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 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.