Although today’s Kirks soft drinks proudly boast “Since 1865” there is no evidence for that date of origin. The two companies that eventually merged to form Helidon Gardner Pty Ltd, trading as Kirks, were Owen Gardner & Sons (founded 1850) and the Helidon Spa Water Company (founded in 1880). However, the Kirks brand did not emerge until Thomas Kirkpatrick created a ginger ale recipe for Owen Gardner & Sons in 1924.
Kirks could legitimately trace their history back to 1850, when Owen Gardner began making his cordials and aerated waters in William Street, Brisbane. After Owen died in 1888, his son took over the management of the business and in 1914 moved the operation to larger premises in Brisbane’s West End.
Meanwhile, at Helidon, just over 100km west of Brisbane, a new company began to exploit the natural spring waters of the area. In December 1880, Gilbert Primrose and Reginald Larard formed the Helidon Spa Water Company. Under the headline of A NEW NATIVE INDUSTRY they continued:
The Helidon Spa Water Company have much pleasure in announcing that they are now prepared to supply the public with their valuable Mineral Water, which they are quite confident only requires a trial to be thoroughly appreciated. It is at the same time a refreshing beverage, and one of Nature’s valuable resotratives.
Then followed an endorsement from one Karl Theodor Staiger, “Late Government Chemist”. I assume he was an ex-government chemist and not actually dead.
In the 1890s Owen Gardner & Sons also began to bottle water from the Helidon Spa, which led to a legal dispute. The courts found in favour of the Helidon Spa Water Company banning the Gardners from using the terms Helidon or Spa for their products.
In 1916, Owen Gardner & Sons employed the man who gave his name to Kirks soft drinks, Thomas Kirkpatrick. Initially he was a maker of cordials and aerated waters but soon became the manager of the business. Thomas developed a recipe for a dry ginger ale in 1924 and shortly afterwards this was marketed as Kirk’s Dry Ginger Ale – the first time the brand name appeared.
Unfortunately, it was soon subject to another legal wrangle. Owen Gardner & Sons became insolvent in 1935 and passed into new ownership. Thomas Kirkpatrick moved on to a different firm, the Brisbane Aerated Water Company and, believing he owned the recipe, also began to market a ginger ale under the name of Kirks. The owners of Gardners sued. They were successful and Kirkpatrick’s new company was ordered to stop using the Kirks name.
The ginger ale was likely the only product to carry the name Kirks until the old rivals, Owen Gardner & Sons and the Helidon Spa Water Company merged in 1959. They traded as Kirks, applying the brand name to their full range of soft drinks. Early bottles boasted the company was “Established 1850” and also laid claim to the medals won by the Helidon company in London, Paris and San Francisco.
In 1964, the company became a subsidiary of the international giant British Tobacco, now known as Coca-Cola Amatil. BT also bought many well-known soft drink brands in other states, including Hall’s in South Australia, Marchants in Victoria, Ecks and Shelleys in New South Wales and Gests in Western Australia. Eventually all these brands disappeared, to be replaced by Kirks.
The Kirks range still varies from state to state, with some of the distinctive flavours carried over from previous brands. Thus there is Sno Drop (a kind of creaming soda) in South Australia, Kole Beer in Western Australia and Fruita in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Also co-opted into the range were Old Stoney Ginger Beer (originally Hall’s) and Big Sars. Other products include Creaming Soda, Ginger Ale, Lemonade, Lemon Squash, Pasito, Portello and a range of mixer drinks.