Today is the birthday of Thomas Aitken (January 5, 1821-January 5, 1884). He was born in Scotland, but emigrated to Australia in 1842, when he was 19. “In 1851 he founded the Corio Brewery in Geelong, and later started the Union Brewery in Melbourne. By 1854 he was in business at Victoria Parade, East Melbourne, where he had built a new brewery, distillery and malthouse. The large complex was called the Victoria Parade Brewery,” which was later known simply as the Victoria Brewery. He also developed the formula for their most popular beer, Victoria Bitter, also in 1854. When Thomas died in 1884, his son Archibald took over the brewery, but today it is owned by Carlton & United Breweries, which in turn was acquired by SABMiller, although last year, Asahi Breweries bought Carlton & United.
This biography of the Aitken family was written in 2007 for the Townsville Bulletin.
The home of Thomas and Margaret Aitken which stood near where the Aitkenvale library now stands. He would one day have a suburb and a street named after him but when Thomas Aitken jumped on board a ship bound for Australia, he was just a runaway in search of a better life in a new country.
Born 1825 in Edinburgh, Scotland Thomas Aitken was raised in an orphanage until, on reaching an age when he was able to fend for himself, he absconded from his guardians and boarded the vessel which was to change his destiny.
Upon arrival in his adopted country in the 1840s, Thomas was drawn to life on the land, working on farms around the Brisbane area, but his heart remained in Scotland.
‘‘He worked on cattle properties on what was then Moreton Bay,’’ John Aitken, 69 of Maroochydore said of his great-grandfather.
‘‘Then he went back to Scotland and married his wife, who was a daughter on a neighbouring property to where the orphanage was — he must have known her previously. Her family disowned them — they didn’t want her associated with a poor orphan but later the family came out to Australia as well.’’
Thomas and his new wife Margaret Aitken arrived in Australia on January 6, 1852 on the ship WilliamandMary, and worked the interior of Queensland as drovers before finally settling in Townsville.
‘‘They came up here to Townsville in about 1867,” Mr Aitken said. ‘‘He and his wife worked their way up from the areas along the D’Aguilar Highway which runs inland from Caboolture. They drove their cattle and travelled in horse drays and they came up through western Queensland, and finally they came into Ravenswood and into Townsville. It took them a number of years. The family Bible records where the children were born and they were born at different places along the way.’’
It was during these travels that the stockman, accustomed to austere living, chanced upon a remarkable discovery that would have changed his family’s fortune — but Thomas clearly was not materialistic by nature.
‘‘On the way through he was the first person to discover gold in Ravenswood,” Mr Aitken said of his greatgrandfather’s propitious find.
‘‘He found gold and then when he came to Townsville he told some people who went back and made their fortune out of it. Granddad was more interested in his cows.’’
With his focus solely on cattle, Thomas Aitken, after arriving in Townsville, procured a large parcel of land for grazing on what was then the outskirts of town.
‘‘He had 3500 acres on the Ross River — that’s a huge amount of land and I suspect it was some sort of land grant to get people to move into the country areas,’’ Mr Aitken said.
‘‘Their original house was a little log shanty down on the banks of the river and it got washed away in a flood. Then they built a fairly substantial homestead in an area just at the back of where the Aitkenvale Library is today. The property was originally hyphenated as Aitken-Vale.
‘‘He subdivided a lot of the property in his later years and he just retained about five acres around the homestead. Herveys Range Road was the main road through to Charters Towers back then, and the first stop on the stage coach was the Aitkenvale Arms Hotel (now the Vale Hotel). That was the first change of horses after you left Townsville on a trip to Charters Towers and that was just opposite where their house was,’’ Mr Aitken said.
Thomas and his wife remained in Townsville, raising five children, most of whom continued to live in the township. Elizabeth married Henry Kidner and built the Grand Hotel on Flinders St. Isabella married a Mr Covington — a ’pen-pusher’ for Charles Darwin on his Beagle voyage. Jane married Mr Buckpitt who owned a butcher shop on Flinders St East (where Avis now stands). Margaret married Germanborn Mr Maass and opened Townsville’s first soap factory in Sturt St. Charlotte went to live in Ayr but Mr Aitken’s grandfather John stayed in the region.
‘‘John was the only son — he and my grandmother Sarah lived with Thomas and Margaret for many years on the Aitkenvale property,’’ Mr Aitken said.
‘‘My grandmother used to tell us stories about how in Aitkenvale the water was from a hand pump and in the winter they used to have to pour boiling water down the pump to melt the ice in the mornings before they could pump it. If there’s such a thing as global warming that’s an indication — I don’t think you’d ever have to do that in Aitkenvale now.
‘‘The biggest disruption to their lives however was when there was flooding because they couldn’t get into town. The flood waters used to cut them off in the area of Rising Sun,’’ he said.
Travelling from Aitkenvale to the city was no easy matter in those early days with natural impediments frequently necessitating a more circuitous route, Mr Aitken said.
‘‘My grandfather worked at the Hubert Wells — the electricity generation and water supply works for Townsville. It was on Ross River Road opposite where The Cathedral School is now. The power was generated by coal and there was a railway line that used to go from Garbutt through to the power house.
‘‘He lived in Railway Estate and he used to go to work on his push bike from Railway Estate to Hubert Wells and if the tide was high and he couldn’t get across the creek at Sandy Crossing he used to have to go across Victoria Bridge because there was no Lowth’s Bridge. It was a long ride. When Lowth’s Bridge was built, my grandmother never called it Lowth’s Bridge, it was always the new bridge. It was rusting and falling apart when I first knew it but it was still called the new bridge,’’ Mr Aitken said.
While the Aitken family prospered in Townsville, they also had their share of misfortune when their spacious home burned down in 1899 and they also narrowly avoided tragedy in 1911 when the SSYongalavanished off Cape Bowling Green.
‘‘My grandmother sailed from Brisbane to Townsville on the Yongalaon the trip before it vanished. She was living in Davidson St in South Townsville at the time and told me how the locals used to walk to the river each evening to meet the returning search parties to find any news of the missing vessel,’’ Mr Aitken said.
Thomas Aitken, who died a wealthy man in 1897, is remembered today as a person of historic importance to Townsville and his name lives on not only in the suburb which is his namesake but also in Aitken St which was once a track leading down to the old homestead. Elizabeth and Charlotte streets were also named in honour of two of his four daughters.
And this short obituary appeared in the Melbourne Herald on January 5, 1884.
“He arrived in Melbourne in the year 1842, being at that time a youth of 19 with intelligence and energy to aid him in his career. In Scotland he had acquired a knowledge of the brewing trade, but he turned his attention to other pursuits at first and was fairly successful. The gold discoveries of 1851 gave an impetus to trade, and Mr Aitken, being of a speculative disposition, took advantage of the tide of affairs and started the Corio Brewery in Geelong. Melbourne, however, offered better advantages, and in 1852 he commenced business in the Union Brewery, Lonsdale street west; shifting two years later, to the site of the present Victoria Parade Brewery. Mr Aitken’s business venture developed into an extensive undertaking, the secret of success being the production of a good article, and the employment of business capabilities to push the trade. The premises owned by the deceased gentleman cover an area of more than three acres of land. The building is effective in design, with an imposing and ornamental facade to the front elevation. In 1861 Mr Aitken established the first distillery under the new Distillation Act, which also proved a success, and the business reached such proportions that the value of the property and plant is now close upon £80,000.”
Also, Gary Gilman, has a nice article about Aitken entitled The Inspirational Victoria Brewery, Melbourne, if you want to know more.