Whitbread Brewery

Jan.-Feb., 1943




By L. C. Thompson

“Friendship redoubleth joys,” said Bacon.  “For there is no man who shareth his joy with a friend but be joyeth the more,” and half the fun of a bicentenary is in the sharing of it, so the kind invitation of the Editor to submit some notes has been accepted with alacrity.  There are in London some Breweries older and some larger than Whitbread’s, but none is both older and larger, and it is the only brewery remaining in the City.

Beer in the eighteenth century was without any question the national drink.  Cider, its only rival, was then, as now, restricted to the West country.  Tea was appearing in the parlours of the well-to-do, coffee houses were flourishing round ‘Change, both drinks were imported, expensive, and both being foreign and new, were despised by the Englishman.  Gin obtained a hold in the  middle of the century, and Hogarth’s note on the respective merits of gin and beer is worth reading:—

“Beer St. and Gin Lane were done when the dredfull consequence of gin drinking was at its height.  In Gin Lane every circumstance of its horrid effects are brought to view in terrorem, nothing but idleness, poverty, misery and ruin are to be seen, distress even to madness and death, and not a house in tolerable condition but [the] Pawnbrokers and the Gin Shiop.

“Beer Street its companion was given as a contrast, were that invigorating liquor is recommend in order [to] drive the other out of vogue, here all is joyous and thriving, industry and jollity go hand in hand, the Pawnbroker in this happy place is the only house going to ruin.”

Adam Smith, when discussing the taxation of beer and spirits, remarks that “Spirituous liquors might remain as dear as ever, while at the same time the wholesome and invigorating liquors of beer and ale might be considerably reduced in price,” and it remained for the nineteenth century to discover any harm in beer.

Home brewing was carried on as a matter of everyday routine, and in the most modest establishment there could be found an out house where the copper was used for boiling the laundry on one day and boiling the beer on the next.  In rectory, farmhouse, manorhouse, college or castle, provision for brewing was made according to their needs.  To this day in the ruins of the old monastic houses can be traced the malt house and the brewery.

The monks nearly always settled beside a stream or river to provide fish for Fridays and beer for the other days of the week.  The monks probably made some pretty samples of malt.

Brewers’ Company controlled all brewers in the City and Mortality of London. Breweries as we know them to-day were almost unknown.  The custom was for each tavern, inn or ale-house to brew for its own trade, and only gradually during the eighteenth century did this give way to one brewer brewing for the trade, not only of his own tap-house but for two or three of his neighbours.  Originally a brewer’s house was divided—like ancient Gaul—into three parts; a dwelling-house where the brewer dwelt, the brew-house where he brewed, and the tap-house where he tapped and sold his beer.  The brewer realised that his mash tun was idle for several days in the week and that if he could persuade his neighbours to take his beer, by increasing his fermenting vessels and mashing every day, he could save each of them the trouble of making individual brews.

Mr. Samuel Whitbread was the seventh of eight children and the youngest of five sons.  He came from Cardington in Bedfordshire in 1742 with a capital of £2,000 to seek his fortune at the age of 21. 

He set up business in Old Street, St. Luke’s, and as his business prospered removed to Chiswell Street in 1750.  Brewing had been conducted at the Chiswell Street premises for some 50 years previously.

In 1760 we find Whitbread’s second in a list of the principal brew-houses, in the city and suburbs.  There are 52 brewers named, and the total is 975,217 barrels.  Of the names well known in the trade to-day only three occur in this list; Whitbread’s, 63,408; Truman’s, 60,140; Meux’s, 10,012.

Mr. Whitbread introduced the use of steam power and Messrs. Boulton and Watt in 1785 “erected this Engine which performs the work of 35 Horses.  But in the course of 10 years use more power being found necessary this Engine was alter’d to make it equal to the work of 70 Horses.”

Rennie, who built the original Waterloo Bridge, superintended the adaptation of the machinery connected with this engine which worked for over a century, being removed in 1887 to the Museum in Sydney, Australia.

In 1774 Smeaton, who designed the Eddystone Lighthouse, built six under-ground cisterns, the largest of which had a capacity of 3,600 barrels. Two are still in use to-day, but are used for the storage of cold liquor and not for maturing porter as originally intended.

In 1787, their Majesties King George III and Queen Charlotte, accompanied by three Princesses, went all over the brewery.  Mr. Whitbread derived great wealth which was wisely and generously expended, especially on hospitals in Bedford and the Middlesex Hospital in London.

It is said of him that:— “One morning at breakfast, at Bedwell, the butler brought in a Petition from a beggar, who (he said) was dumb from cancer in the tongue and had been discharged from a London Hospital as incurable.  My Father and I had an argument as to this being true, and he could not believe that people were turned out when incurable.  He sent the man a guinea, and the next day sent a clerk from the brewhouse to St. Bartholomew’s to enquire, and when he returned to Bedwell next day, said to me ‘Harriet, you were right, though I did not believe you, but I have had the answer from the hospital that such patients are so discharged, which I -never thought about before.’

“After this, Mr. Howard, the surgeon, who rented a farm called ‘Woodcocks Lodge’ close to Bedwell, was often alone with my father, and about six months after the poor man’s petition, my father told me he would entrust me with what I was to tell no one, that he settled with Mr. Howard the founding a ward in the Middlesex Hospital for the reception of cancerous patients, who were never to be discharged.  He said he hoped by thus providing a means of watching this most suffering disease through every stage, some means of cure might ultimately under Providence be discovered by some one who might peculiarly turn their mind to the cases admitted into this ward.”

The last phrase in the above quotation might be taken as a motto by any worker in research.

Within 20 years of his modest beginning he had worked up a trade of 1,000 barrels a week. He died in 1796, having managed the business without the assistance of a partner for 54 years, and he lived to see his name at the top of the list of London brewers.

Samuel Whitbread was member of Parliament for Bedford from 1768 to 1790, and afterwards was the member for Steyning in Sussex.  Samuel Whitbread, son of the founder, was member for Bedford from 1790 to 1815; his son, William Henry Whitbread, followed him as member for Bedford from 1818 to 1834.  Samuel Charles” Whitbread, brother of William Henry, was member for the county of Middlesex from 1820 to 1830.  Mr. Samuel Whitbread, late chairman of the Company, was member for Bedford from 1852 to 1895.  Mr. Samuel Howard Whitbread, the present chairman, sat for South Bedford shire from 1892 to 1895 and for South Hunts from 1906 to 1910.

Two other partners of the firm also achieved prominence in Parliament, Sir John Cam Hobhouse, afterwards Lord Broughton, who in 1846 attained Cabinet rank, and Mr. Charles Shaw-Lefevre, who in 1839 was Speaker of the House of Commons.  On his retirement from the Speakership he was created Viscount Eversley.

The privilege enjoyed by the Company of horsing the Speaker’s coach on the occasion of a coronation originated at the time that Mr. Shaw-Lefevre occupied the Speaker’s chair.  A pair of the Company’s horses was used for the Coronation and Jubilee of King George V, and also for the Coronation of King George VI.

Ale was first brewed at Chiswell Street in 1834.  Until this date and for long afterwards porter was the principal brew.  The last brew of porter was made on 18th June, 1941.

Beer was first bottled by Whitbread’s in 1869, but not on the brewery premises.  The business was converted into a limited liability company in 1889.

An estimate of the total brewed by the founder—it is only an estimate—can be put at four million barrels.  Since that time, according to the brewing books, the total brewed at Chiswell Street exceeds fifty million barrels, so that during the existence of the firm over fifty-four million barrels have been brewed.

The only portion of the original buildings still standing to-day is the dwelling-house which was built before the founder took over the Chiswell Street premises.  It has a typical Queen Anne frontage and inside there have been comparatively few structural alterations.  There is a sun-dial bearing the date 1733, but this is probably a restoration and is not older than 1774. Several parish boundary plates are dated “St. G.C. 1736.”  The city boundary runs through the brewery and only half is in the city proper.  The brewery clock has works dated 1749—the works have been taken out and it now runs by electricity—the clock bell is dated 1775.  The porter tun room is dated “S.W. Jnr. 1774.”  This building, although hit several times by incendiary bombs, still survives.  The hop loft was dated 1790, but this and several adjacent buildings were completely gutted by enemy action.  During a particularly heavy air raid the hops got alight and the adjoining cask timber staves caught fire as well.  Both burned furiously, and we lost forty-six thousand pounds’ worth of hops and eleven thousand pounds’ worth of staves.

The brewery covers six acres, roughly three on each side of Chiswell Street.  All the buildings and most of the yards have cellars below, and a tunnel gives access under the street from north to south.

During the air raids of 1914-18 our neighbours were admitted to the cellars, but only when the official warning was given and no sleeping accommodation was provided.  During this war more elaborate accommodation has been made.  Many of our own employees whose homes had been bombed made this their temporarily permanent sleeping quarters for their families as well as themselves.  On more than one occasion these men responded to the call for volunteers to help our own fire brigade.  On the night of 29th December, 1940, we experienced our worst raid, and the following morning telephone, gas and electric current were cut off, and the water supply reduced to a trickle.  The premises were isolated, and access to the brewery could only be made by a track up Whitecross Street, which itself ended in a large bomb crater.  No beer was sent out on that black Monday.  On the Tuesday we sent out 682 barrels.  On the Wednesday normal deliveries had been resumed.  On Thursday we were able to mash once more, but our anxieties were not over because a fire was discovered to have started in a malt bin which contained over a thousand quarters, and for several days—while the hops smouldered on the north side—a thousand quarters of malt were burning on the south side.  The fire was prevented from spreading to the other bins.  So far we have lost no lives, and in spite of numerous rumours to the contrary, all the horses were saved.

In 1871, Pasteur, visited Chiswell Street, amongst other breweries in the country, and some of his remarks on his reception may amuse:—

“At first the English brewers returned some what vague answers to our questions; however, after what had taken place, they doubtless recognised the fact that a mutual understanding between a savant and a practical man may often be of considerable benefit to the latter.

“Some eight days afterwards we paid another visit to this same brewery, and learnt that the directors had lost no time in acquiring a microscope, and in procuring changes of yeast for all the varieties of beer, which they had put in working since our first visit.”

The laboratory has been extended four times in the past 40 years and the present building was completed in 1921.  In 1937 an additional laboratory was fitted for the exclusive study of yeast.

The late Mr. Francis Pelham Whitbread great-great-grandson of the founder, whose death last year was deeply deplored by all members, was President of the Institute 1913-1915, and he was re-elected 1926-1928.  He was awarded the Horace Brown Gold Medal in 1933.

There are over 20 members of the Institute connected with the firm.  Of these we would mention Sir Sydney Nevile, who was President of the Institute 1919-1921.  His work for the Institute is well known and his knighthood awarded early this year was deservedly popular, amongst all ranks of the trade.

Henry Edmund Field, head brewer to the Company, 1912-1926, was President of the Institute 1921-1923.  Since his retirement in 1926 he has served and still serves as Honorary Treasurer to the Institute.

The following letter ends on a cheerful note.  It refers to the Christmas (1941) gift by Watney’s and ourselves of 35 tons (500 cases) of bottled beer sent to the besieged troops in Tobruk:—


Sir. You will excuse me writing to you, but it is on behalf of my husband who is serving in the Middle East.  I received from him yesterday a label from his beer bottle, sent from your firm in appreciation of the good work they did in helping to defend Tobruk.  My husband asked me to thank you for himself and all the fellows of his regiment, which is our Local South Notts Hussars, which have been out East two-and-a-half years now, he quoted in his letter this ‘It was sure a treat to taste once more real English beer, these English people sure know how to brew good beer, it is much better than the Egyptian stuff we get out here, and won’t we be glad when we can drink regularly in the country where it is brewed.  We thought it was a fine gesture on their part to send us the beer and we all thank them many times.'”

                 Thanking you.

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