From Suffolk to Burton in search of work, c.1880–1931

Suffolk malsters in a group at Burton.

Interviewing farm-workers in East Anglia the folklorist and oral historian George Ewart Evans discovered what in publishing blurbs would be trumpeted as an ‘untold story’: the mass movement of men from Suffolk to Burton on Trent to work in the brewing industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His book Where Beards Wag All is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a col­lec­tion of essays high­light­ing spe­cif­ic nar­ra­tives aris­ing from oral his­to­ry research and a defence of oral his­to­ry as a dis­ci­pline. Its mes­sage is that with­out oral his­to­ry – with­out talk­ing to work­ing peo­ple, and min­ing their mem­o­ries – we lose great chunks of his­to­ry that weren’t record­ed in offi­cial papers or cov­ered in the news.

Hav­ing spent a chunk of the past few years research­ing and writ­ing about pubs, we can’t agree enough. Pubs, being seen as pro­sa­ic and unsavoury, weren’t well record­ed, and it is only through oral his­to­ry that much sense of the habits of drinkers and pub­li­cans real­ly emerges from the fog of the past.

The sto­ry of the Suf­folk malt­sters Evans uncov­ered is par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing and begins like this:

The search to col­lect evi­dence start­ed after a chance remark made by a farm horse­man while I was col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about his expe­ri­ences on the Suf­folk farms. I found that it was not the first occa­sion on which a remark made on the mar­gin of anoth­er and total­ly dif­fer­ent enquiry proved – when fol­lowed up – to be more fruit­ful than the sub­ject I was inves­ti­gat­ing at the time… [The] horse­man was giv­ing an out­line of his life on the farm: “I rec­ol­lect,” he said, “that were the year I went to Bur­ton. I went up for two sea­sons, missed a sea­son, then went for anoth­er two – and then I got mar­ried.”

Evans con­tin­ued to hear vari­a­tions on this sto­ry until, he writes, “it became clear in my own mind that there had been a fair­ly wide­spread move­ment of young farm-work­ers who fol­lowed the bar­ley they had grown in East Anglia to Bur­ton on Trent where they worked as malt­sters, help­ing to con­vert the malt to be used in the brew­ing of beer”.

For more than 50 years

This migra­tion, Evans was able to work out, began at least as ear­ly as 1880 (pos­si­bly as far back as 1860) and con­tin­ued until 1931 when unem­ploy­ment in Bur­ton trig­gered a back­lash against import­ed labour.

What prompt­ed this pat­tern of work­ing to emerge was the sea­son­al nature of farm work. Once the corn and hay had been har­vest­ed, lots of fit, able young men found them­selves unem­ployed. Some spent win­ter liv­ing off their fam­i­lies or char­i­ty; oth­ers joined the fish­ing fleet; but lots went to Bur­ton, because just after the har­vest hap­pened to be exact­ly when broad-shoul­dered malt­sters were most in demand.

Evans recounts his strug­gle to find doc­u­men­tary evi­dence and the even­tu­al emer­gence of paper­work from Bass which record­ed the names of Suf­folk and Nor­folk men on the pay­roll dur­ing 1904-05 and 1926–27. In 1904, the doc­u­ments revealed, 169 men went to Bur­ton from Suf­folk, mak­ing up a lit­tle over half of the work­force dur­ing that malt­ing sea­son.

Then comes a heart­break­ing detail: when Evans went to Bur­ton in 1968 intend­ing to inter­view Suf­folk men who had set­tled there he found that Bass had just moved offices and in so doing, destroyed the labour books. Yet anoth­er archives-in-the-skip sto­ry to make researchers weep.

Had it not been for the efforts of indus­tri­al his­to­ri­an Col­in Owen, who tran­scribed and sum­marised many of these records, noth­ing would sur­vive. As it is, Evans was able to include Owen’s work as an appen­dix to his book. It takes the form of a list of work­ers from East Anglia in the 1890–91 sea­son, with names, home vil­lages and the rail­way sta­tions from which they embarked, via Peter­bor­ough, to reach Bur­ton. Edgar Spall, Obe­di­ah Mort­lock, Arthur Pan­ment, William Tit­shall, George Fenn, Charles Flatt… There are also lists of names for lat­er sea­sons.

The old men Evans inter­viewed told him how the recruit­ment process worked:

At the end of August and the begin­ning of Sep­tem­ber the Bur­ton brew­ers sent agents down to var­i­ous cen­tres in East Anglia to engage the young farm-work­ers. Bass and Com­pa­ny sent a cir­cu­lar let­ter to each malt­ing work­er who had been employed dur­ing the pre­vi­ous sea­son – if he had proved sat­is­fac­to­ry. The let­ter gave the date when the agent would be in a par­tic­u­lar local­i­ty. The place was usu­al­ly a pub­lic house – The Sta­tion Hotel, Ipswich, Fram­ling­ham Crown and so on.

They used to sign us up at the Crown. The agent was a man called John­ny Clubs, a good owd bloke, and lat­er a Mr White­hart come down. You went into a room and he looked you up and down to see if you could do the work, see if you were well set up. Then he asked you the name of your last mas­ter so he could get a char­ac­ter. Then you signed the paper.”

One inter­vie­wee, Albert Love of Wortwell in Nor­folk, describes men gath­er­ing at the local sta­tion ready to depart “like sol­diers”. They were giv­en one-way tick­ets and Evans includes a sec­ond-hand account of one work­er mak­ing his way back to Suf­folk from Bur­ton on foot, push­ing a child in a pram. It wasn’t a cushy life and it’s hard not to read into it echoes of mod­ern slav­ery.

Hard work and free beer

As well as a chap­ter on the recruit­ment and migra­tion, Evans also gives a detailed account of the work itself, from lug­ging 16-stone sacks of malt to hurl­ing hot malt against screens to fil­ter out “the muck”: “When you come out of there you was drunk from the dust of the malt – with­out hav­ing nawthen to drink!”

And, of course, there are the tales of free beer, includ­ing this from Will Gosling, a man born and brought up in Bur­ton but whose father migrat­ed there from Suf­folk in the 1890s:

In all steel-works and in every job like that where men lose a lot of sweat it has to be replaced with five pints of some­thing – whether it’s water, tea, milk or beer. They used to sup­ply us with allowance beer. Five pints in my time; we used to have a pint at six o’clock, a pint at ten, anoth­er pint at mid­day and anoth­er two pints dur­ing the after­noon. Then if you had to come back after tea to turn the kiln you had anoth­er pint for that. In between times you was giv­en two pints of beer called lack. They called it lack because it was lack­ing a lot of things. It was a very mild beer, but it was wet: it was mois­ture.

Living and working in Burton

Final­ly, there are two entire chap­ters on life in Bur­ton for migrants from East Anglia. Evans inter­viewed William Den­ny (1882–1968), who worked four sea­sons in Bur­ton around the turn of the cen­tu­ry, and gave a bril­liant account of the social lives of young work­ers:

After com­ing home from work and hav­ing some tea we’d go round the town, hav­ing a pint at one pub and then at anoth­er. There was The Wheat­sheaf, Punch Bowl, Gold­en Ball and many more. We were a crowd togeth­er and we used to enjoy our­selves. We used to sing, and one thing we used to do up there was step dance on top of a bar­rel. In all the pubs up there you could get a free clay-pipe at that time – with the pub’s name on it. After my first sea­son I rec­ol­lect I brought nine­ty clay-pipes home with me.

Evans paints a pic­ture of “Suf­folk Jims” as hard-drink­ing, hard-work­ing men liv­ing in lodg­ings, scrap­ping in pubs, and mak­ing them­selves con­spic­u­ous in Bur­ton by their unusu­al taste in cloth­ing and pecu­liar accents. When they went home, it was often in a fan­cy new Bur­ton suit, or wear­ing braid­ed belts that were a spe­cial­i­ty of Bur­ton; and bear­ing fan­cy teapots as gifts for their moth­ers or land­ladies.

One spe­cif­ic brand­ed beer also gets a brief men­tion in this con­text – the 1902 King’s Ale, bot­tles of which are amaz­ing­ly still in cir­cu­la­tion. This is Will Den­ny again:

It cost a lot o’money, about a shilling a pint as far as I can rec­ol­lect. Some of the boys brought a gal­lon of the Roy­al Ale hoom with them. My mate did.

Although this sto­ry was for­got­ten when Evans wrote Where Beards Wag All, and was ques­tioned at the time, it has since become an accept­ed part of the nar­ra­tive of brew­ing in Bur­ton, being ref­er­enced by mul­ti­ple aca­d­e­m­ic works on the sub­ject.

And these days, even ama­teurs can find doc­u­men­tary evi­dence with a few clicks: if you have access to ancestry.co.uk, search the 1901 cen­sus for peo­ple born in Suf­folk, liv­ing in Bur­ton, with ‘malt­ster’ as a key­word, and you’ll see for your­self how real this was.

We bought our copy of Where Beards Wag All for £5 in a book­shop but used edi­tions are avail­able online for less. There’s also a Faber print-on-demand edi­tion avail­able at £20.

Main image: Suf­folk malt­sters in Bur­ton, one of sev­er­al old pho­tographs repro­duced in Evans’s book.

One thought on “From Suffolk to Burton in search of work, c.1880–1931”

  1. I’m sure there’s a sto­ry to be told about the beer allowance…some drunk at work and some tak­en home. As a child it seemed like every house in Bur­ton had a stock of ‘lowance’, as it always sound­ed to me.

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