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The Stokes Croft Brewery, Bristol, 1890-1911: Purity and Strength

Among the many bits of breweriana at the Kirkstall Brewery taproom was an enormous enamel sign advertising R.W. Miller of Stokes Croft, Bristol – another historic brewery of which we’d heard nothing and seen no sign.

There’s a closer view of the brewery as depicted on the sign available via an online auction website…

SOURCE: Antiques Atlas.

…and also, shown in the main image at the top of this post, a similar view shown in the Western Mail for 26 December 1893, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Depictions of breweries on letterheads and advertisements often take a bit of licence but, even so, we can’t ignore a landmark like this.

First stop, then: the Brewery History Society website. This gives us the street address which was 48 Stokes Croft. Next stop: the National Library of Scotland historic maps website which shows us the area around 48 Stokes Croft in 1901.

SOURCE: National Library of Scotland.

We were about to start researching dates and details from scratch when we came across this incredible piece of work by Mike Slater for his West Country Bottle Museum website.

It gives chapter and verse on the founding and evolution of the Stokes Croft brewery, including its various owners and operators over the years.

This kind of thing makes us feel fortunate to live in a region with such active local historians, both professional and amateur.

In summary, the dates Mr Slater gives are as follows:

  • Brewery possibly established c.1717 (or is that a later marketing claim?)
  • 1842-43 – brewery rebuilt
  • 1843-73 – Foll; Foll & Turfrey; Foll & Abbot
  • 1873-78 – West of England Pale Ale Brewing Company (Abbott & Gardiner)
  • 1878-89 – Harvey & Co
  • 1889 – R.W. Miller moves to Bristol from Hereford and takes over
  • 1890-1911 – R.W. Miller’s Stokes Croft Brewery
  • 1911 – taken over by George’s

Re: that founding date – if the brewery did exist in 1717, it wasn’t on the same site. The incredible Know Your Place website (a hyper-local, hyper-detailed equivalent of the NLS maps website above) provides a composite map from various late 18th century sources which shows a ‘Dissenting Charity School’ taking up the entire block.

SOURCE: West Country Bottles/Carol L. Lester.

Mr Slater also provides what is apparently a portrait of Robert William Miller in his prime (above) and directs us to a useful source, The Ports of the Bristol Channel Wales and West, published c.1892. It’s the kind of directory in which business pay to be included so we should probably take this glowing description with a pinch of salt:

After passing through the spacious and well-appointed general offices, affording every convenience for the numerous clerical staff employed, we proceed through the special offices and private rooms provided for the use of travellers, &c., and reach the private office of the principal, which is richly and elegantly furnished. From this private office a fixed bridge affords communication with the manager’s office, which is also admirably appointed. Leaving here we come eventually to the brewery proper, and pass through the fermenting-room, the mash-room, the malt-room, and other departments associated with the brewing process. Order and cleanliness are everywhere apparent, and we note the efficiency of the various appliances in use, all of them being of a highly improved type. These several departments are situated one above another, and the highest point is reached when we come to the large tank for washing the refrigerators… The hop-room at the Stokes Croft Brewery contains an immense stock, and besides this the firm holds large quantities of hops in London… In connection with the Stokes Croft Brewery are large cellars, and on entering these the visitor is sure to be impressed with the vastness of the stock on hand, an index to the magnitude of the firm’s business… Crossing Moon Street, which runs at the back of the Stokes Croft premises, we enter another cellar, where the firm keeps a great quantity of their special “I.P.” ales. Here also we find a vat warehouse, coopers’ shop, and stores for the old ales, stouts, and porters… Leaving these premises, and crossing Back Field Lane, we reach the firm’s wine and spirit stores, containing large and choice stocks of champagnes, hocks, moselles, ports, sherries, clarets, liqueurs, whiskies, brandies, rums, gins… 

A similar but more detailed description (possibly written by the same person) appeared in The Bristol Times and Mirror for 20 February 1892. This is a long one so get comfy:

The brewery… stands in a splendid business position, having a large frontage to Stoke’s Croft. At the entrance there is a newly-erected porch of freestone, artistically carved, and having the name of the firm emblazoned upon it in picturesque lettering. Entering through two new doors, constructed of specially-selected pitch pine, which, by the way, is one of the features of the recent alterations to the premises, the visitor finds himself in a lobby made of the wood mentioned previously, and having a pretty tessellated tiled pavement. A door, set off with Muranese glass, leads into the brewery; but taking a turning to the left, one obtains access to the counting-house. The two folding doors leading to it are pretty in design, the upper parts being of cathedral glass, with rural scene in the centre. The counting-house is a well-lighted room, the recent alterations having considerably enlarged it… The apartment is lighted with the well-known Wenham burners – one also being in the porch – and five standards supply ample light for the clerks at the desks. The fittings of the office are of walnut and oak, and have very handsome appearance. Opening out at the far end of the room is the telephone room, lavatories, and the strong room. At the end of the counter a screen of pitch pine, with Muranese glass, is constructed, and this leads to the travellers’ office and private room. The former is a lofty apartment, and is designed for the use of the large staff of travellers and collectors in the employ of the firm. The walls are cased with pitch pine, giving the room, which is over 30ft in height, an imposing appearance. From here a well constructed staircase leads to the principals’ private rooms and the sample room. On the right hand is the principals’ private office, and on the left is a large and spacious room, elegantly fitted up, for the use of Mr R. W. Miller. From this apartment access may be obtained into the brewery; but before this is visited it is well to take a peep into the laboratory, which is the sanctum of Mr J.H. King. This gentleman holds the important position of brewer and manager, and comes to Bristol with the highest credentials, having had many years experience at Exeter and the Ale Metropolis, more familiarly known by the name of Burton. The art of brewing has now become science with modern brewers, and therefore the necessity of knowledge of chemistry is only too apparent. In Mr King’s laboratory are all the appliances for carrying out the testing, &c., so necessary in the manufacture of high class ales. Under the care of Mr King, a visit to the brewhouse discloses some interesting particulars. Entering the mashing-room, one notices the mashing plant, which was designed and fitted by Messrs G. Adlam and Son, the well-known engineers of Bristol. One of Steele’s mashing machines and inside rakes, similar to those used in most large breweries, is here; the adjoining compartment, which is called the copper room, has a spacious underback with coils, and adjoining it is a large copper for boiling the wort. Close to the copper is the hop back, from whence the wort is pumped to the cooling room, which is at the top of the building. Ascending a flight of stairs, the malt room is reached, outside which there are two large mashing backs for heating the liquor. The malt room is filled with sacks of malt, and in the corner is a bin, into which the grain is placed, and from there it runs to the crushing mill on the next floor, and thence, by series of ‘Jacob’s ladders’, is conveyed to the grist case in the centre of the room. From there is taken into the mashing tub below. The cooling room is situated at the top of the premises, and is a large building some 40 or 50 feet square, and in this are placed coolers. From receptacles wort proceeds to one of Lawrene’s refrigerators, where it is cooled and conveyed to the fermenting vessels, which are placed in the room beneath. Here a gas engine is employed to drive what is called the ‘rousing’ machinery. Passing this important part of the building one comes to a large apartment, really apart from the main structure, and the delicious scent once apprises the visitor of the fact that this the hop-room. Pockets of the choicest varieties are to be seen, and piled around the room they make an imposing array. Descending to the next floor, a room is entered which is fitted with dropping backs and slate tanks for the storage and preservation of pitching yeast. On reaching the ground-floor one enters a spacious room fitted with three large racking vessels and containing casks of the firm’s beer. Leading out from this is the engine-house, in which is a powerful engine and the pumping machinery mentioned before. Now descending into the ‘depths of the vault below,’ there are thousands of casks of beer housed. The casks are of different sizes, and each bears hieroglyphics upon them, which the manager would tell the uninitiated were intended to represent the quality and strength of the beer. For instance, in one cellar nothing but bitter beer is kept, and in another only mild beer. The pale ales compare most favourably with finest Burton productions. There are four qualities, the prices ranging from 10d to 1s 6d per gallon. The mild ales are full bodied, and are preferred by many to the more bitter qualities. The beer has also been found most suitable for bottling, compares favourably with the productions of other firms. Crossing the road at the back, one finds that the firm has cellars there, where there is a large storage of bitter and old beers, and stouts and porters. Going through the main entrance of this building, a large and spacious room becomes visible, and this is filled with 37 huge vats of malt liquor. Here also is where the famous old beer of the firm is stored. In reaching the offices again a covered yard is passed, where a number of men are engaged in washing casks; and in an adjoining room there is a special engine and fan, erected for the purpose of sending a current of pure air through the casks and thus making them dry and fit for immediate use. The firm has stores at Plymouth, Cheltenham (No. 100 High street), and Bath, besides in other towns, and their motto is ‘Strength and purity’.

There’s a bit of information about the beer itself there and a bit more again is given in The Ports of the Bristol Channel advertorial:

The cheapest beer brewed by Messrs. Miller is that at 10d per gallon (X mild or FA bitter). This beer is really excellent in quality, as we can testify from experience, and is capital value for the money. The AK bitter ale, at 1s per gallon, is a special brew of extra quality, for which there is a great and increasing demand. The PA and IPA beers are ales of fine character, respectively 1s 2d and 1s 6d per gallon. Of the IPA ales there are two different brewings, one in March and one in October. All the above-mentioned beers bottle splendidly, and have an immense and steadily-growing sale. In the old malt-house of the brewery, now used as a cellar, there is a large stock of mild ales. The 1s porter is an excellent article, always in demand, and the 1s 4d stout is one of the best in the market, being admirably suited for invalids. The celebrated old beers of this firm are known respectively as the ‘Bristol Old Beer’ and the ‘West of England Old Beer’, and are greatly esteemed by connoisseurs.

And here’s a newspaper ad from 1891 listing all the beers on offer:

SOURCE: Central Glamorgan Gazette, 17 July 1891, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Wait – what’s GPA? Golden pale ale? Gloucestershire pale ale? This one’s new to us.

It feels as if we’re getting a pretty good idea of what it must have been like to wander through Stokes Croft and see this substantial brewery occupying most of a block.

But here’s one more nice little detail, from a court case of 1894, as reported in The Bristol Mercury for 4 October that year:

A BREWER FINED FOR OBSTRUCTION.

Robert William Miller, of Stoke’s Croft Brewery, was summoned for causing an obstruction, by allowing thirty barrels to remain in Moon Street, and eight boxes on the footway in Upper York Street, for three-quarters of an hour. The evidence of the police showed that the obstruction was noticed on the afternoon of the 19th… Evan Drew, a cooper in the defendant’s employ, and John Lewis, defendant’s mineral water foreman, gave evidence… and declared that these cases were only left on the pavement after being delivered by the railway company for time sufficient to allow of their being examined… Supt. Croker said that Drew in 1893 was summoned on behalf of Mr Miller for obstruction and fined 5s and costs; and in August last Mr Miller was  fined 20s and coots for a similar offence. The Bench now imposed a fine of 40s and costs.

So, as well as those smoking chimneys and the smell of the mash, you might also have noticed carts coming and going and found the pavements cluttered with casks and boxes.

Frustratingly, what we can’t find is a photograph of the brewery. There are shots of Stokes Croft with it just out of view but none of the brewery itself. Even the usually reliable Britain From Above collection only gives us a murky, grainy, distant image of a box-like shape that might be the brewery as it looked in 1921. If you know of any images we’ve missed, do shout.

What is there to see today? Not much. The corner where the brewery once stood is now home to a modern block of shops and flats although the Lakota nightclub on Upper York Street does occupy an old brewery building – the former Victorian malthouse, later the mineral water bottling plant.

At the time of writing, you can also pop across the road and visit Basement Beer, one of Bristol’s newest breweries. So new, in fact, that we’ve not had a chance to drop in ourselves.