Beer and great literature: they’re found together more often than you might think. One of the enormous benefits of the growing power of the internet is that it makes certain sorts of research almost trivially easy. Earlier this year the chaps at Beer Connoisseur magazine asked me to write a piece about breweries in novels. Before the intertubes this would have meant weeks of sitting in a good library surrounded by several small and growing hills of old books by great authors, each with pieces of paper sticking out that marked relevant passages. Today, Project Gutenberg has all the classics digitised, and the excellent Anacleto search engine makes finding key words in old literature simples.
Too simples, in fact: I ended up with more information than I could use. Big lumps had to be left out about some more Championship-level novelists so that we could feature the brewers and breweries that turn up in books by Premier League writers, such as Havisham’s Brewery in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the Three Mariners, a home-brew pub mentioned in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, “a house in which the twelve-bushel strength was still religiously adhered to by the landlord in his ale”, and the sly reference to the Kronenbourg brewery in Henry James’s The American (the hero’s friend is mortally wounded in a duel by someone called Stanislas Kapp, “the son and heir of a rich brewer of Strasbourg”: the biggest brewery in Strasbourg, later known as the Kronenbourg brewery, was actually owned for centuries by a family called Hatt. Ho ho, Hank)
Among the authors who had to be largely omitted was Anthony Trollope, who featured brewers in at least three of his novels, but couldn’t shake off the influence of the card game Happy Families in naming them. One of the original 11 families in the first, 1851 edition of the card game was Mr Bung the Brewer and his wife and children. In Trollope’s novel Rachel Ray the hero, Luke Rowan inherits a big slice of a brewery called Bungall and Tappit in the made-up Devon town of Baslehurst. In another Trollope work, Mr Scarborough’s Family, the sub-plot involves Thoroughbung’s brewery of Buntingford (a real small town in Hertfordshire about 20 miles outside London which, in fact, never had a commercial brewery). Finally in The Prime Minister, one of Trollope’s series of political novels, a brewer in the fictional town of Silverbridge who narrowly misses becoming an MP is called Du Boung.
(It was the habit of real Victorian happy families, incidentally, when they were sitting around on long winter evenings waiting for Alexander Logie Baird to be born and invent television, and they were tired of card games such as Happy Families, to read to each other from novels: Trollope, apparently used to like slipping into his own works lines to trip up the paterfamilias as he read to his offspring, which is why you will find in the middle of Phineas Redux, another of his political fictions, the sentence: “There’s nothing like a good screw.” How true. A screw, of course, as you will know, is a broken-winded horse …)
The characters in the original Happy Families set were drawn by a young John Tenniel, who later became famous as a cartoonist for Punch magazine and as the original illustrator for Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel gave Mr Bung and his son Master Bung the red stocking cap which, together with an apron, was effectively the brewer’s uniform. He also gave them barrels for bodies, with Mr Bung’s marked “XXX” and Master Bung’s “XX”; Mrs Bung is advertising “Dublin Stout”, while Miss Bung is stylishly dressed, albeit with hatpins and a muff that both say “XX”. A brewer’s daughter was a good catch for any young man, as Mrs Plumdale remarks in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, after her son Ned married Sophy, daughter of Harry Toller, the town’s Unitarian brewer:
“Sophy Toller is all I could desire in a daughter-in-law. Of course her father is able to do something handsome for her – that is only what would be expected with a brewery like his. And the connection is everything we should desire. But that is not what I look at. She is such a very nice girl – no airs, no pretensions, though on a level with the first. I don’t mean with the titled aristocracy. I see very little good in people aiming out of their own sphere. I mean that Sophy is equal to the best in the town, and she is contented with that.”
The brewer’s red cap gradually vanished, though at least one brewery, JW Green’s in Luton, Bedfordshire, attempted to keep then going, In 1947 the Luton News was reporting that the brewers at the Luton brewery were wearing red tassle caps, which had been supplied by the company since the 1930s to encourage the old tradition, while the maltsters wore green ones. The JW Green Group annual convention programme for 1953 said:
An interesting tradition at the Luton Brewery is that of the men in the brewing department wearing red stockinette caps whilst at work. The Luton Brewery has always been noted for this particular form of cap, which, of course, is the traditional brewer’s headgear. Long after its use had ceased elsewhere, this link with the past survived at Luton, and there is no intention of dropping the custom. The Company’s trade mark shows the old-time brewery employee wearing the brewery cap and carrying a green barrel.
Back to literature: Several appearances of brewers in novels are as a plot device, a sort of deus ex brasiaria, whose vast wealth, or part of it, can be sprinkled over the hero or heroine to help them overcome all obstacles in the way of their happiness. The gentry and the nobility had a distaste for trade: but no distaste for the enormous wagonloads of money that ale and porter brought in, wealth which bought big brewers the key to polite society, peerages and the friendship of princes. As Herbert Pocket tells the hero, Pip, in Great Expectations: “I don’t know why it should be a crack thing to be a brewer, but it is indisputable that while you can not possibly be genteel and bake, you may be as genteel as never was and brew. You see it every day.”
Similarly, in William Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, Major Pendennis says to his nephew about Henry Foker, son of a porter brewer from Lambeth in London: “I’ve no pride about me, Pen. I like a man of birth certainly, but dammy, I like a brewery which brings in a man fourteen thousand a year; hey.”
Thackeray, who liked to recycle his characters as much as Trollope liked to call fictional brewers variations on the name Bung, had introduced Foker’s brewery in an earlier work, The Virginians. This was set in the 1750s to 1770s, and is about two young brothers from a plantation-owning family and their adventures in America and England. One of the brothers is hauled out of married poverty in London by becoming a tutor to Mr Foker’s son. The Virginian and the brewer become friends, and after the Virginian inherits a baronetcy and an estate in Essex, Warrington Manor he writes in his memoirs: “We brew our own, too, at Warrington Manor, but our good Mr Foker never fails to ship to Ipswich every year a couple of butts of his entire. His son is a young sprig of fashion, and has married an earl’s daughter.” Thackeray based this last part on the London porter brewer Samuel Whitbread, whose second wife was indeed an earl’s daughter.
The novelist George Meredith (1828-1909), who advised Thomas Hardy on his writing career, invented another London brewery, Cogglesby’s, for his fourth novel, Evan Harrington. Old Tom Cogglesby, the bachelor co-owner of the brewery, provides the cash that allows the young hero, born the son of a tailor, to finally win the hand of his fair Rose, daughter of a baronet of ancient family, who is also wooed by a peer.
The finest use of brewery as plot device, however, has to be in Great Expectations; and how skilfully Dickens leads us up the brewery path, for while we are encouraged to believe, as Pip does, that his mystery benefactor is the jilted and bitter Miss Havisham, the brewer’s daughter, eventually we learn that … well, if you’ve never read the book, or seen the film or TV adaptions, I won’t ruin it for you. Here instead is a description from the book of the rusty and verdigrigenous Havisham brewery in Kent, which had remained silent for decades after Miss Havisham was dumped by her fiancé on her wedding day:
No horses in the stable, no pigs in the sty, no malt in the storehouse, no smells of grains and beer in the copper or the vat. All the uses and scents of the brewery might have evaporated with its last reek of smoke. In a by-yard there was a wilderness of empty casks which had a certain sour remembrance of better days lingering about them. But it was too sour to be accepted as a sample of the beer that was gone.
A sad epitaph, for it also fits hundreds of other British breweries that have closed since the time of Dickens, even if they didn’t all have an ageing loony in an increasingly ragged wedding dress haunting the premises.