Reuben Gray is hosting this month’s session and has asked everyone to write something about the history of a local brewery. This is a very rough outline of something we’ll hopefully flesh out, with better sources, at some point in the future.
When we first visited the brewery offices at St Austell a couple of years ago, we noticed some bottles of beer with vintage-style labels bearing the name ‘Ellis’.
The head brewer, Roger Ryman, explained that Ellis had been absorbed in Walter Hicks & Co to form the present day St Austell Brewery before World War II, and that the bottles we were looking at had been brewed to a historic recipe for members of the Ellis family who were still involved with the brewery.
This naturally intrigued us: St Austell is an hour away from Penzance but Ellis were based much nearer to us in Hayle, just up the coast from St Ives. There’s very little sign of them — no ghost signs or brewery livery that we’ve noticed — which made us all the more curious.
As it happened, we didn’t really get much time for serious research before writing this post, but it’s an ongoing project, and here’s what we have gleaned from passing mentions in various places.
Brewing first commenced at Bodriggy (a village now absorbed into Hayle) some time after 1800 under a man called John Richards. He sold this concern to Christopher Ellis (1790-1867) who formally founded the brewing company in 1815.
Like many other breweries in the 19th century, Ellis seems to have begun life as primarily a malting operation with some brewing on the side. The company also produced mineral waters, and imported wines and spirits.
In the 1870s, the company expanded, and a large ‘steam’ brewery was constructed. Those buildings are still standing on Sea Lane:
From a handful of labels we’ve seen, it seems that Ellis bottled a lot of Guinness, and we know they also produced their own ‘Sparkling Tonic Dinner Ale’. We understand the brewing logs are in existence, and we’re hoping they might be in the archives at Hayle. When or if we ever see them, it will be interesting to find out if there was anything distinctive about West Cornish beer. (We suspect not.)
In his book West Country Ales, Adrian Tierney-Jones summarised their fate: “Ellis’ main customers were the workers in the mines, foundries and shipyards of West Cornwall, and when the local economy vanished, so did sales of the beer.”
In 1934, Hicks & Co stepped in and took over, turning the Hayle brewery into a distribution centre for St Austell beers. This brought 30 pubs into the fold, including the Dolphin, Fountain and Yacht in Penzance; the Star and Wellington at St Just; and the Fountain at Newbridge where we drank the other week.
Ultimately, Ellis were a small brewery of the sort which abounded in the Victorian era, most of which were taken over to become the ‘&’ components of larger companies such as
Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, or Fuller, Smith & Turner Watney, Combe, Reid. (See Ron’s comment below.)
We’ll keep researching Ellis as a side project. In the meantime, we can’t help but think that it would be nice to see some Ellis branded beers on sale down this way.
Sources (Unfortunately, all secondary and mostly lacking references.)
- West Country Ales by Adrian Tierney-Jones (2002)
- St Austell Brewery est. 1851 by Clifford Hockin (1981)
- The Book of Hayle by Cyril Noall (1985)
- The Brewing Industry: A Guide to Historical Records, ed. Lesley Richmond, Alison Turton (1990)
- ‘The Hayle Steam Brewery’ (flyer), Hayle Town Council, date unknown (c.2007?)