Beer history london

What on earth is a ‘public wharfinger’?

We know London has numerous reminders of the paternalistic empire building of its breweries, from suburban sports grounds to social housing, but it had never occurred to us that they might also have their own wharves.

“The above title may occasion some surprise to many in the employ of the Company. They may have heard of a Wharf somewhere on the riverside where some of our beer was shipped or malt landed. But “Public Wharfingers” ??? As a matter of fact the Company have been members of The Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London for many years, and have carried on a considerable business as such, for a very long period.”

Truman’s Black Eagle No 2, July 1930, pp.27-29

We recently obtained some editions of The Black Eagle Magazine, the annual publication of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., which consisted of an eclectic mix of sporting reports; reminisces from various Chairmen about their holidays; jokes, mottos and wise words; and occasionally a nice picture and profile of an improved pub.

In amongst the filler, there are also some genuinely interesting insights into the many avenues and alleyways explored by the Truman enterprise.

In the July 1930 edition there is a piece on Trumans as “Public Wharfingers” – that is, as members of the Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London.

The piece itself is more colourful than informative, being somewhat vague about when this area of the business started or what exactly was traded on a day-to-day basis.

There is a picture of the wharf in Wapping and another of a boat called The Ben Truman loaded with barrels, but no significant information to go with it.

Towards the end we find out that…

“Besides performing useful services for the Brewery, for which of course it primarily exists, many thousands of tons are landed annually for storage and distribution, and in some years rubber to the value of not less than two-and-a-half millions sterling has passed over the wharf and been shipped into craft en route to New York and other places abroad… There are other Breweries who own or use waterside premises in the course of their business, but Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. are alone, so far as the writer is aware, in carrying on also the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT OF LONDON.”

This sent us down a bit of a rabbithole looking for evidence of other breweries setting up as wharfingers – a word we didn’t even know until we read this article.

To be clear, this isn’t just a case of using vessels for transport – this is a separate business landing and storing a whole range of goods.

Just two years later, there was another article on the same subject in The Black Eagle.

This gave a purchase date for the wharf – 1841 – and provides a little more detail:

About 1889 HOYS began to make their appearance. These were usually sailing barges, and they undertook to sail regularly from an advertised Receiving Wharf in London, and deliver a general cargo to places round about the mouth of the Thames – as far as Dover on the one hand and Aldeburgh on the other”. 

Truman’s Black Eagle No 4, July 1932

The piece then goes on to talk about competition from the railways and motor transport, and the winding up of the wharf:

“About 1923, however, motor transport began to make itself felt, and by the end of 1924 it had become such a severe competitor that one by one the Hoys had to give up for want of support, and none are now in existence.”

Unfortunately motor transport not only killed the old Hoys, it very soon began to threaten The Ben Truman also.

Soon after the war, doubts began to exist as to the wisdom of continuing to send our beer to Chatham by water. Would not motors do the work quicker, and – with so much less handling – cheaper? Opinions as to this differed for a time.

There was a very natural disinclination to break the intimate link nearly a century old-between Brick Lane and Old Father Thames; but ultimately, as it was bound to do sooner or later, sentiment had to give way to modern methods, and the change from Chatham to Gravesend put an end finally to any doubts which may have still existed. It was by now quite apparent that the wharf had outlived its usefulness, at any rate so far as the Company’s business was concerned, and by the time this is in print, to the very great regret of all those who have been associated with for so many years, Black Eagle Wharf will have passed into other hands, and TRUMAN, HANBURY, BUXTON & Co., Ltd., will no longer be carrying on the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT of LONDON.”

We found it interesting that there was no mention in 1930 of any doubts about its viability.

Perhaps even the management didn’t even have this part of the business on their radar.

There were clearly plenty of Brewery Wharves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each of which now seems to be the site of a “stunning collections of 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments”.

But we haven’t yet found much information about how those wharfing operations, including Truman’s, actually worked.

If anyone knows anything further about this interesting chapter of Truman’s history, or indeed anything similar at other breweries, we’d love to hear it.

And can anyone work out if any of the buildings in the pic above are still there on Wapping High Street? It’s not immediately obvious to us from Google Street View.

14 replies on “What on earth is a ‘public wharfinger’?”

A really fascinating read, made all the more so by the comments with further information. I was in the Town of Ramsgate just last Sunday, and had no idea I was just a few doors along from such a interesting bit of London brewery history.

Didn’t Youngs have a wharf for some time? I’m not sure how far up and down the river the boats went or whether the brewery owned them.

Most if not many breweries were sited near or adjacent to waterways, for the obvious benefit of bringing in raw materials and then distribution of the end product(s) …..

Young’s – see the brewery archive project with some mention of wharf use from page 5

And scroll down to Wandsworth Creek c. 1920, though nothing related directly to Young’s.

There may be more photographs in the Wandsworth Museum collection, apparently now in the care of BAC

They might well have had doubts about the viability of the wharf in 1930, but managements don’t generally talk about the possibility of big, disruptive changes, even in internal magazines, until a decision has been made one way or the other.

Correction (misled by incorrectly captioned source): Black Eagle Wharf survived the 1878 fire, which destroyed the warehouse next door. There was minor damage to the wharf and to Truman’s sailing barge “Black Eagle”, moored alongside.

Absolutely fabulous picture. Combe’s brewery in Covent Garden had its own wharf on the Thames, at the Savoy, where it unloaded malt from its maltings in Great Yarmouth – there was a lengthy court case lasting from 1838 to 1854 over whether the the City of London had to right to charge Combe’s “metage” on the grain that was landed.

Very likely to be Black Eagle Wharf, looking upstream. Colonial Wharf is also shown on the map I referenced above.

Catching up with this via your newsletter. A Stateside version was India Wharf Brewing Co., 1889-1920. It operated on the Atlantic Basin at Brooklyn, NY – this is Redhook area, not the Brooklyn more famously connected to brewing, Bushwick and Williamsburg.

I am not clear why the wharf was titled “India”. Perhaps a corruption of “Indies”, in connection with molasses trading, or more likely I think reflecting an older period, when trade to India departed New York waters.

Why don’t you take this on as a North American counterpart? I don’t think you even written on brewing history here, but there is no law against it!

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