Georgia Kerby , Exhibitions Curator
Zero percent, alcohol-flavoured drinks or ‘alcohol free’ beer is not a new fad. In fact, Whangārei had its fair share of non-alcoholic drink manufactures supplying the city with refreshments since the 1880s. Fruit cordials, ginger beers and aerated waters were made and bottled by small businesses including Hoey & Sons, Grey & Menzies, Reed Brothers, and Simons.
In prime position in a new display we are developing at Whangārei Museum is a beautiful stoneware ‘demijohn’ jar from the early 1900s. Clearly stamped on its glazed surface is a label for “Return to C Gray & Co. Brewers of non-intoxicating beverages. Whangarei”. The bottle was donated by D. Rinckes and originated in Sydney, Australia, for use by local cordial manufacturer Gray & Co. This shaped bottle is known as a ‘carboy’ or ‘demijohn’. Both terms basically describe a large bottle for holding liquids with a narrow neck, which would have been stoppered with a cork and often had a metal handle around the neck.
Gray & Co.’s drinks manufacturing business appears to have been opened by a C. Gray in the first decade of the 1900s. It is likely that their main aeration and bottling manufacturing occurred in a factory in Kamo. By 1910 Mr. Gray and ‘his company’ opened a sales branch on Otaika Street, opposite competitors Grey & Menzies. Customers could buy home brewed beverages in gallon jars like our example. Bulk purchasing helped families stayed hydrated with enjoyable cordials and non-alcoholic beers at a cheaper price than buying smaller bottles. A new van was purchased by the company the same year in order to deliver orders around Whangārei and then pick up the empty jars to be reused. Overall, their system was more economic for both seller and customer and their large jars of cool drinks were a hit during Whangārei’s hot summers.
One of their beverages, advertised in the 1910 Northern Advocate, was non- alcoholic “Horehound Beer, the King of Drinks, a great appetiser”, brewed from horehound hops and other herbs. This drink is still common in America and was much more popular in the early-mid 20th century, made by the likes of Bundaberg breweries.
C. Gray and Co. made cordial and other “non-intoxicating” drinks in Whangārei until March 1916. Mr. Gray moved west and bought the Hodges Hotel at Dargaville. The business was sold to William Alfred Cole, who continued to manufacture cordials in the same way. We hold another identical stoneware bottle in our collection, albeit labelled with the solo name “W. A. Cole” in the place of “Gray & Co.”. At this time the premises were still held at Kamo Road. In 1921, William Cole formed a partnership with Charles Henry Cole and now called the company Cole Bros. They continued making drinks until 1929, from there the trail goes cold and it is likely they were replaced by overseas imports and suffered during the economic depression.
One more clue to the manufacturing of these drinks is a makers mark on the base of the bottle- “ R. Fowler”. Fowler Potteries is one of Australia’s oldest ceramic manufacturers and is now owned by Caroma Industries Ltd. Founded in 1837 by Enoch Fowler, the business expanded to several locations around Sydney and was taken over by his son Robert Fowler in 1879. In 1880 Robert was elected Mayor of Sydney but maintained the potteries works. At the time the company focused on large scale industrial orders of drain pipes, tiles and bricks, but also maintained a line of food containers and more decorative kitchenware. Our cordial or ginger beer bottle was therefore made at the peak of Robert Fowler’s production, between 1910 and 1916.
While appearing quite plain at first, this ceramic jar has the charm of a well-made, recyclable item that has stood the test of time and preserved a slice of truly local Whangārei history.