Two Irish brothers who had been running pubs in Melbourne, travel to Sydney to make their own beer, and create an Australian icon.
It is the 1860s and Australia’s population has exploded thanks to the previous decade’s gold rush. The cities of Melbourne and Sydney are growing exponentially. Business confidence is rising rapidly. Newspapers such as The Argus in Melbourne and The Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney have been established. John Thomas and James Matthew Toohey, born to Irish immigrants, Matthew and Honora (nee Hall), can smell opportunity over the distinct aroma of hops and yeast in their pubs; The Limerick Arms and The Great Britain in Melbourne.
John Thomas and James Matthew Toohey. Courtesy Toohey website
John Thomas tries various different business ventures in Victoria, New Zealand and Queensland, and even a sugar mill near Lismore, while James has a property near Coonamble. It is in 1870 that John’s greatest business venture begins. He obtains his brewing licence and after opening an auctioneer company and cordial factory, he starts brewing beer with his brother James.
Their first brewery is located in modern day Darling Harbour where they create Tooheys Black Ale, today called Tooheys Old. By 1875 demand increases so much, the brothers move their operations to Surrey Hills, establishing the Standard Brewery. By this time they are employing 26 people and making a name for Australian beer. Before 1880 imported beer was the preferred drop, but the Tooheys brothers turn this attitude around.
In 1886 authorities become increasingly concerned regarding the ‘causes of the excessive use of intoxicating drink by the people of New South Wales, the deterioration it has produced in public morality and the extent to which legislation has been effective or otherwise in repressing the vice of drunkenness’. An Intoxicating Drink Inquiry Commission is established and a report written and presented in 1887.
In his role as vice president of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, James is appointed to the commission. In evidence to the commission he argues against the system of shouting, saying it is the cause of all the excessive drinking in the colony. However, ‘beer is less injurious to health than spirits’. He is not alone. In the 1880s and early 20th century ‘anti-shouting’ societies are formed to stop the practice. The principles of one of the societies reads:
“A reform in the commonly called ‘shouting system’, so ruinous to many men, is required. If a man wants to drink, let him have it and have done with it, but not shout and be shouted for, and then he won’t be under an obligation to anyone.”
James approves of the tied-house system, where a hotel would only sell the owning brewery’s beer, guaranteeing the brewery a loyal retail ‘customer’. An independent pub not beholden to any brewery became known as a ‘free house’. He also states that at the time, the 830 public houses in the Sydney metropolitan licensing district are not an excessive number.
The commission’s first report (there was no evidence of a second one being written, despite the promise of one) recommends alcoholic beverages that contain ‘fusel oil’ (mixtures of several higher alcohols produced as a by-product of alcoholic fermentation), which includes beer, be banned. Another recommendation of the inquiry includes the establishment of ‘inebriate asylums’.
James delves further into public life and campaigns in 1885 for the Legislative Assembly seat of South Sydney. He favours an elected Upper House, payment of members and the eight-hour system. He opposes local option and the abstinence party as he believes no act of parliament could make a man sober. He represents the seat from 1885 to 1893.
In 1895 James takes extended leave to travel overseas, visiting Ireland, England and Europe. Pisa, Italy is his last stop in this life as on 25 September 1895, he dies leaving behind his wife Kate (nee Ferris), four sons and eight daughters. His body is transported back to Australia and buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery.
The Toohey family vault at Rookwood cemetery. Photo: Kevin Banister
After James’ death, older brother John and James’ eldest son, also named John Thomas, take over the running of the brewery. John is a strong supporter of numerous Catholic charitable institutions and financially supports the Irish nationalist movement. He has lived in Burwood and later Wahroonga on Sydney’s north shore, and has a lot to do with the development of both suburbs. He stands for Monaro in the Legislative Assembly in 1880 but is defeated. In April 1892 he is nominated to the Legislative Council.
The Tooheys brand of beer by this time has weaved its way into the Australian psyche. It even comes with its own catchy advertising slogan that becomes a common cheers to health when making a toast - “Here’s to ‘ee”. Sponsorship of rural sporting events spread the slogan further. The ‘Here’s To-ee’ Cup is an 18 hole stroke competition at South Grafton Golf Club and the Doncaster ‘Here’s To’ee’ Cup is a rifle shooting competition held at Grenfell rifle range.
In 1902 the brewery becomes a public company called Toohey’s Ltd and John is made chairman. By this time John’s health is slipping and it is decided that he take his family on a world tour. Like James, John never makes it home. He dies in Chicago on 5 May, 1903 and his body is transported home to be buried in the Toohey family vault at Rookwood. He leaves behind his second wife Annie Mary (nee Egan), two sons and three daughters.
John Thomas' engraving to the far right. Photo: Kevin Banister
The Tooheys company goes from strength to strength. It starts brewing lager (today’s Tooheys New) in 1930 and by 1955 the brewery has moved to Lidcombe. In 1980 Tooheys merges with Castlemaine Perkins to form Castlemain Tooheys which is then bought by the Bond Corporation in 1985. In 1990 Lion Nathan acquired a 50% stake in Bond’s Natbrew Holdings and take ownership in 1992.
Today Lion’s Tooheys beers hold 6.2% of the Australian commercial beer market.
This story also appears on My Tributes.
· ‘History’, Tooheys website, www.tooheys.com.au/history/, accessed 8th March, 2021
· ‘Tooheys Brothers’, Wikipedia, Tooheys Brewery - Wikipedia, accessed 8th March, 2021
· ‘1872 Tooheys Darling Brewery’, Australian food history timeline, Tooheys Darling Brewery - Australian food history timeline (australianfoodtimeline.com.au), accessed 8th March, 2021
· G. P. Walsh, 'Toohey, John Thomas (1839–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/toohey-john-thomas-4730/text7849, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 8 March 2021.
· ‘The late Hon. John Toohey’, The Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, Wednesday, 13 May 1903, Page 1178
· ‘Intoxicating Drink Inquiry Commission’, Globe, Thursday, 20 May 1886, Page 8
· “Formation of an anti-shouting society”, Bendigo Advertiser, Saturday 4 February 1882, Page 2
· ‘The Tied House System’, Craft Beer & Brewing, accessed online 9th March, 2021, The tied house system | Craft Beer & Brewing (beerandbrewing.com)
· ‘Fusel alcohol’, Wikipedia, accessed online 9th March, 2021, Fusel alcohol - Wikipedia
· ‘S. Grafton Golf’, Daily Examiner, Monday 9 November, 1936, Page 1
· ‘Rifle Shooting’, The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser, Thursday, 17 November 1949, Page 3
· ‘Market share of leading commercial beers in Australian in 2019’, Statista, accessed online 9th March, 2021, • Australia - market share of leading commercial beers 2019 | Statista