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.
That was eight big, big concerns, plus two smaller independent firms, Fuller’s and Young’s, and a little brewery in Walthamstow run by Tolly Cobbold of Ipswich that closed in 1972. They were survivors from what had been around two dozen breweries in London only 13 years earlier in 1958, including Taylor Walker at Limehouse, closed 1960; the Wenlock brewery in Shoreditch, closed 1962; Harman’s of Uxbridge, closed 1964; Meux, originally of Tottenham Court Road, later of Nine Elms, also closed 1964; Woodhead’s, which had moved from Islington to the South London Brewery in Southwark, and which closed in 1965; Charles Beasley of Plumstead, also closed 1965; and Barclay Perkins, which moved from brewing to just bottling in the later 1960s and then shut entirely;
Did I feel sad, the ITN man asked me, at the announcement that Mortlake was closing? Well, you have to feel sorry that 180 or so people are losing their jobs, though since more than 1,200 have lost their jobs at Mortlake over the past couple of decades, the worst has already happened. And it was pretty inevitable, just like the disappearance of Young’s: keep producing beer on prime riverside land close to rail routes into central London and between expensive Putney on one side and expensive Richmond on the other, with expensive Chiswick across the water? When the British brewing industry is still in overall decline, in particular for the sorts of beers Mortlake now produces? How many femtoseconds would InBev have had to take to decide there really wasn’t an economic case for keeping Mortlake open?
Still, it’s what it represents that does, as a historian, make me feel a bit sad: the effective disappearance of London as any sort of real brewing centre. The Mortlake brewery is not as old as people keep saying it is, and certainly isn’t one of Britain’s oldest: as I blogged here before, there’s no evidence of brewing on the site before the 18th century. But even so, the Mortlake brewery is part of London’s history as a great centre of beer-making. My god, there are now over three times more breweries in Norfolk than there are in London (no disrespect, Norfolk ….) Yes, Fuller, Smith & Turner is still making great beers hard by the A4, and profitably enough, and while nothing is ever certain there’s room for it to expand its business (look, I’ve heard nothing, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if at some time the Griffin didn’t snatch up the McMullen’s hart: nice fit, know what I mean). But Fuller’s alone is hardly enough of a historical survival for a great city like London.
Our second-biggest brewer now, for heaven’s sake, was founded only eight years ago – and yes, Meantime produces fine beers as well, but for its little plant to be the biggest brewer on the south side of the river, as successor to Courage, Barclay Perkins, and other names stitched into the glorious banner of London’s brewing history, well, it just don’t seem right, guv.