Benjamin Gray - Brewer and Hotel Owner

By Reg Butler - Extracted from Reg's computer files.

Benjamin Gray, his wife Eliza Ann nee Emery and an unidentified infant son, from Littlehampton, Sussex, England, embarked for the newly established colony of South Australia aboard the Resource in 1838.  As a skilled energetic young carpenter in good health, nearly thirty years old, Gray was just the kind of settler the South Australian Colonisation Commissioners sought to attract with the offer of a free passage.

Where the family lived for the first two years in South Australia is not known at this stage, but it would not be surprising if the Grays were constantly on the move, so that Benjamin could undertake lucrative building work in newly opened up areas as the infant colony expanded.

Eventually, the Grays reached the Mount Barker District, where they put down what turned out to be permanent roots by early 1841.  Perhaps this was at the instigation of two kinsmen, Francis Robert Hunt and John Hunt, who were friends of another North England family, the Davisons, who had settled on an estate which became known as Blakiston, in the vicinity of the Mount Barker township.  John Dunn, Mount Barker’s well-known miller, mentioned in his memoirs that Benjamin Gray lived in a shanty opposite the gateway to Francis Davison’s homestead.

Amid a busy schedule of completing various government and private building contracts, Benjamin Gray formed a close friendship with the above-mentioned Francis Robert Hunt, at that stage definitely still a young bachelor adventurer.  The two men branched out into a vastly profitable joint career as cattle dealers.  Gray and Hunt ploughed some of their proceeds into purchasing land grants Sections 5008 and 5011 Hundred of Macclesfield, between Mount Barker and Blakiston, in 1849.

Almost immediately, the partners dreamed of creating the nucleus of a small village on portion of their land, unfortunately situated on only one side of the busy main road to the burgeoning copper mines at Callington and Kanmantoo.  Apparently, Gray must have been a person of remarkable persuasive powers, because at the same time, he induced fellow parishioners at nearby Saint James Blakiston, Thomas Biddles and John Forster, to contribute portion of their land holdings on the other side of the main road towards the scheme as well, to enable the new township to boast a main street with a built-up area on both sides.  Gray drew up a village plan for allotments numbered in sequence across those three land holdings, with each owner responsible for his own land sales.

This new settlement took the name Littlehampton (or perhaps initially Little Hampton), after Benjamin Gray’s native place in England, which he had not seen for ten years.

Littlehampton’s site was a master stroke location-wise.  The Gray-Hunt portion of the village lay cradled between the points where the respective roads from Hahndorf via Shady Grove (now Cleggett Road) and Balhannah (Junction Road) joined the Mount Barker-Nairne main road.  Unfortunately, a huge protruding hill prevented these two partners from laying out as many allotments as they would have liked on their sections, but these land portions did have the honour of beginning the total numbering system for all the building sites in the whole town.

Gray and Hunt also fancied themselves as brewers.  At some time during 1850, much of the flat land behind the allotments on one side of the afore mentioned hill had became the location for a prominent brewery ediface nestled in front of what eventually became known as Brewery Hill, across Littlehampton Creek from the main street, with an entrance track, now known as Rosella Court, coming in from the the road to Hahndorf via Shady Grove.

In the event, no homes shut off the brewery site until well into the twentieth century.  In solidly built stone buildings, boasting an inscribed lintel above the main entrance, Messrs Gray and Hunt could take advantage of some of the copious amounts of sweet permanent creek and spring water welling up year round at various locations at Littlehampton, all of which gave the beer made there a distinctive taste.

Gradually, the Littlehampton Brewery carved a niche market for itself amidst the numerous local Adelaide Hills inns and hotels, but never managed to rival the vast J & AG Johnston brewing empire which had opened in a small way at Oakbank shortly beforehand, in 1843, and is still in existence as proprietor of an extensive chain of hotels.

Benjamin Gray abandoned his shanty for a prominent hillside location at the entrance to Blakiston village, at convenient walking distance along from St James Church.  His substantial new stone home, grandly named Blakiston Hall, boasted commodious cellars flanked by rounded arches, still in existence today.

All was now in place for a life of gracious living such as Gray could only dream of as a small boy and young man when he gazed upon the squire’s residence adjacent to many an idyllic village on the Sussex Downs.  Perhaps Benjamin smiled secretly to himself from time to time to think that here in South Australia his own quarters now overlooked those of Francis Davison, the recognised Squire of Blakiston.

In 1852, business partner FR Hunt abandoned brewing for life as a publican, after his marriage with the widowed landlady, Sarah Hopkins Ide, of the German Arms Hotel in Hahndorf.  He sold his interest in the Littlehampton township allotments and brewery to Benjamin Gray, and for the rest of his life concentrated on various Hahndorf affairs.  One likes to think that, for old time’s sake, Hunt continued to support his old colleague in the matter of beer supplies.

Shortly afterwards, Littlehampton township subdivision partner Thomas Biddles carved the main road to Nairne boundary of his Tara estate into further allotments, allowing Littlehampton to begin its creep towards Blakiston.  He had a neat stone inn constructed on the prominent corner site of the main road with Balhannah.  Most probably, Benjamin Gray erected this building which displays many similar architectural features to the Stanley Bridge Hotel at Verdun, erected some months earlier, also probably by Gray.

Biddles opened his ambitious enterprise in January 1854, under the name the Great Eastern Hotel after the busy passing highway.  He had the good fortune to secure as first publican the services of gregarious Richard Cornelius, the popular Captain Dick of the recently closed Paringa Mine near Kanmantoo.  No doubt, the nearby Littlehampton Brewery quickly benefited as well in helping to stock the cellars of this new hostelry.

Never one to shy away from a lucrative business opportunity either, Benjamin Gray quickly decided to trump his two former business partners.  Calculating eyes turned Mount Barker-wards.

Properly managed and marketed, that nearby township would support a further hostelry, to take on Charles Low of main street Low’s Inn, and several other smaller licensed establishments of variable standards along other thoroughfares.  To a man, all these publicans also prospered on cattle dealing, and occasionally mixed farming.

Gray purchased a choice allotment on the corner of Gawler and McLaren Streets, Mount Barker, and erected a substantial two-storey stone hotel to his own design, complete with balcony, which he named Gray’s Inn.

Horror of horrors, lured by Gray gold, popular mine host Richard Cornelius abandoned Littlehampton’s Great Eastern, and opened for business as the first publican at Gray’s Inn during April 1855; he remained there until 1859, when his swiftly growing interest in land and cattle dealing led him to abandon hotelkeeping for an auctioneering and agency partnership with another leading Mount Barker personality, Frederick Stone.

Back at Littlehampton, Thomas Biddles evidently decided that putting his faith in celebrity publicans was unwise, and henceforth mostly managed his own hotel himself until he left the district in the late 1860s.

However, Lady Luck further favoured Benjamin Gray in a stellar business career (financed by substantial mortgages) when Gottlieb Andreas Schuetze, the owner-operator of the Australian Arms Hotel at Hahndorf, approached Gray for a loan through mortgage to build a new watering hole, named the Union Hotel, across the main street, during 1858.  Gray obliged with alacrity, and also ensured that the mortgage agreement included the proviso that Schuetze purchase all his beer from the Littlehampton Brewery.  By 1863, all of GA Schuetze’s business acumen had deserted him; he defaulted in his repayments and the Union Hotel became the freehold property of Benjamin Gray.

Thus materially fortified, Gray continued brewing operations at Littlehampton, and leased the above hotels at Mount Barker and Hahndorf, plus the District Hotel at Nairne and the Kanmantoo Hotel, which he had also acquired along the way, to a variety of publicans.  All his substantial mortgages repaid, Benjamin Gray looked forward to a comfortable long retirement, albeit without his beloved wife, who had died of a stroke way back in 1862.

Fate’s fickle finger decided otherwise.  Benjamin Gray’s earthly life ended after he scalded his legs severely when he accidentally fell into a vat of boiling water at the brewery on 27 August 1879.  Tended by his two devoted unmarried daughters, Gray lingered bedridden at Blakiston Hall until 3 September, when he succumbed to his painful injuries.  He lies buried beside his wife in the nearby Saint James churchyard, his memory still much respected by the general population of the neighbourhood.

Gray’s only surviving son, Guildford Emery Gray, married Sylvia Warland, William Warland the Mylor publican’s daughter, and probably after a Littlehampton apprenticeship with Gray Senior, embarked on a career as brewer, first at the Melrose Brewery, then North Adelaide’s Lion Brewery, the Hyde Park Brewery, and across the border at Broken Hill NSW, interspersed by several scattered years back at the Littlehampton Brewery where he had made a youthful start along his chosen path.  Eventually, Guildford Gray returned permanently to Littlehampton to enjoy his retirement.

For whatever reason, GE Gray failed to take over the Littlehampton Brewery permanently from his father.  A complicated family trust was set up for Benjamin Gray’s son and three daughters to receive the profits in equal shares during their respective lifetimes from leasing the brewery and the above four hotels to other operators, with Guildford Gray’s wife and Louis Von Doussa, a prominent Mount Barker solicitor, acting as trustees.

Under various leases and enjoying variable prosperity, the Littlehampton Brewery continued to operate until some time into the first decade of the twentieth century.  Much more lucrative was a decision in 1880, shortly after Benjamin Gray’s death, to lease that portion of the brewery land which abutted Littlehampton’s main street to Henry Appleton Monks, a boyhood friend of Guildford Gray’s.

HA Monks established a butcher shop there which quickly diversified into a bacon curing business as well and expanded steadily under various commercial arrangements for a number of decades.  The firm’s catchy motto Monks of Old became instantly recognisable in most households throughout the Adelaide Hills and far beyond.

Meanwhile, about the turn of the nineteenth century, Benjamin Gray’s erstwhile doughty competitors, J & AG Johnston of Oakbank, took out from his family what was probably the final lease of the Littlehampton Brewery before that now faltering business closed down forever.  Johnstons also began leasing the four Gray family hotels at Hahndorf, Mount Barker, Nairne and Kanmantoo.

The Grays sold the whole former Littlehampton brewery site to the Monks family during 1921, who then, in 1927, disposed of their meat processing venture and the accompanying land to Foggitt, Jones Ltd, a Queensland food manufacturing firm which now finally boasted similar factories in every mainland state of Australia.  Foggitt, Jones lost no time in transferring their prize purchase across Littlehampton Creek to a vast modern plant which far surpassed both the former Gray brewery and Monks meatworks in ability to impress the local population as a glamorous entrepreneurial enterprise.

Further change occurred in 1932.  All the children of Benjamin Gray having died without descendants many years previously, the Gray trustees at last disposed of the family’s hotels at Hahndorf, Mount Barker and Nairne to those aforementioned ubiquitous J & AG Johnston competitors at Oakbank.  The Kanmantoo Hotel previously leased to Johnstons had already closed in 1929.  Thus this old rival firm emerged total victors in acquiring the lasting fruits of Gray’s ambitious commercial labours.  Indeed, exemplary patience brings its own reward, but in this particular instance, not quite how that visionary young pioneer Benjamin Gray originally imagined it.  Such is life!