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The Whitbread Brewery, Chiswell Street, June 2016.

Earlier this year, at a book fair in Kent, I chanced across Whitbread Craftsmen. Published in 1948, and weighing in at just 40 yellowing pages, this lovely little tome contains affectionate behind the scenes portraits – words and pictures – of ten different people, all employees of London brewer Whitbread, at the time one of the biggest in the country. They range from William Claude Lasman, head brewer resplendent in white coat, to cellarman George Martin through to cooper James Charles Frost, characters one and all.

In 1948, of course, heavy industry was still a feature of life in London, despite the ravages of the Blitz just a few years earlier. Printing still dominated Fleet Street and its environs while the docks out east still reverberated to the clang and clatter that accompanied arriving cargo; ‘Unloading foreign trade from a large ocean vessel, In the mighty metropolitan port of London’, as Ray Davies put it so eloquently in London Song, his rousing hymn to the Great Wen.

And of course brewing added to the industrial toil of the capital, then still home to such major brewers as Mann’s in Whitechapel, Truman’s in Brick Lane, Guinness out north at Park Royal and, south of the Thames and close to Tower Bridge, Courage.

Then of course there was Whitbread, brewing at Chiswell Street since 1750 and one of London’s best known brands. Their mighty Shire horses, used to deliver much of their beer, were a common sight on the streets of the capital while the company’s pub portfolio was a large and impressive one.

And so what really shines through from the pages of Whitbread Craftsmen, despite the modest dimensions of the volume, is a corporate pride that is almost tangible within the pages. Here it is clear to see that the bigwigs at Whitbread were proud of the company, of the beer they produced and, perhaps most importantly of all, the people who worked for them.

 

 

It was a very different picture less than thirty years after the book’s publication. In 1976 – April 13, 1976 to be exact – Whitbread stopped brewing beer at their famed brewery, located on the very fringes of the City of London and sitting in the shadow of the then still under construction Barbican Centre and its attendant residential attachment. And although the company would remain at their spiritual EC1 home for many years afterwards, using it as an administration base, the heady smell of the six o’clock mash would no longer provide an aromatic accompaniment to the traders of nearby Whitecross Street market as they set up for the day’s business. It was, truly, the end of an era.

The departure of brewing from Chiswell Street, after 225 years, marked an acceleration in the disappearance of large-scale beer making in the capital, an exodus of an industry which London had once been famed the world over for.

In 1699 there were almost 200 substantial brewers in London, and in 1952 there were still 25 operating in the capital. But soon after Whitbread stopped brewing in EC1 Mann’s left Whitechapel (1979), Courage said goodbye to Shad Thames (1982) and Truman’s exited Brick Lane (1989). In 2005 Guinness disappeared from Park Royal. All of which meant that when Young’s ceased brewing at their Ram Brewery in Wandsworth in September 2006, Fuller’s of Chiswick were left as the capital’s last remaining major brewer.

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The old Whitbread stables in Garrett Street, June 2016.

Now I must declare a particular interest here, for not only am I a lover of ale and a keen student of the social history that accompanies it, but for much of my early life I lived in a tower block called Braithwaite House, located in Bunhill Row and just a two minute stroll from Whitbread’s Chiswell Street HQ. Even now I can clearly recall the Shires, mighty and solemn beasts with not a little dignity about them. And of course then there was the smell, a heady combination of malted barley and hops that, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, would dominate the whole neighbourhood.

Some of my early explorations into the world of beer also involved Whitbread, and I look back with muted fondness on the pints of Trophy (or was it Tankard?) that I downed in the Two Brewers in Whitecross Street, even though according to the strict letter of the law I should really have been drinking nothing stronger than lemonade.

Although Whitbread are historically rooted in London, and more precisely in the EC1 area of London, Samuel Whitbread himself was born and bred in Bedfordshire. In 1734 he arrived in London aged 14, two years later commencing an apprenticeship with the Brewers’ Company. Here he learnt his trade, eventually moving on to work for Wightman’s, one of London’s many noted beer makers of the day. At the age of 22 he joined forces with brothers George and Thomas Shewell, who owned the Goat brewery which occupied a site on the corner of Whitecross Street market and Old Street, in the old parish of St Luke’s.

The company produced high quality beers, mainly porter and pale ales. However if they were ever going to compete with the bigger brewers of the day they needed bigger premises and so, in 1750, they bought the King’s Head brewery at the opposite end of Whitecross Street. This would soon become the famous Whitbread Brewery and it took just eight years after moving for the company to become the biggest brewer in England, an industrial giant of the age.

As detailed in Beer – The Story of The Pint by Martyn Cornell, by 1758 Whitbread were producing 64,600 36-gallon barrels a year, taking them ahead of both the nearby Peacock brewery (61,800) and Truman’s Black Eagle brewhouse in Brick lane (55,000). In 1765 Whitbread bought out the Shewell brother’s share in the company for £30,000.

Porter, a beer invented in London for Londoners, was central to Whitbread’s rapid growth and they initially remained several steps ahead of their competitors by embracing the modern technology of the day to brew this potent and heady dark drink, by now the nation’s favourite style of beer, on an unprecedented scale. They achieved this by becoming the first major brewer to use steam power, installing a Boulton and Watt steam engine in 1775. This in itself was a huge operation and John Rennie, an engineer who would later go on to oversee the construction of London Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, was called in to take charge of the installation.

The brewing industry, incidentally, were quick to embrace steam power. If you want to see an example of engines still in situ in a brewery setting then get along to Shepherd Neame in Faversham. Acknowledged as Britain’s oldest brewery – they give their official formation date as 1698 – their Court Street HQ still houses two wonderful old engines which can be viewed as part of the official brewery tour.

Now good porter needed time to mature and condition, and that meant allocating valuable space to storing it for a length of time, sometimes as long as a whole year. With space limited at Chiswell Street, Whitbread got around this problem by building six huge underground tanks, or cisterns. The biggest could hold 3,600 barrels.

These were not initially successful and at first the beer would leak through the cistern walls until an engineer called John Smeaton was brought in to solve the problem. He would later go on to design the Eddystone Lighthouse.

The brewery soon became one of the wonders of the mighty metropolis and in 1787 King George III and Queen Charlotte visited. However there were also dark days and tragedy at Chiswell Street.

In 1815 Samuel Whitbread junior, who had taken control following his father’s death in 1796, took his own life after becoming worried about the company’s finances. He apparently cut his own throat, conclusively ‘ear to ear.’ When Whitbread senior past away, incidentally, he was worth more than a million pounds according to some sources. An overestimation, perhaps, but there were certainly fortunes to be made and lost in brewing. Whitbread senior, incidentally, was also a vocal supporter of the abolition of slavery. He later became Member of Parliament for Bedford.

Another dark episode came in 1832 when John Martineau, a rival brewer who had joined forces with Whitbread, was found dead in a tank of spent yeast at Chiswell Street. The coroner’s verdict was: ‘Died by the visitation of God.’

Over the years Whitbread adapted and survived with the changing fashions in beer, they ceased production of porter in 1941 for instance, and were still the UK’s third biggest brewery at the start of the 1970s.

They also retained a huge pub estate, almost 7,000 strong at the start of the 1980s, many of those in the capital supplied by horse drawn dray. These were pulled by those magnificent Shire horses I mentioned earlier, which were stabled just off Whitecross Street in Garrett Street. The horses remained until September 1991 when, after one final parade past the brewery, they left for the green fields of Kent.

Whitbread pulled out of brewing completely in 2001 and their main interests these days are coffee shops and budget hotels. They remained at Chiswell Street until 2005, but with the brewing side of operations relocated the place had little of its former character or charm. Many of the local pubs were a lot quieter too.

Fuller’s remain as London’s only major brewer, but a wealth of microbreweries ensure that the capital continues to enjoy a varied and vivid reputation for good beer. Indeed it strikes me that, ironically at a time when the number of pubs is in decline, that the availability and variety of cask beer in London continues to improve.

Meanwhile the Chiswell Street brewery, now a conference centre, remains as a monument to a once mighty brewing empire. But unless you know what you’re looking for there are few other signs in the surrounding streets of how Whitbread once dominated a small corner of London. Having said that, I sometimes have a fancy that after a pint or two you might still be able to hear the ghostly rumble of Whitbread’s mighty Shires.

 

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