Brewing in Georgian Bristol: smells and cellars

When I’m not obsessing over beer I sometimes obsess over architecture which is why I’ve been reading Walter Ison’s The Buildings of Georgian Bristol.

It was first published in 1952 and revised for a second edition in 1978. It mostly comprises fairly dry research into buildings and street layouts – who designed or built what with reference to original contracts, whether the pediment is segmental or not, and so on – but you won’t be surprised to learn that there are a couple mentions of brewing that leapt out.

The first is with reference to Queen Square, which you can see from Small Bar on King Street, to give a beer geek friendly reference point. Originally marshland, it was divided up into plots from 1699 and built up between 1700 and 1718. It had a dual carriageway running through the middle for most of the 20th century but is these days once again a peaceful public space.

Ison quotes from the city records for 1699 which include the terms of what we would now call planning permission for the first house on Queen Square:

[No] Tenement [is] to be lett out to any sort of Tenants particularly no Smiths Shopp Brewhouse nor to any Tallow-Chandler or to any other Tradesmen who by noyse danger of ffire or ill smells shall disturbe or annoy any of the Inhabitants who shall build neer it…

This was a classy development for well-to-do folk and it wouldn’t do for it to pong or otherwise exhibit evidence of people working. These days in Bristol, breweries tend to be on industrial estates – the logical conclusion of this kind of zoning regulation.

The second reference comes in a description of the development of Portland Square from 1788. Here, Ison quotes for a sale notice for the middle house on the south side of the square from 1812:

[The house contains] three arched under-ground cellars, a servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room, back-kitchen, larder, brew-house, and other offices…

A brewhouse is an interesting addition to a large, fashionable house as late as the early 19th century. Other houses nearby seem to have had wine cellars rather the brewing facilities, at least according to Ison’s notes, so the owner of this one was clearly one of us.

But who did the brewing? What did they brew? Where would we even start looking to find out?

Main image: detail of ‘The Mansion House at the corner of Queen Square looking along Queen Charlotte Street’, Samuel Jackson, 1824, via Watercolour World/Bristol Museums.

Kenton’s Secret Preparation for Export Porter

“The Crown and Magpie Tavern had, besides its wine trade, been long noted for the exportation of beer to the East and West Indies; the principal being in the possession of a secret preparation, which prevented the too great fermentation of malt liquor in warm climates, consequently it rendered the liquor more palatable and estimable.”

This passage comes from a reference book called the Biographia Curiosa published in London in 1827 and refers to a noted publican, Benjamin Kenton.

We came across it in A Scrapbook of Inns, a compilation of pub-related snippets from 1949, but the full original text is here.

The story is that Kenton, born 1719, grew up in Whitechapel in the East End of London and at 14 became an apprentice at the Old Angel and Crown near Goulston Street. Excelling as an apprentice, he became a barman-waiter, before defecting to another nearby pub, the Crown and Magpie.

Here’s the Curiosa bit, we suppose: the landlord of the C&M, Kenton’s boss, had taken the magpie off the sign, after which point the export beer suddenly lost its magic quality. Only when he died and Kenton, taking over the pub, put the magpie back on the sign did it return to its former excellence.

Kenton ran the C&M until around 1780 when he retired from the trade, though he kept up the wholesale business from a premises in the Minories. He outlived his children, and all other relations, and died in 1800, worth £300,000 – about £25m in today’s money.

The good news is, we don’t need to rely on this one after-the-fact source for information on Benjamin Kenton and his excellent export beer because Alan McLeod has already compiled a slew of contemporary references from an American colonial perspective. Kenton’s name was apparently a valued brand – a mark of quality worth mentioning in advertisements for imported British beer that appeared in newspapers in New York City in the late 18th century. Here’s a passing mention from a 1787 book, as quoted by Alan:

On taking leave he invited me to dine with him the following day, at his plantation, where I was regaled in a most luxurious manner; the turtle was superior to any ever served on a lord mayor’s table; the’oranges and pine-apples were of the highest flavour; Ben Kenton’s porter sparkled like champaign, and excellent claret and Madeira crowned the feast.

Which brings us back to the main question: what was the trick to the superior quality of the export beer from the Magpie and Crown, which Ben Kenton inherited and made his name from?

In his 1959 academic masterwork The Brewing Industry in Britain 1700-1830 Peter Matthias gives a straightforward explanation:

Benjamin Wilson and Samuel Allsopp often advised customers to bottle the ale which they wanted to survive into the summer, leaving the bottles uncorked for a time to allow the ale to get flat. This was exactly the procedure adopted by a London wine merchant, Kenton, who is said to have first shipped porter successfully to the East Indies. Once ‘flat’, it was corked and sealed so that the secondary and tertiary fermentation on the voyage brought it up to the necessary state of ‘briskness’ by the time it reached India.

We bet that beer was pretty funky by the time it reached its final destination.

BOOKS: A Scrapbook of Inns, 1949

The cover of A Scrapbook of Inns.

A Scrapbook of Inns by Rowland Watson, published in 1949, is a cut above the usual ‘quaint old inns’ hack job, its snippets of old books and articles acting as an effective index to beer and pub writing from public domain sources.

It’s not rare. We picked our copy up for £3.99 in a charity shop, still in its dust jacket, and with a dedication to ‘Sydney, with best wishes from Rhode & all at Bedford, Christmas 1954’. There are plenty of copies for sale online at around the same price and we’ve seen multiple copies in secondhand bookshops in the past year.

We think — assume — the author is the same Rowland Watson best known as a literary editor, born in 1890, and who died in 1968. He doesn’t have much to say about himself in the foreword, using those two brief paragraphs to hammer an important point: this anthology is not a collection of the usual quotations from Pepys, Dr Johnson and Dickens, but rather of obscurities bookmarked during decades of reading, mostly from the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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