A fascinating pair of pieces of ephemera, these, because they tells us something about brewing and beer consumption in large households and by farmers, and give a clue as to why farmers who brewed sometimes became actual commercial brewers.
The first is a 163-year-old bill for malt and hops from Samuel Wright of Walkern in Hertfordshire to “S. U. Heathcote”. That is Samuel Unwin Heathcote, Lord of the Manor of Shephall, and owner of Shephalbury Manor, three miles south of Walkern. Samuel Wright was already a brewer, as well as a maltster: in February 1855 he was advertising in the Luton Times and Advertiser: “Pure ales and stout brewed with water from our own artesian well. Also aerated waters of the finest quality … Samuel Wright & Co, Brewers and Maltsters, Victoria Brewery and Mineral Water Works.” However, he was happy to supply malt, and hops (and malt dust), to private brewers such as Heathcote.
The six quarters of malt at a time that Heathcote bought in 1861 would have been enough to make perhaps 24 barrels of beer, which would have been supplied to the servants and farm workers at Shephalbury Manor, as well as the family (I’m ignoring the malt dust Heathcote was buying because I have no idea what difference that might have made to yields …) Over the year that works out at 96 barrels, or just under 76 pints a day. If that sound a great quantity of beer, the average number of male farm workers per farm in Hertfordshire in 1851 was 13. Let’s guess that Heathcote was, as a substantial landowner, employing twice the average, that gives him 26 workers. That’s three pints per day per man, which sounds perfectly reasonable for the time.
Let’s pause for a discussion of Samuel Heathcote, one of the wackier characters of Hertfordshire history, described by his contemporary, the Quaker brewer William Lucas of Hitchin, as “insanely violent”. Samuel Heathcote Unwin Heathcote (1789-1862) was born Samuel Heathcote Unwin, eldest son of Samuel Unwin of Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, a wealthy cotton goods manufacturer, and Elizabeth Ann Heathcote.
His maternal grandfather, Michael Heathcote, a London merchant, had bought a one-third share in Shephalbury Manor from one of the daughters of the last male member of the Nodes family, lords of the manor of Shephall since 1542, and was living at Shephalbury. Samuel Heathcote Unwin inherited this share of the Shephalbury estate from Michael, one of the stipulations in his grandfather’s will being that to gain his inheritance, Samuel had to add Heathcote to his surname. Samuel was apparently bought up at Shephalbury by his grandfather after his father died and his mother remarried. Michae Heathcote died about 1812, and Samuel was in charge at Shephalbury by 1817 when, as a substantial landowner in the district, and Lord of the Manor of Shephall, he was one of the nominations to be Sheriff of Hertfordshire. (Samuel acquired the other two thirds of the estate in 1838, but had presumably been leasing them before then.)
He was also a “stern unbending Tory”, who fought every advance in mid-19th century society: he opposed Catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform, the abolition of the corn laws, the setting up of a county police force, the introduction of the Poor Laws and the arrival of the railways. In October 1846, when the Great Northern Railway surveyors were marking out the line of the railway to York at Little Wymondley, just north of Stevenage, on land owned by Heathcote, the squire of Shephall marched up “at the head of a body of the peasantry” and began to pull up the stakes that had been put down to mark out the line of the railway. Heathcote himself picked up one of the surveyors’ theodolites “and threw that instrument a distance of thirty feet, whereby it had been so much damaged that it was now useless.” He appeared in court charged with obstructing the engineers and surveyors of the GNR, but the charges were dropped after he promised not to interfere with their work again.
Samuel died on March 2 1862. The Hertford Mercury and Reformer, which, as its name indicated, was opposed politically to everything Heathcote attempted to defend, and had been mocking him since it was founded in 1834, still said of him that “if wrong-headed he was always right-hearted … his tenantry found him a just and generous landlord; the poor by whom he was surrounded a kind and considerate helper; and those of his own rank, with whom he associated, a faithful, intelligent and genial friend.” One gets the impression that if you turned up at the door of Shephalbury manor, whether tramp or gentleman in a carriage, you would not have to wait long to be offered a glass of fine home-brewed ale.
Samuel was succeeded as owner of Shephalbury by his son Unwin Unwin Heathcote, who finally paid the Wrights’ outstanding bill for malt and hops: £104 4s 6d is worth around £11,500 today, not a small sum. Unwin Unwin had the old manor house pulled down, and a neo-Gothic pile erected about 1864-5. Presumably the old manor house brewery disappeared together with the old manor house.
However, Wright’s association with the Heathcotes continued for at least another 50 years, as this second invoice shows. “Colonel Heathcote” was Alfred Unwin Heathcote, Samuel Unwin Heathcote’s grandson, and a colonel in the Royal Engineers. In 1911 he ordered eight kilderkins of Wright’s AK, at a shilling a gallon, which would have been a light bitter of around 1045 OG, four or 4½ per cent abv. The 1911 census shows the Shephalbury Manor household had eight servants, including a groom and a footman. Eight kilderkins works out at a pint a day just for Alfred and the two male servants …
Going back to Samuel, if he, or rather one of his servants, was brewing 96 barrels of beer a year, that works out at eight barrels a month. If he had a two-quarter brewery, that is, one capable of mashing two quarters, 650 pounds or so, of malt at a time (a reasonable assumption, I think, judging by the sizes of small commercial breweries in Hertfordshire in the 19th century), then he was brewing only once a month, at an average of four barrels to the quarter, to give a beer of six to seven per cent abv.
Clearly it would not take much of a step up to increase output considerably: brew once a week, and you are now making almost 420 barrels a year, which you could retail for almost £1,000, at 48 shillings for a barrel of XXX. That’s a fairly staggering £110,000 a year in 2024 value, a healthy addition to a farm’s income.
Given those figures, it is not surprising to find that a fair number of farmers who brewed for themselves and their workers did indeed cross over into commercial brewing. In Hertfordshire they included the Fordhams of Ashwell, whose brewery lasted until 1952, their neighbours in Ashwell Christy and Sale (brewery closed 1921), William Rayment at Furneux Pelham (brewery closed 1987), Thomas Wild at the Mill End brewery, Rickmansworth (brewery closed 1900), the Clark family at the Hyde Hall brewery, Sandon (closed 1899), and Samuel Wright in Walkern (brewery closed 1924), plus eight or nine smaller concerns often connected to an inn as well. What the figures are nationally for farmers becoming commercial brewers I don’t know … anyone want to do the research?
Shephalbury Manor today, incidentally, is surrounded by the now not so new town of Stevenage, where I grew up (Shephalbury Park, where I played football and cricket as a child, is about a third of a mile from my old home) and is now owned by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George has been built in its grounds. I wonder what Samuel Unwin Heathcote, a committed opponent of the Roman Catholic church and a strong promoter of Protestantism, vice-president of the Hertfordshire Reformation and Protestant Association, financial backer of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, would think of the gospel as promoted in foreign parts setting up in his old home …
invoices reproduced courtesy of Andrew Cunningham