Category Archives: Brewery history

So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?

Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery, Tottenham Court Road in 1830

I can stake a tenuous family link to the Great London Beer Flood disaster of 1814, which took place exactly 196 years ago today. My great-great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Maurice Donno, was living in Soho, a minute or three’s walk from the Horse Shoe Brewery off Tottenham Court Road, when a huge vat of maturing porter at the brewery collapsed violently and flooded the surrounding tenements, killing eight people. Most, if not all, of those who died were poor Irish immigrants to London, part of a mass of people living in the slums around St Giles’s Church, the infamous St Giles “rookeries” (later to be cleaned away by the building of New Oxford Street in 1847). Maurice Donno was very probably Irish, his surname most likely a variation of Donough or something similar (which would make his first name a common Anglicisation of the Irish Muirgheas). Perhaps he knew some of those who died, or were injured, in the Great Beer Flood, or knew people who knew them. It seems very likely he would have gone across the road at some point after the tragedy, to join the hundreds who came to see the destruction wreaked by that dreadful black tsunami of beer.

What has prompted me to write about the Great Meux Brewery Beer Flood, is not the anniversary, however, It’s because I have finally been called out over some dodgy maths in the book Beer: The Story of the Pint, which I wrote in 2003.

I said in BTSOTP, correctly, that the vat of porter which burst suddenly on Monday October 17, 1814 at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery contained 3,550 barrels of beer. I said, correctly, that this amounted to more than a million pints. Then for some mad brain-burp reason I said the beer in the vat weighed “around 38 tons” – almost precisely 15 times less than the correct answer, which was actually more than 571 tons.

Thank you, Eugene Tolstov, for pointing to my mistake, and for not laughing too much at my inability to multiply 3,555 by 36 by 10 and divide by 2,240. But at least my narrative on probably the worst industrial accident involving a British brewery was more accurate than many. The late Alan Eames, for example, in The Secret Life of Beer, claimed that the vat burst “with a boom heard five miles away” – not mentioned in any of the many sources from the time that I’ve read – while “eyewitnesses told of besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” – no, newspaper reports of the rescue don’t support this at all – and “many were killed suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” – again, the contemporary reports don’t say this – while “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma” – no, the newspaper reports from the time make it clear that only eight people died, all women and children, and all killed by the initial huge wave of beer and the destruction it caused to the buildings in the tenements behind the brewery. Continue reading So what REALLY happened on October 17 1814?

Taylor Walker, the brewery name that just won’t die

Huge guffaws from me at the news that Punch Taverns is to bring back to life for a third time the name Taylor Walker, a former London porter brewer that had strong links with the earliest days of brewing in Philadelphia. Clearly, to be a marketing man you have to have every irony-containing cell filleted from your body. This really does smell of desperately reinventing the past to paint over a tawdry present.

Although Taylor Walker’s substantial brewery in the East End closed exactly half a century ago, the name will still be familiar to many drinkers in their late 20s and upwards. This is because in November 1979, what was then the giant brewing/pub owning corporation Allied Lyons decided to revive the name Taylor Walker for its London pub operations, as part of a plan, apparently, to pretend that it wasn’t a giant brewing/pub owning corporation. (This also involved reviving other vanished brewery names, such as Benskin’s of Hertfordshire and Friary Meux of Surrey.) Suddenly hundreds of London pubs had the Taylor Walker name painted on to their fascias (even though many had never belonged to Taylor Walker), while their innsigns sported a “cannon” trademark that had, in fact, belonged to one of the many concerns Taylor Walker had taken over, the Cannon Brewery of St John Street, Clerkenwell.

Twenty years later, in 1999, Allied (by now Allied Domecq) sold all its pubs to Punch, and the Taylor Walker name disappeared again. Now, 11 years on, Punch has decided that it wants to dig this twice-dead corpse up once more and slap the words “Taylor Walker” on the front of about a hundred or so of the more “iconic” (for which read “old-looking and marginally upmarket”) outlets run by its managed pub arm, Punch Pub Company.

If you think this is copying the rival pub company Mitchell & Butlers (itself operating under the name of a long-vanished brewery) and its up-market Nicholsons pub chain, tsk – you’re as cynical as me. Clive Briscoe, Punch Pub Co’s marketing director, insists: “This is not a rebranding exercise but an opportunity to badge together a whole range of iconic London pubs.” But among the basketful of ironies in this is that one of the pubs that will bear the revived Taylor Walker name is the Anchor at Bankside, Southwark, which was once the brewery tap of Taylor Walker’s great porter-brewing rival, Barclay Perkins. (Another irony is that Punch, even though it owns many former Taylor Walker pubs, has had to licence the Taylor Walker name off Carlsberg, which acquired Allied’s brewing business, and all its beer brands, in the 1990s.)

Naturally, Punch’s PR company has screwed up the history, claiming in the announcement of the revival that “the Taylor Walker name dates back to 1730”. No it doesn’t: the concern never became Taylor Walker until 1816. But the history of Taylor Walker as recorded pretty much everywhere is full of errors: you’ll see it stated, for example, that the brewery “moved to Fore Street, Limehouse” and then “moved to Church Row, Limehouse”, when in fact it stayed exactly where it was, expanding from a small 18th century brewhouse to eventually cover more than seven acres, which abutted Fore Street (now part of Narrow Street) on one side and Church Row (now Newell Street) on another.

Let’s take a history of Taylor Walker you might cobble together in 10 minutes from various internet sources and see how much is actually true:

Continue reading Taylor Walker, the brewery name that just won’t die

So what WAS the first purpose-built lager brewery in the UK?

It’s a comment on the public perception of beardy beer buffs that people who know I like pongy ale* frequently look surprised when they discover that I drink lager too. My response, of course, is that there’s plenty of great beer not brewed to traditional British criteria, that often a cold one from the fridge is exactly what I need, and anyway, there is a growing number of British brewers committed to brewing top-quality lager.

So hurrah, there’s now a group dedicated to pushing the message that British-brewed lager isn’t all Stella and Carling, they’re called Lager of the British Isles (LOBI – can’t decide if that’s creakingly bad or rather clever) and their website is here. You can also join them on Facebook, here. Maybe if LOBI lobbies hard enough, fewer people will drop their beerglasses like bystanders in a Bateman cartoon when they see the one the beer buff is holding has a lager in it.

But whoops, the “historical inaccuracy” alarms have gone off: LOBI’s Facebook page claims that “Britain has a long heritage of brewing fine lagers, with the country’s first lager brewery, the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, open in 1864.” WRONG. A little investigation shows that LOBI has based this claim on, yes, bleedin’ Wikipedia, which has an article on the Anglo-Bavarian showing its usual mixture of inaccuracies, misunderstandings and historical assumptionism. However, one of the reasons I started this blog was to put proper historical details up on the web, and try to counter the mountain of misinformation available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection. So let’s state the facts: the Anglo-Bavarian brewery, despite its name, never brewed lager and it wasn’t Britain’s first lager brewery. And it wasn’t opened in 1864, either.

Continue reading So what WAS the first purpose-built lager brewery in the UK?

Mercer’s Meat Stout

Here’s a top contender for “vanished beers I wish I’d tasted” – Meat Stout. A mixture of serendipity and synchronicity led me to discover Mercer’s Meat Stout this week, a brew I’d never previously heard of. Serendipity (the art of finding something valuable while looking for some other thing entirely) because I was actually searching for pictures of Ena Sharples in the Rovers Return to illustrate a comment I was making at Alan McLeod’s blog about Imperial Milk Stout. Synchronicity (the occurrence in a short space of time of two random but apparently connected events) because I had been reading just a day or so earlier about the attempt by Stuart Howe of Sharp’s Brewery in Cornwall to brew Offal Ale, containing liver, kidney and heart. (Incidentally, Stuart’s “Real Brewing at the Sharp End” is one of the best brewer’s blogs around: sharp, indeed.)


Revenir, literally, à nos moutons (or similar livestock): Mercer’s was a small brewery in Lower Adlington, near Chorley in Lancashire, that apparently grew out of an own-brew pub called the Plough. Its best-known brand, evidently, was a bottled product called Meat Stout, a “nourishing stout brewed with the addition of specially prepared meat extract – highly recommended for invalids”. When Mercer’s was taken over by Dutton’s of the Salford brewery in Blackburn in 1929, Meat Stout was popular enough for Dutton’s to continue making it under Mercer’s name: the Plough Brewery only closed in 1936, so for seven years, presumably, Meat Stout was still coming out of Adlington.

Dutton’s pushed Mercer’s Meat Stout hard enough to advertise it on the front of its pubs, but at some point it vanished, as did Dutton’s itself, swallowed by the London brewer Whitbread in 1964.

What lay behind the invention of Meat Stout? According to one Blackburn historian, Colin Pritt, “It is rumoured that the natives complained about the gravity or quality of the stout, so the brewer threw a side of beef, or similar, into his next brew and it gave it more ‘body’. They then added some meat product to the brew ever after (probably offal, as it was cheap).”

Continue reading Mercer’s Meat Stout

Pontos in America

Enough of the snidery of the last two posts: let’s get back to what this blog is famous for quite well known for around the world among a very small number of people: shining a torch on obscure bits of brewing history.

Regular readers may remember a post from last year about the “double drop” system of fermentation, during which, in passing, I mentioned another old method of “cleansing” fermenting beer of its excess yeast, the “ponto” system. This, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, “consists in discharging the beer into a series of vat-like vessels, fitted with a peculiarly shaped overflow lip. The yeast works its way out of the vessel over the lip, and then flows into a gutter and is collected.”

I remarked at the time that “ponto” was a curious word, not in the Oxford English Dictionary, and guessed that it might be derived from “pontoon”, because the “peculiarly shaped overflow lip” (you can see some here, pictured in the Porter Tun Room at Whitbread’s brewery in London) looked like the end of a pontoon or punt.

Aha! While digging around in Google Books a short while ago, I found an illustration of identical vessels being used in a brewery in Albany, New York in the middle of the 19th century, vessels that are referred to as “pontoons”. What’s more, it is clear that the brewery owner, John Taylor, had brought the “pontoon” concept back with him from London. Here’s a picture of Taylor’s pontoon room

– you can see the “pontoons” look identical to Whitbread’s pontos – and here’s a couple of quotes from a curious book called Ale in Prose and Verse‎ by Barry Gray and John Savage, published in 1866, from which the picture above comes, and which is mostly taken up with praising Taylor’s ales. The first is about Taylor’s trip back to England (he was born in either Durham or Chester, and came to the young United States with his parents around the start of the 19th century), when he had already been running a brewery in Albany for a couple of decades. While in the old country he decided to look at what was happening in the British brewing industry: Continue reading Pontos in America

London: from brewing hero to practically zero

Those few of you who caught my 15 seconds of fame tonight on the London ITN regional television news, talking about the announcement that AB InBev is going to close the Mortlake brewery, I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t the Thames at Mortlake behind me. It was actually about nine miles down river at Wapping, which is where I was when ITN got hold of me and asked if I’d be interviewed about the history of the brewery.

I was still within a short distance of two once-huge London breweries, though, Courage, hard by Tower Bridge, closed 1981, and Hoare’s, between Wapping and St Katharine’s Docks, which had been one of the “Big Twelve” London porter brewers, and which shut in 1934. Hoare’s has, effectively, vanished: Courage’s brewery still stands, a monument to London’s former position as one of the great brewing cities; probably, in the 19th century, the greatest brewing city in the world, which was the point I was trying to make to the ITN man.

The closure of Mortlake means the disappearance of the last big brewery left in London. In 1971, the year Camra was founded, the capital boasted a still-magnificent line-up of well-established giant brewers: Whitbread, on the edge of the City, founded 1742; Truman’s, in Brick Lane, dating back to at least 1666; further out in the East End, Mann’s in the Whitechapel Road, built 1808, and their near-neighbours Charrington’s in the Mile End Road, first recorded in 1770. Courage was still brewing at Southwark after more than 180 years, Guinness, the newest big brewer to open in London, was producing a river of stout at its 35-year-old Park Royal brewery. Out in the suburbs to the East, Ind Coope was making beer at Romford, and Watney’s still had Mortlake, renamed the Stag brewery after the company’s original Stag brewery in Westminster, closed 1959.

Continue reading London: from brewing hero to practically zero

Takeover bid for London’s biggest brewer

It’s a little-known fact that the biggest brewer in London is Anheuser-Busch. Far more people have seen the brewery than know it’s run by A-B: it’s right by the finishing line on the Thames at Mortlake for the annual Oxford versus Cambridge University Boat Race, one of the televised highlights of the British sporting year.

A-B acquired a lease on the brewery in 1995, four years after its previous owner, Grand Metropolitan, had sold off all its brewing assets after the government’s Beer Orders of 1989 saw all Britain’s then big brewers begin to split brewing from pub owning.

The site already brewed, under licence, all the Budweiser sold in the UK, where the beer is one of the leading premium bottled/canned lagers, with something like three per cent of the UK beer market, and Anheuser-Busch obviously decided it was worth running its own production facility. While the other Grand Met breweries went to Courage, therefore, which was then bought by Scottish & Newcastle in 1995, Mortlake flew the A-B flag, albeit leased from S&N.

Grand Met had inherited the Mortlake brewery when it took over Watney Mann in 1972, and Watney’s had acquired it more than 80 years earlier, in 1888. The brewery is sometimes said to descend from the monastery brewhouse at the Mortlake Manor House, owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury, and to date back to the 15th century. However commercial brewing on the site does not appear to have started until some time after the Manor House was pulled down in the 18th century.

The brewery that Watney’s acquired had developed out of two separate small breweries both mentioned in 1765. These were amalgamated in 1811, and after several owners had come and gone the business was being run in the mid-1850s by Charles John Phillips and James Wigan.

Under Phillips and Wigan the brewery prospered, gaining a high reputation for its bitter ales, and it was extended and rebuilt in the late 1860s: a roundel with the initials “P” and “W” can still be seen on the high brick wall that faces Mortlake High Street. Wigan left the partnership in 1877, and the Phillips family continued to run the brewery until Charles John Phillips retired in 1889.

Continue reading Takeover bid for London’s biggest brewer

Arthur Guinness’s true genetic roots

Rarely (but thrillingly) a book comes along that makes everything else ever written on the same subject instantly redundant.

There must have been more books written about Guinness, the brand and its brewers, than any other in the world. I’ve got 14, now, four of them written by people called Guinness. But the latest to be published, Arthur’s Round, by Patrick Guinness, is the first to concentrate on the patriarch himself, the founder of the concern at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and it uses everything from proper, evidence-based historical research to genetic analysis to debunk more myths about Arthur Guinness and the early years of his brewing concern than you could shake a shillelagh at.

The biggest myth Patrick Guinness destroys, using modern genetic techniques, is the claim that Arthur Guinness and his father Richard were descended from the Magennis chieftains of Iveagh, in County Down, Ulster, in Irish Mac Aonghusa. The last-but-one Viscount Iveagh, Bryan Magennis had fled abroad after James II’s defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, about the time Arthur Guinness’s father was born, and the Magennis lands in Ulster were confiscated in 1693.

Continue reading Arthur Guinness’s true genetic roots

What art appreciation owns a brewer’s daughter

An absolutely have-to-see exhibition has just opened at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, London featuring the very best – Constable, Turner, Reynolds, Stubbs, Gainsborough and the like – from the finest collection of British art outside Europe, a collection that owes its foundation to the unhappy marriage made by the granddaughter of the man that founded one of Britain’s last surviving family breweries.

The collection is the work of the late Paul Mellon, whose father was the unimaginably wealthy Pittsburgh steel, oil and banking magnate Andrew Mellon, and whose mother was Nora McMullen, brewer’s daughter from Hertford, a little county town only 25 or so miles from London.

Continue reading What art appreciation owns a brewer’s daughter

Celebrity Big Brewer

What do the following people have in common: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef and TV presenter; Helena Bonham Carter, Oscar-nominated film actress; Lord Brocket, failed insurance fraudster and I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here contestant; and Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of the television programme Location, Location, Location?

Continue reading Celebrity Big Brewer