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

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, 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.

Not as Local as it Looks

You might think that a brewery called Camden Town makes all its beer in London, but some of it is actually brewed in continental Europe.

When we drank a pint of Cam­den Hells lager on Sun­day, we enjoyed it enor­mous­ly, hav­ing not pre­vi­ous­ly been huge fans. We Tweet­ed about it, and got sev­er­al inter­est­ing respons­es along the lines of this one:

When we asked for more infor­ma­tion, we were point­ed towards this arti­cle by Nicholas Lan­der on the Finan­cial Times web­site from Sep­tem­ber last year (some­times behind a pay­wall, some­times not):

 Hells Lager, is now so pop­u­lar with British drinkers that each week an extra 50,000 pints are trucked back from a brew­ery out­side Munich… A 40-strong team brews 80,000 pints a week sup­ple­ment­ed by the beer import­ed from Ger­many.

Camden Hells logo.

We sought cor­rob­o­ra­tion on the Cam­den Town web­site but couldn’t find any­thing. Both the point of sale infor­ma­tion (the keg font) and the web­site give the dis­tinct impres­sion that all Cam­den Hells is brewed in Lon­don: ‘Great beer brewed in Cam­den Town’; ‘Inspired by Ger­many, deliv­ered for Lon­don’, and so on.

The Facts in the Case

The best way to clar­i­fy the sit­u­a­tion was, we decid­ed, to speak to some­one at Cam­den Town. That some­one turned out to be Jasper Cup­paidge, the brewery’s own­er and founder. He seemed sur­prised that there might be con­fu­sion, and felt that he’d been quite open about the over­seas brew­ing arrange­ment in inter­views, but was hap­py to explain the details (our emphases):

The only beer that we ever brew in Europe is kegged Cam­den Hells. Pale Ale, Ink, every­thing else, is brewed at HQ, and all small pack­aged beers includ­ing Hells is brewed and packed at Cam­den

Right now, because it’s a qui­et time of year for sales, none of it is being brewed abroad. In the sum­mer, when it’s real­ly busy, yes, a small pro­por­tion might come from over­seas. It doesn’t come in big tankers every sin­gle week. We pull from our ware­house and pal­lets might con­tain some kegs of Euro­pean-brewed Hells, and some from Lon­don.

It’s our recipe, using the same sup­pli­ers of malt from Europe and hops that we use for UK-made beer, and we always have one of our brew­ers there to super­vise

It’s not about cost-cut­ting – it’s actu­al­ly expen­sive, and we can’t real­ly afford to do it, but it is impor­tant to main­tain sup­ply to bars and pubs. We want to be mak­ing the change and not rid­ing it.

We worked with a small fam­i­ly brew­ery in Bavaria from sum­mer last year till Novem­ber this year and, recent­ly, after run­ning tri­als for three months, moved to a sim­i­lar brew­ery in Bel­gium, a lot clos­er to home, and so eas­i­er for get­ting to and from for us as a team. We work with them because they’re the best and can make the beer taste exact­ly like it does when we brew it here.

We don’t declare it on the keg font because we don’t want to con­fuse con­sumers, but we are going to improve the FAQ on our web­site, because we’re not ashamed of this – we’re proud of it – and we came into this busi­ness with the inten­tion of being trans­par­ent and hon­est.

Though he was reluc­tant to spec­i­fy how much Cam­den Hells is brewed abroad at peak times because it can vary, the very vague ball­park fig­ure of 25 per cent was men­tioned. So, between, say, May and Sep­tem­ber 2014, there will be a some­thing like a one-in-four chance that pint of Hells you drink will have been brewed in Bel­gium.

(The very tasty pint we drank was, it turns out, def­i­nite­ly brewed in Lon­don.)

Does it really matter, and why?

We asked our read­ers this ques­tion in a poll which ran for 26 hours, clos­ing at 5 p.m. today:

Do you think it is impor­tant for a brew­ery to declare where a beer is made?

Of the 207 peo­ple who respond­ed, 125 said it was essen­tial to know; 79 said it was good to know; and only 7 peo­ple – about 3 per cent – said they didn’t care.

That con­firmed our sus­pi­cion: that prove­nance is impor­tant, at least to beer geeks. They want to know where the beer they’re drink­ing has been made.

More specif­i­cal­ly, the com­ments under that poll and dis­cus­sions on Twit­ter sug­gest that peo­ple real­ly don’t like the idea that a beer bear­ing the name of a spe­cif­ic place might or might not come from anoth­er coun­try.

Rea­sons vary. Some feel that if a brew­ery isn’t hon­est about prove­nance, they can’t be trust­ed in oth­er areas; oth­ers want to sup­port the local econ­o­my; and some, pre­sum­ably, just like the idea of lager from Lon­don because it’s cool.

For us, it’s about the bal­ance of pow­er. Even if the con­ti­nen­tal-Euro­pean-brewed Hells looks, smells and tastes iden­ti­cal to the UK prod­uct, with­hold­ing infor­ma­tion about its man­u­fac­ture exploits con­sumers.

Where is the ‘pre­mi­um’?

At first, we thought of it as an inver­sion of the Big Beer prac­tice of brew­ing for­eign brands under license in the UK. But it isn’t an inver­sion – it’s exact­ly the same. Where is the ‘pre­mi­um’ right now? In the 1980s, it was with Con­ti­nen­tal beers, so every­thing was pre­sent­ed as Con­ti­nen­tal, even if it was actu­al­ly made in Northamp­ton. Now, the mar­ket demands local, so con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean beer is pre­sent­ed as British.

What should have happened instead?

Brew­eries think­ing of fol­low­ing Camden’s suit and hav­ing some of their beer brewed else­where have, as we see it, three choic­es:

  1. Do it and hope no-one notices; be pre­pared for some fin­ger-wag­ging (like this post…) if word gets out.
  2. Be com­plete­ly, pre-emp­tive­ly hon­est about it: turn it into a good news sto­ry about part­ner­ship, qual­i­ty con­trol, and serv­ing the needs of your cus­tomers. (Mr Cup­paidge told exact­ly this sto­ry when we spoke to him, and it sound­ed good.)
  3. If you can’t face explain­ing it to peo­ple, pre-emp­tive­ly or dur­ing that back­lash, that might mean you are about to do some­thing that, in your heart of hearts, you are ashamed of. So don’t do it.

We would, of course, always advo­cate option 2 – com­plete hon­esty and trans­paren­cy. There’s noth­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly wrong with con­tract (‘part­ner­ship’) brew­ing, as long as it’s done open­ly.


We’re glad to hear Cam­den Town are updat­ing their online FAQ – infor­ma­tion like this should be easy to find and unam­bigu­ous, if only for the sake of avoid­ing rumours which over-state the case. (Cam­den don’t brew ‘all their beer’ in Ger­many; and they’re not buy­ing some dodgy Bavar­i­an super­mar­ket brand and rela­belling it.)

Ide­al­ly, there also ought to be some infor­ma­tion at the point of sale that indi­cates whether the spe­cif­ic pint a cus­tomer is about to drink is British or Ger­man, but how to do that ele­gant­ly is beyond us.

Main image based on a pho­to­graph by Les Chat­field, from Flickr, under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

Falling in Love

This weekend, we visited two ‘craft beer’ bars which were new to us, and failed to ‘fall in love’ with either of them.

That doesn’t mean we hat­ed them – far from it – but nor did we react as we did to the Sand­ford Park Ale­house in Chel­tenham the oth­er week: they didn’t lure is into stay­ing for just one more, or cause us to sigh with sat­is­fac­tion. We couldn’t set­tle.

Set­tling is what hap­pens when we can get real­ly cosy, or the atmos­phere is so good we don’t care about being com­fort­able. (It’s nice to get both.) Great beer is impor­tant, but we don’t tend to fall in love on the basis of beer alone.

That last con­clu­sion we reached at the Fat Pig brew­pub, the third new place we vis­it­ed, on Sat­ur­day after­noon. The beer didn’t strike us as amaz­ing – vari­a­tions on hon­ey-sweet blonde ale in the main, though we were impressed with a won­der­ful­ly dry stout – but the pub made us feel hap­py. The Fat Pig, there and then, had it.

Was it some­thing to do with the qual­i­ty of the light through the big frost­ed win­dows? The well worn bare wood sur­faces? Good food didn’t hurt. If we lived near­by, we thought, we’d be hap­py to have it as our local.

But it is the def­i­n­i­tion of sub­jec­tive: you might go there on a wet Wednes­day evening and won­der what on earth we saw in the place.

We’re hop­ing to write about the Beer Cel­lars (Exeter) and the Teign Cel­lars (New­ton Abbot) in more detail in a future post fair­ly soon, when we’ve had chance to pay return vis­its. Per­haps in a dif­fer­ent month/week/day/hour, there will be more chem­istry.

Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in Lon­don… The heat and light crack­ling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-pan­elled room, his tobac­co and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christ­mas of my child­hood strong­ly to my thoughts… We cre­at­ed a dish… based on the mem­o­ry… We set the frozen apple sor­bet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bel­lows from the leather plate car­ry­ing the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobac­co and whisky. We even have the crack­ling sound of the burn­ing logs com­ing from the dish.”

Hes­ton Blu­men­thal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe – the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors – gets us excited.

Pack­ag­ing alone can build expec­ta­tion, sug­gest­ing a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the dis­tant pip­ing of a bar­rel organ, with a few tricks of typog­ra­phy and the promi­nent place­ment of an evoca­tive date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dash­board on Rod Taylor’s time Machine.)

How his­toric are some of these recipes? Many are mere­ly ‘inspired by’ some­thing from the archives, while oth­ers are painstak­ing recre­ations. While we pre­fer the lat­ter, we’re also more than will­ing to play along with the for­mer, just as we would be with Hes­ton Blumenthal’s sen­so­ry manip­u­la­tions.

Read our tasting notes after the jump →

The Renaissance of the English Public House

Basil Oliver’s The Renaissance of the English Public House was published in 1949 1947 and argues that the period between the two World Wars was a golden age of pub design and building.

Cover: The Renaissance of the English Public House.It is print­ed on post-war paper (rough and yel­low­ing) but is crammed with pho­tographs and floor-plans of spe­cif­ic pubs up and down the coun­try.

In his intro­duc­tion, Oliv­er observes that, in the peri­od before World War I, new pub build­ings were rare because of the ‘mis­guid­ed idea… that to improve build­ings was to encour­age drink­ing’. He observes, how­ev­er, that the pro­hi­bi­tion­ist urge actu­al­ly trig­gered a great resur­gence in pub design and build­ing: when the state began to run the brew­ing and pub indus­try in Carlisle in 1916, ‘it per­mit­ted unham­pered exper­i­ments in many direc­tions, but espe­cial­ly in the evo­lu­tion of the pub­lic house’.

County Arms, Blaby, near Leicester.
Coun­ty Arms, Bla­by, near Leices­ter.

An entire chap­ter of the book is giv­en over to the Carlisle State Man­age­ment scheme. Dur­ing WWI, Oliv­er says, improve­ments were lim­it­ed: the removal of hard-to-super­vise snugs and ‘snug­geries’ (small com­part­ments) to cre­ate ‘light and airy cheer­ful­ness’. After the war, new build­ings were com­mis­sioned, includ­ing The Gret­na Tav­ern, which replaced (Oliv­er reck­ons) six ‘snug-type hous­es’. We could not help but think of Wetherspoon’s.

Away from spe­cif­ic pubs, the more gen­er­al detail Oliv­er pro­vides on con­tem­po­rary pub cul­ture offer a use­ful com­pan­ion piece to the Mass Obser­va­tion book The Pub and the Peo­ple. On alter­na­tive names for the ‘pub­lic bar’, he observes that ‘Tap Room’ is out of fash­ion, and…

Saloon Bar has a faint sug­ges­tion of supe­ri­or­i­ty, and is the haunt of the ‘toffs’ (or would-be toffs) but even they fre­quent­ly require the inevitable darts-board. Smok­ing Room… is also pop­u­lar.… Pri­vate Bar and Bar Par­lour… are equal­ly indica­tive of their pur­pose – pri­vate trans­ac­tions and inti­mate con­ver­sa­tions – and from being pop­u­lar with the fair sex have vir­tu­al­ly become, in many hous­es, a Women’s Bar.

The last, lin­ger­ing remains of Vic­to­ri­an moral­i­ty can be detect­ed in a coy dis­cus­sion of toi­lets: ladies’ and gentlemen’s lava­to­ries, he insists, must be apart from each oth­er, seclud­ed, but also easy to super­vise. (The hor­ri­fy­ing fact that peo­ple of both sex­es piss must be kept secret, but there should be no oppor­tu­ni­ties for han­ky-panky either.) Even today, it occured to us, the eas­i­est way to find the ladies’ toi­let is usu­al­ly to walk as far from the gents’ as pos­si­ble, and vice ver­sa.

As for beer, Oliv­er is quite clear: ‘From the consumer’s point of view, the ide­al way of receiv­ing his beer is direct “from the wood”, and – on a hot summer’s day – from a very cool cel­lar.’ Cel­lars, he sug­gests, should be cut off from the out­side world, run­ning with damp, have earth floors, and be exposed as much as pos­si­ble to the cool soil beyond their walls. The ide­al, he con­cedes, is rarely pos­si­ble:

More like­ly is it that new ways of draw­ing draught beer will be invent­ed for con­di­tion­ing draught beer which will elim­i­nate all the com­pli­cat­ed para­pher­na­lia of beer engines, air-pres­sure instal­la­tions, flex­i­ble pipes…

The grand ‘Tudor man­sions’ of Mitchells & But­lers in Birm­ing­ham are also grant­ed a chap­ter of their own, high­light­ing the advan­tages to brew­ers of build­ing on new sites rather than restor­ing old pub build­ings: restau­rants, car parks, gar­dens, and even bowl­ing greens were com­mon. Lon­don gets a chap­ter of its own, too, with the rest of the coun­try, from Liv­er­pool to Devon, wrapped up in two more gen­er­al sur­veys of urban and ‘way­side’ pubs.

We spent a bit of time look­ing up pubs men­tioned on Google Street View. Many are gone alto­geth­er. Oth­ers were rebuilt on the same scale but with less style. A few remain, but often defaced with plas­tic ban­ners, ugly sig­nage, and accu­mu­lat­ed grime: the Apple Tree in Carlisle, fea­tured in the big image at the top, is now ‘Pip­pins’, and still a hand­some build­ing.

For a rather spe­cialised, tech­ni­cal book, Oliver’s prose is very read­able, with the occa­sion­al amus­ing turn of phrase and impas­sioned dia­tribe. We paid around £20 for our copy, which is not in great con­di­tion, but it isn’t rare or hard-to-find. Depend­ing on how inter­est­ed you are in the detail of pub design and/or this par­tic­u­lar peri­od, that might seem a bit steep, but we enjoyed it.