Mary Penfold (1820-1896)

Co-Founder And Manager Of A Great Australian Winery

It seems unjust that Mary Penfold, co-founder of a great Australian winery, does not rate an entry under her own name in the Dictionary of Australian Biography. Instead of having her own entry, she is included as an afterthought to her husband's. It reminds many of us of the time when women had no role in business, could not get loans or mortgages and everything they owned belonged to their husbands, including their children.


Some people do not wish to acknowledge Mary's importance in co-founding and running Penfolds Wines. Dr Christopher Penfold, having developed financial difficulties, was initially very busy establishing his medical practice in Adelaide and although he prescribed red wine to this anemic patients for its restorative value, he left the work of setting up the winery and overseeing the ploughing of the land to his clever hard-working wife. Attempts have been made by men to denigrate Mary's role in this enterprise. but women should never forget that it was Mary Penfold, aided by her maid Ellen  Timbrell, who founded and ran what is now the multi-million dollar business which later became famous internationally as Penfolds Wines, now part of Southcorp Wines. Unfortonately Mary's own letters were not preserved, but one major source of information is letters he mother wrote to Australia.

"The wind blew in gales and our days and nights were spent in tears and prayers for your safety' wrote Mrs Julius Holt, a London physician's wife, to her daughter Mary, who had just arrived in South Australia after a nightmare voyage aboard the Taglioni in 1844. Terrible storms had lashed the ship and Mary's parents feared that their much-loved only daughter might have drowned. At the time Mary's ship was due to sail Dr Julius Holt was very ill and Mary's mother had accompanied her to the docks to see her off. Mrs Holt goes on to recount her husband's anguish over the fact that he might never see his daughter again, and his fears for the deprivation and hardship which could await her in the new country. In this same letter Mrs Holt deplores the fact that Mary's husband 'would listen to no one but the emigration agents'.

In a letter Mary received in May 1845 from her mother-in-law it becomes apparent that one of the reasons for the young Penfolds leaving England was a debt problem between Christopher and his brother Tom, and possibly other creditors. different everything turns out to be in Adelaide to what we anticipated but you know it was contemplated that you should go to the Bush and you must have endured many hardships from which you are now exempt. Indeed I hear nothing that should induce you to wish to leave Adelaide (excepting to be with those dear to you) and I can say with truth that all our happiness is in yours. therefore I cannot wish your return at present if I love you or those near and dear to you, because it must be to poverty... It is very gratifying to hear that Christopher likes the change and is so determined to put his shoulder to the wheel. You say he works so very hard, I trust he will reap the benefit and that your crops will turn out very profitable ... I do hope that Christopher will not recover only his profits but think as well of the losses he may meet with as I attribute all his failures in life to have arisen from his being too sanguine ...

We went to Notting Hill to see Emma (Mary's sister-in-law) and they tell me they are going tout to you the first of June. Emma is all life and spirits with the expectation of seeing you again. I wish you have her society but I do not know what to say (about) Tom. He says he is forgetting all that has passed and with a good feeling towards Christopher and would be willing to lend him money again if he will but pay the interest - this Emma tells me - but I would advise you to have nothing to do with his money however advantageous it may appear to you. Do pray strive to overcome all difficulties and be independent of him. Remember his irritability he will always take with him and although I would say we must forgive and forget all injuries, you must avoid having your reputation injured as it was at Brighton... There must be something wrong in the man who is at variance with all his brothers and sisters (excepting James) as Tom is ... if the mosquitoes bit you must put a bit of honey on as this almost instantaneously cures wasp stings.

I saw the Adelaide Observer of December at Thom's (home). It had the account of your purchase of the farm and the sale that was to take place of a robe and cap and two dressing cases. We expect they were yours. I shall dine with Tom and Emma on Saturday next and tell them that you say not to bring out more than they want. I tell them only to take one servant, she wants two. From this letter it became apparent Tom had fallen out with other siblings apart from Mary's husband. Ironically, having been partly responsible for their emigration, he and his wife were now proposing to join the Penfolds in Adelaide. Mary Penfold had accompanied her husband, Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold, to south Australia with their four-year-old daughter Georgina, and their mother's help and companion Ellen Timbrell, the orphaned daughter of a army captain. the decision to emigrate appears to have been made entirely by Christopher, and Mary, an only child, was obviously torn between her love for her parents and that for her husband and child. When the Penfolds arrived in South Australia on 18 June 1844 they brought with them precious vine cuttings from the Rhone area of France.

At the start of settlement in Adelaide, all ships were forced to anchor a mile downstream and female passengers were carried unceremoniously ashore, slung like sacks of potatoes over the shoulders of burley sailors. They also had to endure the sight of their precious baggage and irreplaceable household possessions being thrown ashore onto the muddy beach, where crates and boxes sank into the oozy slime and many items were broken or damaged beyond repair. For many pioneer woman it was not an auspicious beginning to life in a new land, but fortunately for Mary a new wharf had just been built at Port Adelaide and they were able to land in more civilised fashion. However, some of their household goods wee damaged. Mary's family had given her expensive wedding presents and the Penfolds owned Wedgwood and Sevres porcelain, handsome mahogany furniture and a piano.

On 3 October 1844 the Observer recorded that:

Mr (not Dr) Penfold is the fortunate purchaser of the delightfully situated and truly valuable estate of Magill (named after Sir Maitland Magill), for the sum of one thousand, two hundred pounds ... comprising 500 acres of the choicest land 200 acres of which are under crops. The site of the residence is worthy of a noble mansion ... its woodlands offer a most agreeable background to this highly picturesque and desirable property.

Mary Penfold  must have been delighted to live in such a beautiful place, nestling in the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges and surrounded by birds and trees but only six and a half kilometres due east of the new town of Adelaide, Grange Cottage, with its whitewashed walls and tiny rooms panelled in red cedar, was to be her home and office for the next forty-five years. Local gossips whispered that Christopher Penfold had emigrated because he was in trouble through financial losses caused by over-speculation. this gossip seems to be substantiated by Mrs Holt's letters. Mary Penfold's missing diary would, no doubt, have thrown further light on the subject but it mysteriously disappeared after her death, possibly destroyed by heirs to the family's name who feared damage to the family's reputation. In another letter to Mary her mother repeats her belief that Christopher had always been overconfident, which might possibly confirm this conjecture, but on the other hand Mrs Holt obviously resented her only daughter's forced departure to Australia so she was not a strictly impartial witness. She clearly did not approve of Christopher's brother Thomas, his financial exploits and the way in which he treated his wife. She warned Mary not to become involved with him financial again or she would have more problems with him, and her remarks suggest that Christopher had suffered as a result of previous financial dealings with his brother.

While Mary was a beloved and privileged only child and had received every advantage in the way of education and upbringing, Christopher was a member of a struggling family of thirteen children. His father was the hard-working vicar of the Sussex village of Steyning, only 16 kilometres from Brighton, where Christopher eventually went into practice. although books and education were greatly valued at Steyning Vicarage, there could never have been much money from a vicar's meagre stipend for Christopher's expensive medical books and living expenses when he was studying at the prestigious St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical School. perhaps Christopher Penfold wished to become a specialist, but the first years of hospital medicine were unpaid and young medical residents worked there for the honour of post-graduate study under a famous consultant.

The Penfolds married in 1835, when Mary was only fifteen. It is not known how Mary met her husband, but in the early Victorian period girls married far younger than they do today; however, rarely did girls from a middle-class family marry quite that young. At fifteen she would not have 'come out' into the affluent middle-class society in which her parents moved. three years after their marriage Dr Penfold set up in general practice in the fashionable seaside town of Brighton, rendered expensive by the patronage of the Prince Regent who had used it as an elegant health resort. In order to make the right impression on his wealthy patients, Christopher was forced to rent or purchase an expensive home with suitable accommodation for his surgery and waiting room. With no family funds available, he would have had to borrow money to finance setting himself up in practice. presumably he borrowed from his elder brother tom, and failed to pay back the interest. there was certainly ill-feeling between the two brothers.

It was rumoured that during Christopher's childhood a sister had been sent to live with an elderly aunt to cut the family's housekeeping expenses, and she had later been married off to an elderly man for his money. Obviously there must have been great financial pressures on the Penfold family for them to allow this to happen. Christopher had to make his own way in the world, which may have been one of the major motivating forces for his emigration. Possibly he was too proud to seek financial help from Mary's parents and wished to be totally independent, although young doctors have always had to rely on loans to establish themselves in private practice. He would have studied at 'Barts' (St Bartholomew's Hospital) with the sons of the wealthy, and come to expect that his training would enable him to establish himself and Mary in surroundings of which he felt her parents would approve. whatever happened to the Penfolds in England that caused them to emigrate, Christopher Penfold redeemed himself in Adelaide. they took over Grange Cottage on the Magill property, a stone one-storey building with a low-hipped roof and a long verandah. they installed their beautiful furniture and fine porcelain, probably wedding presents from Mary's parents and friends, in the tiny sitting room.

Portraits of Mary and Christopher Penfold are still at their cottage. Dr Penfold was painted in 1835, the year of his marriage, when he was twenty-four. He holds a book in one hand and appears handsome as well as intelligent, with expressive, gentle eyes and a warm and generous mouth. the only existing picture of Mary shows her as an elderly widow, but she was obviously very attractive when younger. In widowhood she looks kind and rather careworn but with a very determined set to her chin. the Penfolds were a devote couple and had an extremely happy marriage. they had true pioneering spirit and both worked enormously had to make a success of the farm and the practice. Once they had moved into the cottager Mary sent her parents a picture of the little house and the outbuildings, showing young Georgina wearing red shoes and stockings and striding 'stick in hand, among the poultry and animals: pigs, cows, turkey, fowls and pigeons'. Mary also sent home a small piece of metal for testing, which her father told her in his next letter was a mixture of lead and zinc. south Australia was then in the grip of mining boom. Christopher was still interested in mining and investments, but Mary's father cautioned them not to 'neglect the fleece and farmyard to dig a will-o'-the-wisp out of the earth'. Attached to her father's letter was a most moving letter from Mrs Holt to her son-in-law saying: 'I sincerely hope you may realise your expectations. Many thanks for your assurance that you do and will take care of my idolised Mary. I place implicit confidence in your promise and will do my best to be happy. You can judge of my affection by your own for your lovely darling infant.'

Mary's parents were obviously worried that Christopher Penfold would once again do something rash, and a later letter to Mary from her mother says how 'I am glad that Chris, who has always been a little too sanguine, would not give the man fifty pounds (a large sum at that time) to tell him (the whereabouts) of the mine.' Obviously freight was expensive to Australia, as in the same letter Mary's mother described how she had passed on Mary's message to Tom Penfold, her brother-in-law, to bring out only essentials with him, including feather beds. The Magill estate gradually prospered through Mary's hard work as farm manager in all but name. All the administration fell to her as her husband was deeply involved in building up his practice and doing the rounds of his sick patients on horseback. He did not have an assistant and, like any other doctor's wife, Mary would have taken messages and given practical advice to patients in his absence. the surgery was set up in their dining room.

Mary was often busy supervising both Ellen Timbrell in her domestic duties and their manservant, Elijah Lovelock, who helped with the ploughing, sowing and harvesting. she was also involved with her daughter' education. a page from her day book contains varied entries showing her bank accounts, payments to a man for additional ploughing, the purchase of new ploughshares in Adelaide, receipt of cash for a surgery visit from a sick child and other farm work. Most important of all is Mary's brief statement that she 'began making wine'. Wine-making was Mary's special interest rather than her husband's, although his scientific knowledge would have been very useful when it came to the actual process. He prescribed their red wine to his anaemic patients, being firmly convinced of its medicinal powers. Having chosen land with wine-making in mind, they started with port and sherry but soon discovered clarets and rieslings sold better. They certainly planned the vineyard together, as did many other couples. But what had originally been conceived as an adjunct to the medical practice, medicinal wine to be prescribed to patients of Dr Penfold, under Mary's careful stewardship developed into a thriving and prestigious business.

By the end of the 1860s, Penfolds Wines had become a flourishing concern. Because of her husband's heavy workload Mary continued to manage the business virtually single-handed, a fact that was not widely known. In colonial Australia a middle-class woman was not expected to be in charge of any business venture, but to occupy herself with home and children except when her husband was absent. Dr Penfold was a dedicated and popular doctor, although at that time medicine had few cures for major diseases, and general practitioners were seldom wealthy. Like other country doctors, he would also have had many poorer patients who were unable to pay his fees during bad years and whom h treated free. He worked long hours and was also involved with the founding of St George's Church at Woodeford, north of Magill, and chaired meetings of the Burnside District Council. With so many commitments, the doctor had little time available to involve himself in the day-to-day running of the farm and the wine business, although many wrongly believed the success of the winery was due to him.

At first the Penfolds made wine for their own use and to prescribe to patients, leading to the company's slogan: '1844 to evermore'. the Penfolds sold their wine in Adelaide and won prizes at local shows, so that gradually the fame of their product spread. With a keen entrepreneurial instinct Mary found another marketing outlet for their excellent wines in Melbourne, and it was only the high interstate customs duty imposed on south Australian wine in Victoria that prevented greater expansion of the business. Before Federation, each state levied tariffs on the others' produce. Dr Penfold's medical practice prospered. their daughter grew into an attractive and intelligent girl. when the Penfolds made an extended visit to Melbourne to find new markets for their wine, Georgina, then nineteen years old, met and married a public servant and capable administrator named Thomas Hyland. He acted as the Victorian sales agent for Penfolds, as he and Georgina were living in Melbourne. the wine business grew and prospered, but it is likely that Mary regarded herself as the wife of a respected doctor with a business sideline rather than as a successful entrepreneur in her own right, although that was her role.

In March 1870 Mary Penfold suffered a major tragedy when her husband died at the age of fifty-nine after a long illness, possibly cancer. Dr Penfold was buried at St George's Church, Magill. He was held in great esteem by his patients, and when his funeral cortege passed through Magill the flags which were flying for a local election were lowered to half-mast and all the stores closed out of respect. In a letter to Mary written just after her husband's death, Thomas Hyland advised her that he had been building up good sales of Penfolds and other wines in Victoria as a sideline to his public service appointment. Rather patronisingly, he added that Mary should now sell out the property and be 'pensioned off'. It appears that this time Thomas Hyland had not realised that Mary Penfold had been managing the vineyard and wine-making process prior to her husband's long illness, and he seriously underestimated her role in the winery and her business acumen. He wondered if 'you could manage things for six months (as) it would give us more time to sell the property', and suggested that 'if the Border Duty gets settled, we could then sell it (the Grange estate) well in Melbourne'. 

Mary had absolutely no intention of selling the home and business she had worked so hard to create. She replied brusquely to her son-in-law's discouraging letter with a well-written and concise report on prospects for the Penfolds wine business and included a balance sheet setting out the financial situation. Two months later she received a letter from Thomas Hyland stating: 'I am quite pleased at the practical way in which you are taking the business in hand and your resolutions, determination and instructions could not be better. In fact if you go at it determinedly ... you will be alright.' The letter also contained a proposal for a formal partnership between them. Hyland sensibly proposed that Mary should continue to manage the Penfolds Grange Estate vineyards and that he and Georgina would continue to sell Penfolds Grange wines in Melbourne. Mary accepted his proposals and a most successful partnership was contracted. by now Ellen Timbrell, who had originally helped her with the wine-making, was dead, but Mary's domestic burdens were far lighter since there were no patients to take up her time. Mary continued to work hard; she could no longer be regarded as a doctor's wife making pin money when she was in fact a skilled vigneron running a successful enterprise. Thomas Hyland grew to respect Mary Penfold's business acumen and management skills. The relationship between Mary, Georgina and her husband was close. In 1872, two years after Dr Penfold's death, Thomas and Georgina entrusted their delicate little daughter, Inez, to Mary, believing that the clear country air of Magill would help her to regain her health. The arrangement was a great success for grandmother and granddaughter, and Thomas later adopted the name Penfold and called himself Thomas Hyland-Penfold.

At the beginning of June 1874 a journalist from the Adelaide Register inspected the Penfolds Grange vineyards and cited the estate as an example of good management. From his article it is evident that the writer was impressed by Mary Penfold's personal supervision of the winery and her extensive knowledge of the wine-making process and noted that Mary must have been doing this for a long time to gain this kind of expertise. the reporter described how:

Mrs Penfold makes four varieties of wine, sweet and dry red and sweet and dry white. Grapes of all kinds are used and the uniformity which is so great a consideration is secured by blending the wines when they are two or three years old. this is done under mars Penfold's personal supervision, not in conformity with any fixed and definite rule but entirely according to her judgment and taste. Mrs Penfold is aiming to get such a stock that she need not sell any which is under four years of age. There are now in the cellars about 20,000 gallons of wine of that age ready for market but the total stock is close upon 90,000 gallons.

Mary had expanded her wine-making in a most professional and organised way. The Adelaide Register described the exact procedures that she used, together with the type of machinery, and went into some detail about the enormous oak casks which Mary had purchased in spite of gloomy predictions of disaster from her rivals. Her cellar contained oak casks, each holding some 22,700 litres; these stood 3.6 metres high. there were seven gigantic casks made of Australian red gum or English oak. From the Adelaide Register's article it appears that Mary was experimenting with many new varieties of grapes, apart from the grenache which she and Christopher had originally brought with them on the voyage to Australia. New varieties included tokay, madeira, frontignac, verdelho, mataro, the Spanish pedro ximenez, and muscat; to obtain these Mary must have been involved in correspondence with vignerons all over Europe. She read widely about new methods of wine production and maintenance of vine stocks, as she was keen to avoid phylloxera and other diseases that ravaged vineyards in Europe.

After Christopher's death Mary kept herself constantly busy. Unlike many widows of the period, she did not appear to suffer from a sense of isolation or depression. She had the companionship of Inez, her intelligent and creative grandchild, and her beloved pug dogs Toby and Beppo. the Hyland-Penfolds often visited her when they could get away from Melbourne, and in turn she wrote the family long and amusing letters. Frequently these were addressed to Inez's brother Leslie. In one letter to Leslie she recounted how, with his father and sister Inez, she had taken a trip to the Adelaide Hills where they had encountered men panning for gold: 'I wanted to get out and see what they had got but directly they caught sight of our wagonette they took us for a wedding party and yelled at us in a very Colonial fashion', she wrote. Mary was progressive in her ideas and evidently welcomed the technological advancement of the time. Rather than taking the steamer on her visits to the married daughter and children, she was one of the first passengers aboard the newly instituted train service between Adelaide and Melbourne.

By 1869 the Penfolds Grange estate had 27.3 hectares of vines under cultivation. On 14 September 1881 a further partnership agreement was signed between Mary, Thomas Hyland-Penfold and her cellar manager, Joseph Gillard, b which she would receive 10 per cent of the profit and in which she agreed to continue to act as wine-maker and wine-seller under the name of Penfold & Co for the next seven years, with Thomas acting as accountant for the partnership. Mary's son-in-law, due to the success of the business and his confidence in its future, left his secure public service job to devote his time and energy to the family enterprise, although he remained in Victoria while Many ran the winery. the historic partnership agreement is still in Grange Cottage today.

By 1892, Mary's beloved granddaughter and companion, Inez, with whom she had happily shared Grange cottage for 20 years, died of what was thought to be pernicious anaemia. although Inez had been shy and retiring, she was well read and an excellent conversationalist with a passion for literature. She had given Mary great joy and mental stimulation in her later years. Inez had written some poems in the rather charming whimsical style, later made popular by the fantasies of Walter de la Mare. Mary devoted her time and energies to collecting her granddaughter's poems and stories and publishing them under the title In Sunshine and Shadow, hoping that 'whatever their faults they will meet with no harsh criticism for her dear sake'. After Inez died Mary no longer wishes to remain alone at Grange Cottage and in January 1892, when her garden was at the height of its beauty, she packed up a few treasures to take with her to Georgina's home in Melbourne. She could not bear to witness the disposal of the beautiful Regency furniture which she and Christopher had commissioned in the first years of their marriage, or her much-loved ebony piano and the Dresden, Sevres and Wedgwood china which had given her so much pleasure. They were sold under the auctioneer's hammer after her departure and most were scattered beyond trace.

Mary Penfold died in her mid-seventies on a mild January day in Melbourne in 1896. Her body was brought back to be buried at St George's Cemetery, Magill. It is a significant comment on the way women were viewed in Australian colonial society that her obituary in the Adelaide Register of 4 January 1894 mentioned that 'she resided for forty-eight years at the Grange vineyards'. neither the journalist who wrote it nor any of the Melbourne papers mentioned her contribution to the wine industry.  She was not given any credit for pioneering south Australian wine-growing and wine-making, for trying to lower the tariff barriers between south Australia and Victoria, or for her successful initiation and management of one of the largest and most important wineries in Australia.

Attempts have been made to denigrate Mary's position as the major founder and first manager of Penfolds Wines, because it is felt that the makers of the famous medal-winning Australian red wine Grange Hermitage should have a man as its sole founder. to counteract the false impression of Mary's subsidiary role in the company (which appears in a book by a male author), the following points should be born in mind:


Without detracting from Joseph Gillard's contribution to Penfolds Winery, he joined the Penfold business in 1869, only months before Dr Penfold's death. Dr Penfold's involvement had been minimal for some years due to illness. Prior to that he was kept very busy running his thriving medical practice.

Under an 1869 agreement, Thomas Hyland was the accountant and the marketing agent for Penfolds in Victoria, the state in which he continued to live, leaving Mary to run the winery as she thought fit.

Mary Penfold remained living on the site of the winery at Grange Cottage. It was Mary who continued to run and oversee the expansion of the Adelaide winery and vineyards, not Thomas Hyland, as the book by Dr Phillip Norrie designed to link male doctors with the manufacture of Penfolds' and Lindeman's wines suggests.

Over the next fifty years Grange Cottage deteriorated badly and after World War II it was about to be demolished. It was saved by the exertions of Mary's great-granddaughter and other members of the family. In 1949, the cottage from which the most famous of the Penfold wines takes its name was opened as a private museum commemorating the achievements of Mary and Christopher Penfold. (At the time of writing the museum is no longer open to the public and most of the original Grange vineyard has been subdivided for a housing estate and sold.)


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