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How to Trace a UK Brewery’s History

As we’ve had two requests in the last fortnight, not to mention lots of little queries through Twitter for the last few years, we thought this qualified as a frequently asked question: ‘How can I find out more about the history of [BREWERY X]?

CenturyPlusPlus21. In the first instance, take a look at the late Norman Barber’s marvellous Century of British Brewers. Published by the equally marvellous Brewery History Society it includes pocket biographies of hundreds of UK breweries in existence between 1890 and 2012, giving details of when and exactly where they operated. Crucially, it can also tell you what happened to them in the end which can provide vital clues as to the current whereabouts of archive materials. For example, they may eventually have ended up as part of…

Watney's Red Barrel beer mat (detail).

2. The Big Six breweries are well served with official histories, and their archives are often reasonably well preserved. In 2010, Lynn Pearson conducted a survey of brewing industry archives and her paper has an extremely helpful guide to major repositories (pp.1-2; link to PDF). Watney’s is a fairly typical case: its official history is recorded in a book called The Red Barrel by Hurford Janes, published in 1962, which is usually available for a few pence second-hand; the company’s archive is scattered all over the place but there are some records at the London Metropolitan Archive and the Westminster Archive; and the National Brewing Library at Oxford Brookes has numerous documents including copies of the Watney’s in-house magazine.

Andy Boorman, Cask Smeller, from the House of Whitbread, 1949.
‘Andy Boorman, Cask Smeller’, from the House of Whitbread, 1949.

TOP TIP: If you are looking for information on a family member, in-house magazines are the way to go as they often feature profiles and photographs of individuals working in the company.

SK&F Brown Ale label, 1948.
3. If you are looking for the archives of a smaller brewery, there is a good chance you will find them at the local history centre (AKA heritage exploratorium, AKA county/city archive). When we were researching Starkey, Knight & Ford, for example, we found old brewing logs, type-written memoirs, labels and lots more. (It also had a less intimidating atmosphere than some of the big national archives, their target market being ordinary people rather than academics).

It is also worth checking whether the Brewery History Society or another heritage-focused body has published a monograph on the breweries in the region in question, e.g. Mike Ogden’s Stockport Breweries or Mike Brown and Brian Wilmott’s Brewed in Northants.

Beer advert: Magee Marshall & Co, Bolton

4. For contemporary sources other than brewery records there are some great online repositories.

Newspapers are available through the British Newspaper Archive (many local papers); Gale’s archive of the TimesFinancial Times, Illustrated London News and Picture Post; Proquest’s Guardian and Observer collections; and UK Press Online’s collection of the Sun, Star and Express. Subscriptions are required but you will probably be able to access them for free at your local library, and possibly even from home, using your library membership. For others, you will need to visit your local archive or the British Library and view them on (shudder) microfilm, or in dusty old bound volumes.

Google Books can be a frustrating experience in the UK with even titles that are clearly in the public domain blocked because of copyright muddles. If a book you want to read isn’t available through Google Books, try:

'Citation Needed' by www.futureatlas.com via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Citation Needed’ by www.futureatlas.com via Wikimedia Commons.

5. And finally, there is the internet, where the chances are some other obsessive has already done the research for you. It may not always be 100 per cent reliable — read critically! — but local community ‘memories of’ sites and Facebook groups often have great photos and specific memories, like this one about Exeter’s Heavitree Brewery, or this on Chester’s Northgate Brewery. Breweries’ own history pages often have to be taken with a pinch of salt but some are quite comprehensive and scholarly, e.g. this one from Phipps of Northampton. For recipes, you must, of course, check out Ron Pattinson’s blog.

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