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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Watson, James Calexte (1903–1962)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

James Calexte Watson (1903-1962), wine-saloon proprietor, was born on 18 October 1903 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of James Watson, a Tasmanian-born coalminer and former fossicker, and his Italian-born wife Giselda, née Panelli. The couple was related to an extensive network of owners of Melbourne wine-bars and cafés, including members of the Denat, Virgona and Massoni families. Jimmy's second name honoured his uncle Calexte Denat, a noted French-Swiss restaurateur. The boy attended suburban state schools and, at age 14, took flute lessons from John Amadio. He played professionally in theatre and cinema orchestras and assisted in the bars and restaurants of his parents and other relations. On 22 April 1931 at St Augustine's Church, Moreland, he married with Anglican rites Esther (Essie) Helena Mary Grenfell, a stenographer. When 'talkies' reduced opportunities for professional musicians in cinemas, he turned to the only other livelihood he knew. In 1935 he purchased a wine-saloon in Lygon Street, Carlton, moving into rooms above the two shops that formed the business.

Trading as J. C. Watson, wine merchant, he was permitted to sell only Australian wine, and no beer or spirits, under the terms of his licence. At the time, wine-saloons were the haunts of mainly elderly people known as 'plonkos' who drank glasses of cheap fortified wine called 'fourpenny darks'. Seeking to improve his business, Watson introduced better varieties of fortified and table wines (which he bottled himself from hogsheads), kept a collection of aged vintages for discerning customers, organized excursions to wineries, and welcomed international visitors. Meanwhile, he attended to the needs of his inherited clientele with special prices for pensioners, and card games and fishing trips for 'regulars'. In 1947 the family moved to Ascot House at Ascot Vale; Essie ran its reception rooms as a complementary enterprise; food from Ascot House also raised the quality of catering at the wine-saloon.

Watson's gregarious and humane personality gave the wine-bar its character. Dressed in a leather apron, he was an ever-present but democratically minded host. Physically robust, quick-witted and very much in charge, he did not tolerate pretentiousness or drunkenness and would eject people when necessary. Unlike most licensed premises of the period, Watson's was an environment where women could feel comfortable. The business grew, especially after 1945. A new generation, including staff and students at the nearby University of Melbourne, came to enjoy the inexpensive wine, as well as the food (from Ascot House or the local shops) and cheerful banter. Watson would give impoverished students a free meal as he reasoned rightly that they would come back as paying regulars. By the late 1950s the bar had become a Melbourne institution.

About 1960 Watson decided to renovate the saloon. (Sir) Roy Grounds failed to complete the subsequent commission; after his father's death Allan Watson accepted a design by Robin Boyd. Having suffered from diabetes mellitus for several years, Jimmy died of a coronary occlusion on 22 February 1962 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His wife and their son survived him. Several hundred people attended his funeral and fellow traders lined both sides of Lygon Street. His friends instituted the Jimmy Watson memorial trophy at the annual Royal Melbourne Wine Show for the best one-year-old red, a style of wine that he had stocked for his customers to buy and cellar. A posthumous portrait of him by (Sir) William Dargie hangs in the bar at Jimmy Watson's. Allan continued the business.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Poliness, Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar (Melb, 1989)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1962
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Aug 1981
  • private information.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Watson, James Calexte (1903–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 7 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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