Cocculus Indicus and Gentility
Edward Wild died in a public hospital in Melbourne in 1877 at a reported 71: this pensive press account in the Hamilton Spectator thought he had looked much more.
Even at this late date, knowing as I do of Wild’s heroic efforts for decades to promote domestic brewing, the obituary makes for some hard reading. He died in reduced circumstances, as another account put it. Although he assisted years earlier to raise funds to expand an old peoples home, when came the time to afford him a room, he was turned down.
His numerous non-brewing ventures, alluded to in the death notice, came to nought.
The loss of the court case in 1870 was a major blow, but he had suffered for years the slings and arrows of the doubters, the envious, the “haters” they would be called today.
Some readers may have noted the irony that someone who promoted the native Australian product ended by being fined for passing off his beer as from Carlisle, England.
I don’t think he was a hypocrite. Someone of a “literary and speculative” turn of mind, as the story called him, was unlikely to fit that bill. Rather, the new dawn of Australian brewing simply hadn’t arrived, so he made a last attempt at renewed success with his 1870 line of faux imports.
Maybe too it was his way of saying, you really want beer from England, don’t you, then you shall have it, after a fashion.
It was all to be a damp squib.
But let’s go back to the 1860s, when he was still fighting the good fight, when he earned the obituary’s left-handed compliment, “brave old heart”.
Yesterday you saw a quotation from a pamphlet he wrote defending the worth of Australian ale. His screed elicited a number of reactions in town.
This writer in the Melbourne Punch (1866) seemed to concede his point that local beer could be excellent but refused still to give up foreign “potations”. The writer reserved the right to be guided by certain non-common sense passions, for reasons of appearance, essentially. In his own, supercilious words:
“The time has arrived”, says Mr. WILD, in a concluding burst of swipy eloquence, “when we should ask ourselves whether we are to be governed by reason or enslaved by prejudice.” Mr. PUNCH refuses to be governed except, by his own common sense, or enslaved otherwise than by the sweet glances and tender attentions of his numerous lady admirers. But, on this account shall he give up other potations, and addict himself to colonial swipes. Go to, Mr. WILD.
Another article was more forthright that local brews had merit, but agreed it was an idée fixe to follow English ways, to be well-regarded in society that is. It’s the old problem of snobbery, of fixed social practices and hierarchies. (Note the implication too that snobbery derived from ineluctable female expectations, which seems rather unsporting, frankly).
At bottom, as a bumptious Yorkshireman, perhaps Wild never really fit in the upper reaches of Melbourne’s caste system. The city always was the most English of the Australian burgs – to this day some argue its educated accent doesn’t sound typically Australian.
Referencing the Melbourne Punch article, the second writer wrote:
The question in fact is one, not of beer, but of ethics, not of good breweries, but of good breeding. It is one, in fact, in which the interests of the colonial brewers are less involved than the instincts of the colonial ladies, and though it may be all perfectly true, as Mr Wild says … that the ales and porter brewed in Collingwood and Castlemaine come from a purer source, are made of purer water, and are quite as tonic, and quite as aromatic, as the imported liquors, still the prejudice is dead in favor of the latter. It is not that Wild’s and Fitzgerald’s are inferior, but it is that Bass and Allsop are more respectable. In all other features the competition would be an equal one. But though there is a natural tendency in consumers to prefer the article which is superior in wholesomeness, cheaper in price, and choicer in flavor, “society” is compelled to be more discriminating, and the result is, cocculus indicus and gentility carry the day. Meantime, it should be consoling to Mr. Wild to know that there are beer-drinkers who are sufficiently wanting in refinement to sympathise with his plea for colonial beer. We can vouch, from a vulgar experience, that there are breweries in Castlemaine which manufacture beverages as fine, as sparkling, and as sound as any that come from Burton or Carlisle, beverages which might please the palate of the most sensitive connoisseur, and are deficient only in those stupefying ingredients which the critics seem to miss, and which, probably, inspire their criticism.
The last story noted with perspicacity that a prophet has no honour in his own country – that may come closest to the truth.
I have not been able to find an entry for Edward Wild in any current or older dictionary of biography for Australia even though he was well-known in mid-century brewing, wrote a book on accounting still remembered, and contributed in other ways to Australian business and cultural life.
To say he has been forgotten is an understatement. We will remember him here, as the day did come certainly when Aussie beer became the sole drop consumed in the country, indeed (famously) a matter of national pride. And today, there is a second brewing renaissance in the form of the vibrant craft industry.
I don’t brew in Australia or anywhere, but if I did, I would issue Wild’s Pale Ale No. 3, or Wild’s 1/2 and 1/2, to remember him, using J.C. MacCartie’s 1884 handbook as a guide.