To quote former Prime Minister John Major, “It’s there! It’s still there!”
I discovered on Friday morning that the “hulking old brewery” that my Pevsner said was in Central London is, at least in part, still standing.
The area where the surviving buildings stand is now a somewhat trendy shopping district, but in the 19th century, it was filled with warehouses, most of which were there to supply the nearby fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden.
It’s because of that that all the streets around Long Acre have such beautiful Victorian industrial designs, even though they’re now boutiques and bars.
If you want to see the remains of the Combe brewery yourself (there’s not *much* to see) head for Long Acre and walk around the block of buildings facing out on to Neal Street, Shelton Street and Langley Street. The brewery itself was in the middle of that block (where “Old Brewer’s Yard” is now, round the back of Marks and Spencer). Surviving buildings are at numbers 6, 7 and 8 Langley Street; 24-26 and 34 Shelton Street; 3-7 and 17-19 Neal Street.
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A while ago, I wrote about Starkey, Knight and Ford, who once ran almost all the pubs in my home town. I was intrigued, but a bit frustrated at the dearth of information. Well, once again, Westminster City Archive (which I’m always on about) has come through for me, and I now know almost everything I need to about SKF.
I was browsing the Archive’s bookshelves when I came across a copy of The Brewing Industry: a guide to historical records, edited by Lesley Richmond and Alison Turton. It has an entry for almost every major brewery in Britain, with very detailed information about where each company’s records can be found. This is the kind of thing Ron probably has multiple copies of.
It says that SKF were based in Bridgwater, Somerset (not Tiverton, Devon, as some sources suggested). The brewery was founded in 1840 by George Knight. Thomas Starkey started a brewery in nearby North Petherton around the same time. They merged at some point in the late 19th century, and then took over Ford & Son, who were based in Tiverton (hence the confusion, I guess).
They seem to have been incredibly acquisitive — the biography is just one takeover after another, all over the West Country, until they themselves were taken over by Whitbread in 1962. Whitbread ceased production in Bridgwater (all those beers my Dad recalls must have disappeared then) and changed the brewery’s name to “Whitbread Devon Ltd”. It ceased brewing in Tiverton in the early 1970s.
Present day regional behemoth breweries with acquisitive tendencies, take note…
I’ve read before that Central London was well stocked with huge brewery buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries, but most of them were knocked down or blown up in the Blitz. Reading Pevsner’s guide to the architecture of Westminster, however, I noted this line:
Londoners also needed vast supplies of beer and from the late C18 breweries became the first civilian factories to be built on a giant scale. The chief survivor in Westminster is Combe & Co.’s hulking 1830s premises of plain brick, N of Long Acre.
Now, I’ve walked up Long Acre twice in the last week without noticing a single “hulking” brewery building. I’ll have to look harder next time. Nice to know that these relics of the great age of industrial brewing are still there to be found, though.
Stonch’s piece on lagers made in the UK made me think about why lager got so popular in the UK so quickly in the late 20th century. As the British Beer and Pub Association say:
Until 1960 lager accounted for less than one per cent of the British beer market… it was not generally provided on draught until 1963. Since then its growth has been phenomenal and it now accounts for almost half the beer market in Britain.
I’ve heard various explanations.
1. The big breweries were determined to move from cask to keg, and lager works better from kegs than ale. Faced with a choice between John Smith’s smooth flow and Fosters, I’d probably go for Fosters, so there might be something in that.
2. People picked up the taste for cold lager on package holidays in continental Europe, and especially Spain. It seemed more refreshing and more ‘sophisticated’ than boring old British ale.
3. As the British diet got more varied and spicy after the end of rationing in the early 1950s, people wanted a lighter, more refreshing beer to go with it. Here’s a bit from an article on the history of the curry from The Observer:
Like so much else connected with curry… the origins of lager-drinking with Indian food are mysterious. Namita Panjabi has been told that in the early days of Veeraswamy in London’s West End, which was founded in 1927, the King of Denmark came whenever he was in the country. Frustrated at not being able to drink Carlsberg – which wasn’t then available here – he shipped over a barrel, so that when he came to eat it would be available for him.
4. All of the above are probably partly true, but my favourite theory is that British soldiers serving in Germany during the war, and then the cold war, came back to the UK as enthusiastic advocates of lager, and demanded the same product back home. My uncle, who was stationed in Germany in the 1960s, certainly speaks fondly of the steins of lager he enjoyed in Munich, and has been a lager man ever since.
Living in London, I’m used to seeing the ghostly indications of defunct breweries everywhere I look — Taylor Walker; Truman Hanbury and Buxton; and, yes, Barclay Perkins. But the whole time I was growing up in Somerset, I didn’t once notice the arguably more subtle remains of the big regional brewery, Starkey, Knight and Ford.
Nowadays, you can spot their old pub buildings — many of which are now shops — by their black horse plaques.
From what I can tell, SKF were established in Bridgwater (or possibly Tiverton, in Devon) but then expanded aggressively into the surrounding towns (notably Taunton
— this pamphlet is excellent). Googling them reveals very little other than a trail of takeovers of smaller breweries throughout the 20th century, until they themselves were subsumed by the colossal Whitbread empire in the early 1960s.
My Dad: “They had a big range of beers. There was double X at about 3.2%; triple X at about 3.8%; and four X at around 4.1%. Triple X was the best — sort of nutty, from what I remember.
“There was one called Lighthouse, named after the lighthouse on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea, and a stout, but I can’t remember the name. The brewery was right in the centre of town, behind where the swimming pool is now. I was drinking their beer right up until about 1966, when they started getting replaced in the pubs by Whitbread’s own beers.”
You can see the remains of SKF pubs on Fore Street (pic 1), Taunton Road (pic 2) and West Quay (pic 3) in Bridgwater, and on the Knowle Inn, Bawdrip (pic 4). For more details of remaining SKF livery, see the excellent defunct brewery history site.