, at the age of 61. He had worked hard and achieved a lot. Quite how much he can never have imagined.
Over the years, his original vineyards were expanded by his children.
His son Henry, created the Ewell Vineyard on a neighbouring plot, named after the village near Dover.
When Richard’s wife, Ann, died in 1886, at the grand old age of 97, the will saw the vineyards divided among their nine children.
And like the vines which stretched across his estate they saw different members of the family launch their own endeavours, all using Richard Hamilton’s arrival as the keystone on which they built their success.
Today, the Hamilton descendants are renowned for being one of Australian wine’s first families; with brands such as Leconfield Wines run by other family members.
And Richard Hamilton lives on through their products.
Hugh Hamilton Wine, for example, produces a Bloodline Set 1837 Shiraz – a date to commemorate Richard Hamilton and his family’s arrival. It carries a newspaper cutting describing the suspicions of his smuggling past and describing him as a black sheep – something which forms part of the brand’s logo.
For those with a few quid to spare it even comes in a wooden box designed as if used by Richard Hamilton, the tailor, in his days of working in Dover.
So what would Richard make of the legacy he has left behind?
Explains Mary Hamilton: “He was clearly a tough old stick, I think he would have thought his good genes enabled us to tough it out and grow grapes and make wine every year since he planted them. We haven’t missed a vintage for 184 years through droughts, depressions, two world wars and a few family wars.
“South Australia is the epi-centre of Australian wine. We produce more than 50% of all Australia’s wine. I think Richard would be amused to think he spawned one of the state’s most important industries – and certainly the most popular one – because he was a thirsty pioneer in need of a drink!”
So next time you uncork an Aussie red or white, perhaps raise a glass to that pioneer who planted the seed which resulted in the drink you are about to enjoy.
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