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.