Kelman and the Care of the Vine

By Betty Crowley

Editor: This article was first published in HAFS Journal Vol 8 No 1 May 2005

A cork pops and the bottle tilts for a Tyrrell, Lindeman or Drayton, but decades have passed since wine from a Kelman label flowed. After the centenary celebrations of Kirkton in 1930 it became a name seldom heard in the tasting rooms or seen at dining tables. It has re-emerged recently in the unique concept of The Kelman Vineyards at Pokolbin where plantings of vines and olives are vested in a community title.

Kelman was however a name prominent in pioneer attempts to establish a wine industry in the Hunter Valley. In early settlement days our interest is with William Dalrymple KELMAN (1800-1863) whose name is inextricably linked with that of John BUSBY (1765-1857) and his son James BUSBY (1801-1857).

William Kelman and John Busby arrived in Sydney from England. John Busby brought his wife Sarah nee Kennedy, their four sons and one daughter, sailing into Port Jackson on the Triton on 24 February 1824. The daughter, Catherine, and William Kelman became friendly on the voyage and were married in Sydney 16 February 1827. Catherine was 23 years of age having been born 1 September 1804 in Edinburgh. The address for the marriage and later for the death of Catherine is certified as Kirkton, Darlington, Hunter River.

Kirkton was the property granted to John Busby by sanction of the Secretary of State on 2 April 1835. The 2,000 acres on the Hunter River lay mid way between Singleton and Branxton. Here, in 1832, selected grape cuttings from various prestigious gardens of France and Spain, were planted by John Busby’s son James, a Scottish viticulturist, whose contribution to the industry was largely that of teacher.1

The vines were brought to Australia at Government expense, and a certain number were planted in the Botanic Gardens. These were neglected and died, but 365 of the 433 collected were planted at Kirkton where, under the care of James’ brother-in-law, William Kelman, they thrived and became a source stock for many other vineyards in the Valley. “Kirkton itself was to become one of the colony’s celebrated vineyards under the management of the Kelman family.”2

Progress in the early years has been followed by Bill Driscoll through the correspondence between James Busby, who had left for New Zealand, and his brothers remaining in NSW. In 1834 William Kelman decided to extend vine culture to ten acres. James Busby, skeptical of his brother-in-law’s judgment and abilities wrote:

I cannot say however that I think it prudent of Kelman . . . to launch into a plantation of 10 acres of vines! — before he has proved the capabilities of his soil. I think it unlikely his wine will ever be above the Vin Ordinaire and it is very doubtful whether that, even if managed with more skill and convenience than he can hope for many years, will meet a market in Sydney.

Despite this advice from his mentor, whose theoretical knowledge and observations of viticulture on the Continent far surpassed his own, William Kelman pressed on through the experimental years determined to establish the vine and a local market.

By 1839 it became apparent, again through correspondence between James and his brother Alexander Busby, that William was producing a good vintage:

Habit has made us both like it (Kirkton’s) better than almost any other wine, and I intend to engage a couple of quarter casks annually for which I thought of offering  £15 — that is about 5/- a gallon or ¬£30 a pipe –do you think he would consider it too low? I think there would be little chance of any one giving him more–and few persons would I think drink it at all except those who have been accustomed to natural wine in France.

Driscoll points out that the offer of 5/- a gallon is ‚’astonishing’. This was the usual price offered for good colonial wines much later in the century. Further-more, table wine was still not the drink for the populace. Beer or fortified wines remained the drinks of choice.

Kelman himself wrote to the Maitland Mercury in 1843 reporting that he had fifteen acres in full bearing and was having particular success with the white Hermitage grape.

Then in the same year in March a dinner was held by the Hunter River Society at which for the first time colonial wines made by Kelman, King and Ogilvie were served. The Hunter River Vineyard Association (HRVA) proved an influential body in the promotion of local wines. ‚’Kelman of Kirkton’ was invited to join as a foundation member in 1847. In 1872 William’s son, James Busby Kelman, was admitted as a member, to be elected as President for 1876.

The aims of the Association were to promote the cultivation of the vine and to establish a market for their home grown product. The Kelman family pursued these aims with diligence and distinction until 1914 when the property was sold to H.J. Lindeman and Company. The Kelman legacy persisted however and one hundred gallons of chablis and one hundred gallons of burgundy made from remaining Kelman vines in 1924 were served at the Centenary Celebrations of Kirkton in 1930. The Lindeman family organized this event; soon after this the property was sold.

In the early days, the HRVA, with its twofold aims declared as the propagation of a grape variety suited to the particular soils and climates of the valley and secondly creation of a market, was a potent force in the successful establishment of the industry. Kelman of Kirkton took his place beside such connoisseurs as James T. King of Irrawang and Tureela vineyards, Revd Henry Carmichael MA of Porphyry, Dr Andrew Lang of Dunmore, and Dr W. F. Lindeman of Cawarra.3

The first meeting of the HRVA was held on 19 May 1847 when there was a statement of aims and a number of procedural rules proposed and adopted. Always there was a lively social aspect at the meetings as it was essential for one to not only try before buying but also to try before selling!

In 1849 W. D. Kelman and Carmichael were elected as Presidents. Twenty eight years later in 1877 James Busby Kelman and J. Wyndham were elected to the Chair. The meetings provided a forum where technical matters such as the planting, pruning, harvesting, control of pests and diseases, together with distribution to buyers, were vigorously debated.

In the glossy promotion brochures advertising the Kelman Vineyards in 2000 there is an extract from The Newcastle Herald of 1952. This is said about William’s son and heir, James Busby Kelman (Kelman Vineyards, 1863, after William Kelman is death):

The vineyards were James Kelman is main concern. Under his guidance they flourished more than ever He expanded them to 65 acres and doing his own blending, saw his hocks and clarets become world famous, winning many awards in Europe, America and within Australia.

Each season, when the vintage was finished, when the grapes had been picked and passed through crushing, separation and pressing machines–all wooden and hand operated — he played host to all who had taken part in the harvesting.

‘Harvest Homes’ as they were called became a great tradition. Bush timber huts, covered with tarpaulins were set up near the vineyards and “almost the whole district” attended, sitting down to a banquet in the huts and later enjoying a picnic programme.

With the new settlement pattern at Pokolbin bringing the Kelman name to the fore again it is likely that such events as the ‘Harvest Homes’ will be re-enacted. It could become a tourist attraction and the stressed business man, escaping from the concrete jungles of the CBD, will draw weekend fresh air beneath the shade of their own grape vine trellis, whilst during the week the hired labour will tend the vines.

Two of William Dalrymple Kelman and wife Catherine’s grandchildren married into the Tyrrell family.

Their son John Busby Kelman (born 1838, died 1903) married in 1875 Agnes Nicholas Nivison and their son Abraham Lewis Kelman (born 1884, died 1948)married Ellen May Tyrrell [E.2.4a.7b] on 26 February 1908.

Another son Lewis Chambers Kelman (born 1842) married in 1873 Edith Ellen Holmes and their son Arthur Dalrymple Kelman (born 1880) married Florence Helena Tyrrell [E.2.4a.9b] in 1908.


1. Pioneer Families of Australia, p 74.

2. W.P. Driscoll, The Beginnings of the Wine Industry in the Hunter Valley. Newcastle History Monographs No 5 (Newcastle: The Council of the City of Newcastle).

3. Hans P Mollenhauer, Hunter River Wine Industry. An account of the activities of the Hunter River Vineyard Association in a paper read before the Historical Society of Cessnock and reprinted from Australian Brewing and Wine Journal –no date.


Champion, Ben W., Register for Hunter Valley District 1843-1884 Volume 6, 1973 NLA

Pamphlets & advertising material

Hunter Valley Wine Country, published May 1999 for the Cessnock City Tourist Board by De Meyrick Communications

The Kelman Vineyards c. 2000, Billy Blue Designs & Writing

Kelman on the Grapevine edition 4, Harvest 2000

Singleton Information Centre — Shirley Collard (visited 1st May 2000)

Angela Lind’s Genealogy Chart

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