Brewery Life, St Helens, 1920s: Free Beer and Vitriol

What was life like in a large regional English brewery in the years between the wars? Fortunately for us, Charles Forman asked someone, and recorded their answer.

We picked up a copy of Indus­tri­al Town, which was pub­lished in 1978, from a bar­gain bin some­where and have pre­vi­ous­ly flagged its com­men­tary on spit­ting in pubs.

The obser­va­tions of a name­less brew­ery work­er, born c.1902, are no less inter­est­ing, describ­ing life at Greenall Whit­ley’s St Helens out­post:

In the brew­ery the day turn used to be on at six in the morn­ing. You had to get malt out, which came in hun­dred­weight sacks, and put it in the dis­solv­ing tanks. You got a dip­stick out which stat­ed the quan­ti­ty of water that was want­ed to dis­solve the malt in. When you go that quan­ti­ty you let them know on the mash tuns where the malt is left. The mix­ture is pumped up to the cop­pers, where they used to put the malt and hops to boil. There were three cop­per boil­ers alto­geth­er – the biggest one held 500 bar­rels.

When they’re sat­is­fied they’ve got enough hops, they shut that man­hole and put the steam on to get it to a cer­tain heat for boil­ing the brew. They’re sup­posed to boil it just over an hour, but some­times you were wait­ing for emp­ty ves­sels, so you had to boil it longer. There were only two of us there, so you could­n’t go away and leave it.

There is a bit more detail of the brew­ing process giv­en – the brew­ery employed hop­backs, and sent the beer into ves­sels at 70°F before fer­ment­ing for a full week.

One espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing detail (well, to us; well, to Jess) is a brief dis­cus­sion of excise inspec­tions:

There’s a cer­tain grav­i­ty to work to in the beer. Once they get it to the grav­i­ty they want, you can’t do any­thing till the excise offi­cers come along and check it… On the job, if you got it wrong, there’d be an enquiry about it. If it was too high, they’d break it down with boil­ing water to make sure it was the right grav­i­ty that they’re tied down to.

Clean­ing is the less sexy side of brew­ing but, by all accounts, takes up a huge amount of most brew­ers’ time. The sub­ject of this oral his­to­ry recalls clean­ing vats as a job for brew­ery juniors: “It was rep­e­ti­tion work – just do the job till it’s done. We used sand and mixed it up with with vit­ri­ol…”

But what was Greenall Whit­ley’s beer like in the 1920s? It’s always excit­ing to find his­toric tast­ing notes of any kind, but this one is only brief and vague: “The beer was all right”.

[They] had dif­fer­ent strengths. They don’t brew any stout now – it’s only bit­ter and mild. We used to get beer free at half past ten and half past two in the after­noon. The chap dished it out in the cel­lar. You’d have to take a can with you. Two pints a day, that’s what it used to be. One chap got sacked for pinch­ing it – they were very keen on that.

You can pick up copies of this book for very lit­tle and if you’re inter­est­ed in St Helens, indus­tri­al his­to­ry, or work­ing class life, it’s cer­tain­ly worth a cou­ple of quid.

Main image: the St Helens brew­ery in the 1930s, via the Brew­ery His­to­ry Soci­ety Wiki.