Ender Wiggins
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James Squire: The Beer

Beer and playing cards. It's not the most unlikely of combinations is it? Especially given the historic connection that cards have with gambling! The Malt Shovel Brewery is an Australian brewery in New South Wales, and is best known for its James Squire range of beers. For the record, I have absolutely no connection whatsoever with the brewery or the beer. In fact I don't even drink beer. But I do love cider, and I do own a couple of decks of James Squire playing cards that I acquired as a result of a yard sale some time ago. I'm glad to say that they were unopened and in shrinkwrap at the time, and hadn't been doused in beer. No drunkenness was involved in the making of this review.

So who is the man James Squire? Well he's a convict who is credited with being Australia's first brewer. The modern day brewery that makes James Squire beers takes its name from the Malting Shovel Tavern, which Squire built between Sydney Town and Parramatta. Transported to Australia on the First Fleet in 1788, Squire was a very colourful character, famous for being a convict, thief, a rogue, and a womanizer. But despite his criminal background, he later became an important member in the community of the colony. He fathered 11 children, was successful as a businessman, and even became part of the local police-force, serving as one of the governor's guards. As an indication of his success by the time of his death, his funeral held in 1822 was the biggest funeral ever held in the colony.

The range of James Squire beers all capture aspects of Squire's life and character, with beers named "The Stowaway" and "The Swindler" referencing aspects of his early life, "Jack of Spades" referencing his love for gambling, "The Chancer" and "Hop Thief" referencing his beer-making venture, "Four Wives" referencing his personal life which included a wife and three mistresses, and "The Constable" referencing his transformation from convict to cop. There are more beers besides these in the James Squire range, which also includes the "Orchard Crush" Apple and Pear ciders that are featured on the playing cards tuck-box.

Although Squire's original corn-based beverage doesn't quite meet the modern day definition of beer, clearly he loved liquor enough to become an ideal and colourful figure to use for the Malt Shovel Brewery's range of beers. But it's not hard to see that all of this makes excellent material not just for labelling and marketing a range of beers, but also for capturing in the artwork of a deck of playing cards. Christopher Nielsen is the illustrator of the deck, and was commissioned by Extrablack design and Lion to design a set of playing cards for the James Squire range of beers, and it's this deck of cards that is the subject of this review.

Nielsen adopted a thematic approach to the court cards. The four Kings represent James Squire's various occupations, the four Queens represent the women in his life, while the four Jacks reference his younger and wilder days. Meanwhile the Aces capture James Squire's unique character traits, and the Jokers show some other amusing Squire-related elements. In Nielsen's own words, "I am fortunate that the James Squire story is jam packed with juicy details to populate the imagery with."

So let's find out more about the story behind this deck! These playing cards were one of the first decks I ever acquired that had custom artwork. While I've seen better custom decks since, I was and still am fascinated with the novelty of a deck which cleverly told a story, as these playing cards so very thoughtfully do. In this review, I'll tell you a little about the man that James Squire was, including the surprising, thrilling and adventure-filled story of his life, and then I'll show you some of the cards. Sorry, this review isn't being sponsored by a beer company, so no alcohol is provided - you'll have to provide your own (in moderation)! But first, here's a sneak peek of the deck, and some of the beautiful cards:

James Squire: The Convict

You can skip over this next section if you want to get straight to the playing cards, but the story of James Squire is an interesting one worth reading, and the narrative of his life provides some context for the design of the deck. For this section I'm indebted to the brewery's own account about Squire, which they re-tell under the title "Cheers To Australia's First Brewer" (link).

"The tale of how James Squire became Australia’s first brewer is a cracking yarn, a journey full of thievery, dishonesty and, above all, flavour. Best of all, it’s completely true.

Born in 1754 in Kingston-on-Thames, James Squire’s story has an inauspicious start. A risk taker and a scoundrel, he was arrested for highway robbery at the tender age of 20. He tried to go straight, but by 1785 a few stolen chickens landed him a berth onboard a convict ship with the First Fleet. James was headed for Australia.

Even then he couldn’t stay out of trouble and just a year after his arrival in Port Jackson he was hauled in front of the magistrate for theft. This time we like to consider it a crime for the greater good: James had been stealing hops to brew Australia’s first beer.

And it must have been something special, because he managed to escape execution. Instead he was fined five pounds and sentenced to 300 lashes, 150 lashes now and 150 when he could bear it. Does that number sound familiar?

By 1795 James was a free man and was granted a 30 acre plot of land. With a little skillful swindling, he managed to build up a 1,000 acre estate – the perfect place to grow Australia’s first hops. A decade later, Governor King was so impressed with his work that he gave James a cow and the title of Australia’s first (and finest) brewer.

Now a successful man, James built his brewery and Malting Shovel Tavern on the shore of the Parramatta River at Kissing Point, halfway between the settlements of Sydney Cove and Parramatta. Many a sailor sought refuge here over a refreshing ale while they waited for the tide to turn.

And he wasn’t done yet. In a delightfully ironic contrast to his convict past, James eventually became a district constable.

When he passed away on May 16, 1822, at the age of 67, James Squire was honoured with the largest funeral in the colony’s history. We like to think his friends would have toasted his extraordinary life with a glass (or two) of his finest brew.

James Squire: The Cards

So now let's get to the playing cards themselves, and see how this story gets captured by Christopher Nielsen in the clever artwork and design of this James Squire deck.

Tuck box

Here's the deck-box, showing the front and back. Notice how the cover artwork on each sides is inspired by the graphic design used for the apple cider and perry (pear cider) that the brewery produces. Aside from that, this is actually the only direct reference to the modern day company in the cards. From here on in, it's all James Squire the convict!

Jacks: James Squire's Early Life

Let's start with the Jacks. These capture elements of James Squire's early life: Rogue, Convict, Womaniser, and Thief.

The Jack of Clubs represents Squire as Rogue, and says "Born Rogue 1754", referring to his birth, and adds "Gypsy Blood", with various images depicting a gypsy lifestyle.

The Jack of Diamonds represents Squire as Thief. Squire was first arrested for highway robbery at aged 20. This card says in small print "Front Door" and "Highway Robber" at the top, which alludes to the fact that at the time of his arrest he had fled through the front door, thus avoiding a more serious charge of stealing. At aged 30, he was found guilty of stealing five hens and four cocks from his neighbour’s yard. The left of the card pictures 5 hens, and the right of the card the 4 cocks. The bottom of the card also references one of his later crimes in Australia where it states: "1789 Stealing Medicines from the Hospital Store 1lb of Pepper & Horehound for my Pregnant Girlfriend." At the time, Squire claimed that the horehound (a herb that imitates the tangy flavour of hops) was for his girlfriend, but in reality this theft might well have been alcohol related, since later he admitted that he actually began brewing beer upon arrival in Australia.

The Jack of Spades represents Squire as Convict. After his conviction for theft, in 1785 the British government decided to include Squire in the transported convict program. He was sentenced to two years in Southwark Gaol, and was then to join the First Fleet to Australia. This card mentions both Southwark and Botany Bay, the location of the first colony. It also makes reference to two of the ships of the first fleet, Friendship and Charlotte, one of which was used to carry female convicts. In small text this card says "The Friendship, transferred in a reshuffle with the female convicts to The Charlotte at the Cape of Good Hope", which refers to the fact that during a reshuffle of the female passengers, Squire managed to transfer himself from the Friendship to the Charlotte.

The Jack of Hearts represents Squire as Womanizer, and includes several images that represent temptation. All four of the women in his life are mentioned: Lucy, Mary, Martha, and Elizabeth. These figures will come back in a moment, because they are expanded on with the four Queens.

Queens: James Squire's Women

The four Queens capture something of each of afore-mentioned women, his wives, girlfriends and mistresses, including the names of the children that Squire fathered with each.

The Queen of Hearts depicts Martha Quinton, described here as "Local Sweet Heart", and the first woman in Squire's life. It mentions the date 1776, which is the date of their marriage. James had three children with her, whose names are all listed: James, Sarah, and John. The card also says "Left Behind Fend For Yourself", because when Squire was shipped off to Australia, Martha and the children were forced to remain in England, and literally left to fend for themselves.

The Queen of Spades depicts Mary Spencer, described here as "Thief", and the second woman in Squire's life. She was a fellow convict, who had been sentenced for theft of a number of items, which are mentioned on the card in small text: "Black silk handkerchief, green quilted petticoat". One of her arms is tattooed with the word "Francis", which refers to her son Francis, who was enrolled in the British army at just over year old, and later enlisted into the NSW Corps as a drummer - details referenced by her other tattoos.

The Queen of Clubs depicts Elizabeth Mason, described here as "Convict Servant" because she was his live-in convict servant, and the third woman in Squire's life. It mentions the names of the 7 children Squire had with her: Priscilla, Martha, Mary Ann, Elizabether, Timothy, James, and Sarah.

The Queen of Diamonds depicts Lucy Harding, described here as "keeping house 1816", and the fourth woman in Squire's life. Lucy was the live-in housekeeper that Squire began an affair with after his relationship with Elizabeth. He eventually moved into her private residence at "Castlereagh St", an address which is also mentioned on the card.

Kings: James Squire's Occupations

James Squire did seem to turn his life around despite his inauspicious beginnings, and the Kings capture something of the success he enjoyed in his later years.

The King of Clubs represents Squire as Landlord. The top of the card mentions "Land Grant, One Shilling". This refers to the fact that around 1791, Squire had completed his sentence, and as a free man was granted 30 acres of land at Eastern Farms (Kissing Point). He shrewdly then purchased nearby land that other freed convicts hadn't claimed for 1 shilling each. I haven't been able to figure out what the number 9 on his hat refers to, but below this are small details I can just make out: 10 sheep, 18 pigs, 5 acres of wheat, 35 goats, 45 barley & Maize, Kissing Point, Eastern Farms. This is a reference to Squire's success as a farmer and landowner, and describes what the historical record attributes to him in mid-1800.

The King of Diamonds represents Squire as Banker. The bottom of the card reads "The Patriarch Of Kissing Point Credit Union", while the center around his portrait reads "Fair Play Veneration". This refers to the fact that for a time later in his life he worked in a credit union style of bank, and was well known for being very fair as a lender, and a help to poorer neighbours. Kissing Point has already been mentioned as the location of Squire's land. Due to his generosity, James was in fact known and nicknamed as "The Patriarch of Kissing Point".

The King of Spades represents Squire as Constable. It has a subtitle "Resident District" and the date 1803, and mentions the kinds of convictions he would have issued, including "Trespassing" and "Notice of Theft of Boat" - the latter being recorded in an issue of the Sydney Gazette in 1803. His move to this position was the result of trespassers on his own property, and theft of his belongings.

The King of Hearts represents Squire as Brewer - clearly his biggest achievement as far as The Malt Shovel Brewery is concerned. The top of the card reads "150 lashes now and the remainder when able to bear it 1789", which references the fact that Squire was first sentenced to 300 lashes for stealing the "medicines" and horehound (claimed to be for a pregnant girlfriend, but more likely used to make beer). This sentence was later reduced to 150, and is memorialized in the Malt Shovel Brewery's "One Fifty Lashes" beer. The text on the barrel reads "4d per quart", which is the price that Squire first sold his beer for.

Aces: James Squire's Character

The Aces sum up some of James Squires' character, and capture something of the man that he was.

The Ace of Clubs represents Squire's Charm. It mentions the women in his life (Martha, Mary, Elizabeth, Lucy), and his final memorial (Biggest Funeral Ever Held in The Colony). It further states "Lieutenant Francis Grose Brewing" - the Lieutenant being one of the persons that Squire was brewing beer for personal consumption for, and possibly the result of which he received a more lenient sentence when charged with stealing horehound.

The Ace of Diamonds represents Squire's Luck. Like the Convict card (Jack of Spades), it pictures the ships Friendship and Charlotte, and reads "Seven Years Beyond the Seas", which refers to the term that Squire was sentenced to as part of his mandatory trip to Australia.

The Ace of Spades represents Squire's Craft. His skills included being a Butcher, Baker, and Brewer. Around 1808, he took up work in a bakery in Kent Street, and as a butcher also often supplied meat to the colony.

The Ace of Hearts represents Squire's Heart. The central and largest text reads "Live Respected Die Lamented", while two small tombstones read in tiny print "Beneelong Barangaroo" (an Aboriginal husband and wife who were important in early British relations with the natives). The text on the scroll reads "Had he not been so generous, James Squire would have been a wealthier man - Joseph Lycett." Lycett was one of the artists in the first colony, and in addition to this statement, also said about James Squire: "Universally respected for his amiable and useful qualities as a member of the lower class of settlers... his name will long be pronounced with veneration by the grateful objects of his liberality". According to one source, the headstone at Squire's grave-site reads: "In Sacred Respect to the Loving Remains of Mr. Jas. Squire, late of Kissing Point who departed this Life 16 May 1822 at the age of 67 years. He arrived in the colony in the First Fleet and by Integrity and Industry acquired and maintained an unsullied reputation. Under his care the HOP PLANT was first Cultivated in this Settlement and the first BREWERY erected which Progressively matured to Perfection. As a Father, Friend and Christian he Lived Respected and Died Lamented." It's this last phrase that is featured as the main text on this Ace.


The Jokers both offer a more humorous take on aspects of Squire's life, his legacy, and his legend. One pictures his tavern, the "Malted Shovel", and reads "Sailors could find their way to Squire's in a thick fog", while the other depicts a headstone with the date of 1822, corresponding to Squire's funeral, and reads "Ye who wish to lie here drink Squire's beer." It isn't mentioned on the cards, but at the time of his funeral, the Sydney Gazette included the following statement in their published obituary: "He was the first that brought Hops to any perfection and hence was enabled to brew beer of an excellent quality. "Squire's Beer" was well known."

Number cards

The number cards feature custom pips, a small image of the malted shovel in the indices, and also some thematic text corresponding to each number, some being regrettably a little risque: 2 = Two Up, 3 = Threesome, 4 = Four Play, 5 = Bunch of Fives, 6 = Six Pack, 7 = Lucky Seven, 8 = Pieces of Eight, 9 = Nine Tales, 10 = Ten Paces.

I particularly like the stylized clubs used on these cards. However I really wish that they hadn't included sexual innuendo here, and also that the artwork on the court cards had been a bit tamer in some cases as well.

Artwork for Squire Bars

To coincide with the creation of this deck, a huge feature wall of these playing cards was created for The Curious Squire Bar in Adelaide.

In addition, Nielsen made a custom 8 metre banner that details the trials and tribulations with the ladies in Squire's life, and was created for behind the bar at The Squire's Maiden Bar in Newcastle.


Components: The artwork aside, the cards themselves are rather ordinary in quality. They are poker sized, but don't have a quality linen finish, feel quite thin, and don't handle as well as a quality deck like those from Bicycle. The card backs feature James Squire's signature and a pattern that incorporates the image of a malted shovel, but it seems very plain and almost boring compared to the card fronts. I wish that the designer Nielsen had been asked to do some more detailed pictorial artwork for the card backs to match the high standard and creativity evident on the face of all the cards.

The tuck box is fairly plain, but I like how it mentions different ciders on each side, and the James Squire signature. I'm also glad that there's no real artificial references to beer or the brewery as such, and as a result this doesn't feel too much like a marketing and advertising gimmick, but rather as a custom deck of playing cards in the first place.

Artwork: Christopher Nielsen has done a splendid and clever job of capturing the core elements of Squire's life in this deck of James Squire playing cards. Even though some elements are a little risque, which I find unfortunate and regrettable, at the same time I can understand that this is also simply telling the story of James Squire's life and a reflection of who he was, rather than an endorsement of his character.

All round, this is quite a fun deck, and The Malt Shovel Brewery has made a clever marketing move in commissioning the creation of these James Squire inspired decks to match and advertise their beers. Well done to Christopher Nielsen, and well done to the Malt Shovel for some creative thinking in initiating and completing this original project!

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