James Busby’s name is synonymous with all that is great about Australian wine, because without him, things might have been very different indeed.
James Busby is widely known as the ‘father of Australian wine’. A viticulturist, writer and pioneer, Busby was a man with a dream – to bring vines to the new colony and kick-start the growth and production of Australian wine. Almost 200 years later, offshoots of his original cuttings can be found thriving in some of the best vineyards in Australia.
Busby was born on the other side of the world in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1801 (or 1802, depending on which records you trust), one of eight children of John and Sarah Busby.
In 1824, John Busby, a civil engineer, was offered a job as a mineral surveyor in the new colony of Australia on the princely sum of £200 a year – a year being only 200 working days at that time. In this role, he would eventually design Sydney’s first efficient water supply, known as Busby’s Bore.
With free passage on the Triton thrown in to sweeten the deal, the family set sail from Leith, Scotland, for New South Wales. On arrival, James Busby was offered a job as farm manager at the Male Orphan School in Cabramatta, west of Sydney, described as ‘grim’ and ‘rebellious’. The school offered an early form of on-the-job training by teaching trades and farming to destitute boys up to the age of 15.
Busby planted a vineyard here with cuttings he had brought over from Europe, and taught the boys to tend the vines. With his extensive knowledge and experience in viticulture (he had studied in France), Busby published his first book on the subject soon after arriving in Australia. Publication of A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine and the Art of Making Wine (1825) established him as an authority in new world wine. Wine from the Orphan School estate was exported, receiving favourable reviews from England.
Four years after arriving in NSW, Busby was granted 800 hectares of land near Carrowbrook, north of Singleton, and assigned a number of convict servants. He planted vineyards here, and on the alluvial flood plains close to the Hunter River at the family’s Kirkton estate, a few kilometres north of Branxton. Like the house and the cellar, the vineyard is long gone and is now grazed by cattle and horses.
Meanwhile, disgruntled at his lack of career options in the new territory, Busby headed back to England in 1831 to meet with the Colonial Office in person. By now he had published A Manual of Plain Directions for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for Making Wine in New South Wales, and the fledgling Australian wine industry had begun to be his obsession.
While in Europe, he embarked on a four-month tour of Spanish and French vineyards, publishing his findings and adventures as he went. He sent an extensive collection of tens of thousands of vine cuttings from the different vineyards back to the Australian colony in 1830 at the government’s expense. He followed this with another 500 vine cuttings, sent on the Lady Harewood in 1832.
Busby arrived back in Sydney in October of that year, where he donated his huge collection of European grape varieties to the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. Many of them sadly died due to neglect, but Busby planted more than 350 varieties that year at his family home at Kirkton. Cuttings were also distributed across the state and further afield to South Australia and Victoria.
On November 1, 1832, Busby married Agnes Dow, and together they set off for a new life across the Tasman, where Busby had been appointed British Resident in New Zealand.
Busby’s brief was to protect ‘well-disposed settlers and traders’, prevent ‘outrages’ against the Māori by Europeans, and apprehend escaped convicts. But with no naval or military support, nor power to arrest or deport those who committed offences, he was left, in effect, a race relations conciliator and a mediator in any matters affecting British subjects.
A house was built for him at Waitangi, where Busby planted more of the vine stock he had collected in Europe. From here, wine was being made even before his vines were productive in Australia.
In 1840, Busby co-authored the Treaty of Waitangi, with the purpose of recognising Māori ownership of their lands, forests and other possessions, and giving them the rights of British subjects, paving the way for a declaration of British sovereignty. It was signed in February of that year.
The family left Waitangi the same year, leaving Busby free to focus on his farming interests and his writing. He had made some large purchases of land during his time in government that were subsequently confiscated, and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to get them back, before eventually receiving substantial compensation.
James Busby died on July 15, 1871 during a visit to England. He was survived by his wife and three of their six children.
While not the first to import or grow vines in Australia, Busby’s drive and entrepreneurship in the craft of viticulture has left him a legacy as father of the Australian wine industry. It’s a testament to his passion that we can enjoy the fruits of his vision today.
Vintage Cellars is celebrating the legacy of James Busby with a new boutique wine collection. Including James Busby Cabernet Sauvignon, James Busby Shiraz and James Busby Shiraz Grenache.