“It is safe to say that few man in Australia have had a longer or more varied association with the wine industry than Mr J.A. Seeck” –“Life-time in wine” News (Adelaide) 1937
Many Australians have Russian ancestry. Many do not know that they have it. Many have researched it. Many just have legends and stories passed from generation to generation. This story was driven by my wish to confirm the legends floating around the internet about John A. Seeck.
John, in his lifetime, was known for two reasons – one – he was the grandfather of Tamie Fraser, wife of Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Malcolm Fraser. The second – John’s legacy in the Australian wine industry. Few sources claimed that John had Russian ancestry, but they were contradicting in reasons and timing of his arrival.
My research revealed the first story, where John was working for the Hamilton family (wine makers) and “was to work as a senior winemaker for more than 40 years after “walking” into Ewell one day having just disembarked from a merchant seaman at Port Adelaide. He left Russia as a white Russian due to the Russian Revolution in 1917. He previously trained and worked as a winemaker in Russia.”
Robert Hamilton himself left a 2-page record of John in 2004 where he stated that John “as a young man .. was a member of the Czar of Russia’s household guard but briefly before the Russian revolution in 1917 he changed career and went to Geisenheim wine academy”.
It is obvious, the common legend is that John came to Australia only after the Revolution.
I turned to Trove library (my favourite) and located very interesting information. Together with the immigration (ancestry.com.au) and naturalisation records at National Archives of Australia, I discovered an interesting life of John Alexander Seeck.
John Alexander Seeck was born in 1869 in Riga, Latvia (then a territory of Imperial Russia). Nothing is known of his parents and childhood but his education was exceptional. After finishing his primary studies (at an approximate age of 14) he went to Enological school of Geisenheim on the Rhine, the oldest wine research establishment in Germany, and studied the “science of his art under Professor Moritz”. The research centre of Geisenheim still exists today and is located in the West of the Rhein-Main region, where the cultivation of wine began in the middle ages.
After finishing his studies, John even had an opportunity to make some wine in vineyards of Caucasus in Russia (at the age of 18-19), as the newspaper claims.
The proof to that is John’s notebook, which I nearly missed, when searching in online Trove library. The notebook covers the period from 1883 to 1889 and is in an old German script on grape growing and methods of wine production. These are probably his notes from studies in Germany.
German was more likely John’s native language. There were many Germans living in Riga in late 19th century. So it is safe to say that John was Baltic German. He already arrived to Australia known as John Alexander Seeck, which is not a “Russian” name in any way.
John arrived to Sydney, Australia in 1888 through London.
What pushed him to move, adventure or better employment opportunities? Latvia in late 19th century was changing and changing quickly – changing economic conditions, growing urbanisation, socialistic movements, Alexander’s III russification policies, which aimed for reducing the autonomy of Baltic provinces and the introduction of the Russian language in administration, court and education, replacing German or Latvian. This all lead to Latvia seeing an explosion of people’s discontent in the 1905 Revolution.
Whatever the reason, looks like John was absolutely right in making the move. Based on information in articles, within two years of arrival, John found his first job in his chosen profession at “T. Hardy and sons” in South Australia, where he stayed for 5 years.
His next move landed him at Murray Valley Vineyard in Albury (around 1895). John’s future years were spent in NSW, Victoria and South Australia by managing businesses, valuing and classifying wines, being a judge at various wine shows and staying in a consultant winemaker positions.
He worked at such vineyards as Hamilton’s Ewell, Reynella, McLaren Vale and at cellars at Mile End. As Robert Hamilton notes, John left an impact on Australian wine industry. He “brought one very important advance in wine making technology in Australia – the system of making light fresh wines of low alcohol, which could be drunk early (6 months old) – without wood maturation and showing the nose and flavour of the grape from which the wine was made”.
John also raised a big family. His son went to fight in World War 1 and his daughter married a Prime Minister of Australia. After living a life of big achievements John Alexander Seeck died in August 1942 at the age of 73.
What about his family in Russia, you ask? From what I was able to find, John had a sister, who was living in Soviet Union in 1937. The potential nephew Alfred John Seeck migrated to Australia in 1929. In 1931 John also invited for visit his cousin from Canada. “The others having been killed in revolutions”, states News newspaper in 1937, in addition to the fact that John went back to Russia in 1905 for a year.
Knowing that 1905 was the year of the first Revolution, I gather further confirmation about the events in Latvia (from Wikipedia):
Following the shooting of demonstrators in St. Petersburg a wide-scale general strike began in Riga. On 26 January [O.S. 13 January], Russian army troops opened fire on demonstrators killing 73 and injuring 200 people. During the summer of 1905, the focus of revolutionary events moved to the countryside with mass meetings and demonstrations. 470 new parish administrative bodies were elected in 94% of the parishes in Latvia. The Congress of Parish Representatives was held in Riga in November. In autumn 1905, armed conflict between the Baltic German nobility and the Latvian peasants begun in the rural areas of Livland and Courland. In Courland, the peasants seized or surrounded several towns. In Livland, the fighters controlled the Rūjiena-Pärnu railway line. Martial law was declared in Courland in August 1905, and in Livland in late November. Special punitive expeditions were dispatched in mid-December to suppress the movement. They executed 1170 people without trial or investigation and burned 300 peasant homes. Thousands were exiled to Siberia. Many Latvian intellectuals only escaped by fleeing to Western Europe or USA. In 1906, the revolutionary movement gradually subsided.
Apparently, turmoil of the 1905 Russian Revolution hit Latvia harder than any other region in Russia. Burning of German country-side mansions of German gentry became a wide-spread manifestation of people’s protest against the regime. There is no question that John’s family in Riga somehow was affected by the 1905 Revolution and his presence in Russia was required. What happened to his relatives during 1917 Revolution is unknown.
Nothing is known of his parents also. Since John was born in Riga (Latvia), his birth certificate/record can be found in Latvian archives. The archives’ vital records are digitized but not indexed. It becomes more complicated, as there is no record of the church in Riga (and there were about 10 Lutheran churches in Riga), were he was baptised. The search for John at this stage becomes time-consuming, as I have to go through every church’s record for 1869. I will leave it for later.
“An Australian pioneer vigneron” Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1932), Saturday 26 October 1895, page 23
“The Reynella vineyards” Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 – 1954), Saturday 3 April 1909, page 9
“Life-time in wine” News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), Friday 18 June 1937, page 4
“Hardy’s 125 years wine” The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Thursday 26 October 1978, p 23