Colin Mills, compiler of the Hortus Camdenensis, died in late November 2012 after a short illness. As he always considered the Hortus his legacy, it is his family's intention to keep the site running in perpetuity. It will not, however, be updated in the near future.

“The Blight” and the Camden Vineyards

Although the general heading of this collection of essays is ‘William Macarthur on Winemaking’ the two letters and two editorials from the Sydney Herald reproduced here are not from William’s pen. They concern the vine blight and its possible causes but also give an interesting perspective on the vineyards at Camden Park and on the esteem with which the Macarthur’s, particularly William, were held as vine growers as early as 1831. This makes them a worthwhile contribution to the story of the Camden Park wineries.

In the essay on ‘Colonial Australian Wines’ the ravages of mildew on the European vineyards in the 1850s is graphically described. Mildew was also a problem in New South Wales vineyards but not usually with devastating effect, although it did cause a number of small vineyards to be abandoned in the early days of the colony. William Macarthur, writing as Maro, discussed ‘the blight’ at some length in 1843 in Letter IV ‘Diseases of the Vine’, and drew the conclusion that it was ‘the effect of a minute parasitical fungus, somewhat analogous in its habits to the one commonly known by the name of “the rust” or “mildew” in wheat.’ Even at that date this was a contentious proposal but more than twelve years earlier the germ theory of disease in plants and animals was very much in its infancy and was not even considered as a cause.

Letter from ‘Bacchus’ on vine blight – Sydney Herald Monday 25th of April, 1831.

In this letter ‘Bacchus’ discusses the Macarthur’s vineyard at Parramatta, laid out by John Macarthur Snr. and preceding the Camden vineyards by some years. Bacchus’ letter is preceded by a brief editorial pointing to its importance: ‘We call the attention of our readers to a temperate and sensible letter, in a subsequent column, signed Bacchus, on the blight of vine. Bacchus has our best thanks, and we are sure, Mr. Shepherd, to whom the letter is a reply, will not be displeased with the observations made on his theory. We admit that Bacchus, “The God of the Grape”, is a formidable antagonist, and in common cases, a good judge in his own province; but we shall be happy to give publicity to any reply that Mr. Shepherd, or any other person, may be kind enough to communicate.’

Bacchus’ letter, written in response to an earlier one from the nurseryman Thomas Shepherd, is lengthy and I have only included sections which appear to me to give the gist of his argument and which also provide useful information on grape and wine production at Camden Park. It is unnecessary to provide Shepherd’s original letter as Bacchus gives an adequate synopsis.

‘The growth of grapes being an object of undoubted importance to the colony, every discovery of the causes of failure, disease, or better mode of culture of the vine, affords a valuable accession of knowledge; and the individuals who publish their discoveries are entitled to the thanks of the community, and should be encouraged to proceed in their observations. But whilst practical men should be solicited to benefit the public with the result of their experience, they should be very cautious how they advance theories, which have not been confirmed by a long course of actual observation.

A new theory of the cause of blight in the vine and its fruit, has lately been published by a person of undoubted horticultural experience, but it is a question whether his standing in the Colony, or his opportunities of observation have been such as to warrant his arriving at a conclusion, which in my opinion may be called rather hasty.’

Bacchus goes on to discuss the alternative theory that ‘the blight may still be occasioned by the effect of the sun’s rays upon the dew drops, notwithstanding anything in the learned gentleman’s dissertation to the contrary’. He then briefly outlines Shepherd’s theory and proposed prevention.

‘However, let the cause of blight be what it may, the cure is of the first importance, and Mr. Shepherd having discovered southerly winds to be the cause, pursues a most consistent course, by proposing a plan to counteract their influence, which is the only beneficial result such a discovery can afford. This he proposes to effect by cultivating a belt of plantation between the vineyard and the south, which he supposes will shelter the vines from the inclemency of the winds that blow from that quarter, keep up an equilibrium of temperature, and a consequent constant progress of vegetation, thereby preventing the deleterious effects that arise from a cessation of the growth of the vine, which he considers to be the mediate cause of the blight.’

The rest of the letter provides examples of productive vineyards that do not appear to fit Shepherd’s theory. Included are examples of vineyards that are affected with blight when they shouldn’t be, and others not affected when they should be! But only the Macarthur’s vineyards at Parramatta and Camden concern us here.

‘I have had an opportunity of noticing the growth of the vines in Mr. M’Arthur’s [John Snr.] garden at Parramatta, where several varieties are cultivated in different ways, but they are all more or less subject to blight; although any one acquainted with the situation of that gentleman’s garden, will I think, be of opinion, that for its natural situation, as well as from the shelter afforded by full grown fruit trees, it is better screened from the southerly winds than could be effected by any artificial plantation after many years growth, but even in a situation so favourable, according to Mr. S’s theory, they are blighted. It may not be generally known, but it is worthy of extensive dissemination, that Mr. M’Arthur’s vineyard at Camden [presumably the first vineyard – 1820], is situated on an easterly aspect, and yet I believe there has been a more abundant crop of grapes in that vineyard this year than in any other in the Colony.

Many other instances can be quoted to shew that neither the plantation nor a reed fence placed between vines and the south will be sufficient to ensure a good crop of grapes; but fearing I have already trespassed too far upon your columns, I will reserve for another communication.’

Bacchus. Parramatta, 20th April, 1831.’

To view the entire letter in the Sydney Herald click here.

Reply from Thomas Shepherd, Darling Nursery - Sydney Herald May 9th, 1831

This is again a lengthy letter, much of which is a defence of his reputation against the somewhat unfair charge that ‘his standing in the Colony, or his opportunities of observation have been such as to warrant his arriving at’ the conclusions that he did. In the course of the letter he discusses his own theory at some length, being careful to explain that other causes may operate in some circumstances. However, the portion that concerns us is quite brief.

‘As to the vineyard at Camden, although it is planted on an easterly aspect, it is sheltered from the southerly winds, by a hill behind it, which continues at least a mile beyond its scite [sic], and the ground has been prepared by proper trenching; besides, the varieties of grapes which Mr. M’Arthur has planted, are well selected for the climate, so that I am not at all surprised at the abundant crops which have been produced in that vineyard.

Thomas Shepherd. Darling Nursery, May 1, 1831.’

To view the entire letter in the Sydney Herald click here

Editorial - Sydney Herald June 20th, 1831

‘The question regarding vine husbandry and the blight in the grape, having excited great public discussion in the interior, several gentlemen have resolved to take the necessary steps to ascertain the truth, with the view to regulating the selection of situations for future vineyards … With this view Mr. Frazer, Colonial botanist, Mr. Henderson, principal gardener to the Hon. Mr. M’Leay, Mr. Shepherd of the Darling nursery, etc, have been on a visit during the last week to the vinery at Camden, belonging to William M’Arthur, Esq. where the united experience and talents of these gentlemen have been employed to discover the best aspect, and mode of culture. We should hope the result of their investigations will not be long withheld from the public, as the season is fast approaching when vines should be planted. No gentleman in the Colony, we will venture to say, have had more experience in the subject or have the welfare of the colony more at heart; and the warm interest taken by Mr. M’Arthur in the settlement of the question, is another proof that he inherits no small portion of that energy and perseverance, which secured to the Colony through the exertions of his highly regarded father, the advantage of yearly exports of Australian wool equal to the finest Spanish or Saxon. We would, in the mean time, advise every settler to plant a few vines early, but on no account, to plant them as they come to hand, but to select the hardy varieties, to plant them in situations sheltered from the cold winds, as well as the burning winds of summer, and above all to trench his ground three feet deep, and a considerable distance around allowing the soil to moulder in the air before it is returned to the earth. A bunch of grapes is a luxury that can scarcely be procured in this Country, at a moderate price, although every humble cottage, in three years from this date might have abundance to eat and to sell.’

To view the entire editorial in the Sydney Herald click here.

Editorial - Sydney Herald March 12th, 1832

Nothing more was written in the Sydney Herald for nearly a year. It seems that Thomas Shepherd’s views prevailed, although what William Macarthur and ‘Bacchus’ thought of it we may never know. This ‘solution’ to the problem of blight certainly didn’t prevent Macarthur from enquiring more deeply into the problem.

Only the opening paragraph of the editorial is given here.

‘Our readers may remember, that nearly a year ago, the minds of the Colonists were turned to the propriety of planting vines, and several letters appeared in the Colonial Journals, stating the results of individual experience, and recommending certain exposures and modes of culture. Mr. Shepherd, of the Darling nursery, has the merit of having turned the attention of the Colonists to the best aspect in which to place vines, so as to protect them from the cold winds, which, even in our hottest weather, succeed to the scorching north-west winds of summer. It gives us satisfaction to state that the Colony coincides in the most unqualified manner with Mr. Shepherd’s views on this point, as well as in the propriety of cultivating only hardy varieties of grape for general use, in preference to the tender sorts.’

To see the full editorial click here.