Watkin Tench reports, in his Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, that in December 1791 he visited a number of farms at Rose Hill and nearby districts. Near the Governor’s house he saw eight thousand grape vines in cultivation. In another place Mr. Scheffer, one of the local inhabitants, had an acre of vines and tobacco as well as twelve acres of maize and one of wheat on his grant of 140 acres. He was a Hessian by birth, and had helped his father in their vineyard beside the Rhine.
In the same area was the farm of James Ruse, who had received the first land grant in Australia, ‘A lot of thirty acres, to be called Experiment Farm.’ Tench comments: ‘He means to cultivate little besides maize; wheat is so much less productive. Of the culture of vineyards and tobacco he is ignorant; and, with great good sense, he declared that he would not quit the path he knew, for an uncertainty.’
It is clear that from the earliest years of settlement the cultivation of vineyards formed part of European efforts to tame the landscape of the Sydney area, but that at the same time there were doubts as to whether grape-growing would necessarily be successful. As it turned out, other regions of Australia proved more productive.
In 1824 James Busby, born in Edinburgh, arrived in the colony with his parents. Still in his early twenties, he was deeply interested in the technical aspects of viticulture, and managed to gain the support of a number of subscribers to help fund publication of his Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, and the Art of Making Wine, which appeared in 1825. It was largely a derivative work but sought to provide suitable guidance and encouragement for local grape-growers and winemakers.
Although it seems to have created less interest than Busby was hoping for, it was a significant publication in more ways than one. In particular, it embraced the scientific approach of the French chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal. Chaptal is famous for his influence in demonstrating ways in which chemical knowledge can revolutionise industrial and agricultural practices.
In this respect the colony of New South Wales was founded at a critical moment. In the European sphere, the industrialisation of societies and economies was increasingly taking hold. We now know that the eventual outcomes have involved a dangerous over-exploitation of resources, but the principle of scientific understanding remains and its popularisation was exciting in an age when there was a growing awareness of the limitations of traditional methods.
Robert Townson was one of the subscribers to James Busby’s Treatise. He himself had a copy of Chaptal’s Chemistry among his books. He was one person in the colony who definitely shared James Busby’s enthusiasm for applying scientific principles to achieve agricultural and technological improvement.
Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, originally published London, 1793, chapter XVI. James Busby, A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, and the Art of Making Wine: Compiled from the Works of Chaptal and other French Writers; and from the Notes of the Compiler during a Residence in Some of the Wine Provinces of France, [Sydney], Howe, 1825. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Elements of Chemistry, trans. William Nicholson, London, 1791, and subsequent editions; Chemistry Applied to Arts and Manufacture, 4 vols., London, 1807.
Scheffer: his name is variously spelled Philip (or Phillip) Schaeffer, Scheffer or Schaffer; cf. ‘Schaffer, Philip ( – 1828?)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, p. 420, and online; he is mentioned in a number of articles in the Dictionary of Sydney.