Beer history london

What on earth is a ‘public wharfinger’?

We know London has numerous reminders of the paternalistic empire building of its breweries, from suburban sports grounds to social housing, but it had never occurred to us that they might also have their own wharves.

“The above title may occasion some surprise to many in the employ of the Company. They may have heard of a Wharf somewhere on the riverside where some of our beer was shipped or malt landed. But “Public Wharfingers” ??? As a matter of fact the Company have been members of The Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London for many years, and have carried on a considerable business as such, for a very long period.”

Truman’s Black Eagle No 2, July 1930, pp.27-29

We recently obtained some editions of The Black Eagle Magazine, the annual publication of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., which consisted of an eclectic mix of sporting reports; reminisces from various Chairmen about their holidays; jokes, mottos and wise words; and occasionally a nice picture and profile of an improved pub.

In amongst the filler, there are also some genuinely interesting insights into the many avenues and alleyways explored by the Truman enterprise.

In the July 1930 edition there is a piece on Trumans as “Public Wharfingers” – that is, as members of the Association of Public Wharfingers of the Port of London.

The piece itself is more colourful than informative, being somewhat vague about when this area of the business started or what exactly was traded on a day-to-day basis.

There is a picture of the wharf in Wapping and another of a boat called The Ben Truman loaded with barrels, but no significant information to go with it.

Towards the end we find out that…

“Besides performing useful services for the Brewery, for which of course it primarily exists, many thousands of tons are landed annually for storage and distribution, and in some years rubber to the value of not less than two-and-a-half millions sterling has passed over the wharf and been shipped into craft en route to New York and other places abroad… There are other Breweries who own or use waterside premises in the course of their business, but Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. are alone, so far as the writer is aware, in carrying on also the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT OF LONDON.”

This sent us down a bit of a rabbithole looking for evidence of other breweries setting up as wharfingers – a word we didn’t even know until we read this article.

To be clear, this isn’t just a case of using vessels for transport – this is a separate business landing and storing a whole range of goods.

Just two years later, there was another article on the same subject in The Black Eagle.

This gave a purchase date for the wharf – 1841 – and provides a little more detail:

About 1889 HOYS began to make their appearance. These were usually sailing barges, and they undertook to sail regularly from an advertised Receiving Wharf in London, and deliver a general cargo to places round about the mouth of the Thames – as far as Dover on the one hand and Aldeburgh on the other”. 

Truman’s Black Eagle No 4, July 1932

The piece then goes on to talk about competition from the railways and motor transport, and the winding up of the wharf:

“About 1923, however, motor transport began to make itself felt, and by the end of 1924 it had become such a severe competitor that one by one the Hoys had to give up for want of support, and none are now in existence.”

Unfortunately motor transport not only killed the old Hoys, it very soon began to threaten The Ben Truman also.

Soon after the war, doubts began to exist as to the wisdom of continuing to send our beer to Chatham by water. Would not motors do the work quicker, and – with so much less handling – cheaper? Opinions as to this differed for a time.

There was a very natural disinclination to break the intimate link nearly a century old-between Brick Lane and Old Father Thames; but ultimately, as it was bound to do sooner or later, sentiment had to give way to modern methods, and the change from Chatham to Gravesend put an end finally to any doubts which may have still existed. It was by now quite apparent that the wharf had outlived its usefulness, at any rate so far as the Company’s business was concerned, and by the time this is in print, to the very great regret of all those who have been associated with for so many years, Black Eagle Wharf will have passed into other hands, and TRUMAN, HANBURY, BUXTON & Co., Ltd., will no longer be carrying on the business of PUBLIC WHARFINGERS of the PORT of LONDON.”

We found it interesting that there was no mention in 1930 of any doubts about its viability.

Perhaps even the management didn’t even have this part of the business on their radar.

There were clearly plenty of Brewery Wharves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each of which now seems to be the site of a “stunning collections of 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartments”.

But we haven’t yet found much information about how those wharfing operations, including Truman’s, actually worked.

If anyone knows anything further about this interesting chapter of Truman’s history, or indeed anything similar at other breweries, we’d love to hear it.

And can anyone work out if any of the buildings in the pic above are still there on Wapping High Street? It’s not immediately obvious to us from Google Street View.

Beer history london

Cask ale in the 1930s: bugs, smellers and Baltic oak

“Casks are a great source of spoiling well-brewed beer…” That’s the judgement of J.A. Pryor, Chairman of the London brewery Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, writing in The Black Eagle in July 1930.

It’s interesting to see casks presented, first and foremost, as a problem to be solved.

At the same time, the brewery went to a lot of trouble to make sure its casks were as good as could be.

First, there’s the matter of material:

[No] expense or care is spared by T. H. B. & Co., to ensure first of all the purchase of the very best timber, which it may surprise some of you to know comes entirely from the Baltic. This is the only suitable wood in the world for making our casks. English oak is, alas, unsuitable, and only during the War years, when it was impossible to get Russian oak, did we have to use American and a small proportion of Austrian oak. Very unsuitable materials both, and I am glad to say we have none in use to-day.

Ron Pattinson has written about the use of Russian vs. American oak in British and Irish brewing as has Gary Gillman: “The disliked American taste was, evidently, the bright vanillin and coconut flavours familiar to anyone who knows bourbon whiskey or Chardonnay wine.”

Next, Mr Pryor talks about the cleaning of casks – going into some surprisingly squicky detail:

The cleaning of casks is vastly important, and each one as it comes into our London Cooperage is first of all “run in,” i.e., filled with boiling water, and allowed to stand for as long as possible. This is to soften any yeasty deposit there may be, and makes the subsequent washing easier.

Then he introduces an interesting bit of technology:

[The casks] are then taken to the “Goliath” machines, where they are subjected to eight separate processes of either raw steam or boiling liquor under pressure, and the outsides also scrubbed in water and brushed… By the way, it is well worth your while, if you can find time, to go and look at these machines in operation as they are uncannily human. We have a fine battery of them in London, and also at Burton.

Goliath cask-washing machine, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

It’s easy to think of the past – even ten years ago – as a kind of barbarous dark age. This article is a helpful reminder that even in the 1930s Truman’s was brewing scientifically:

After the casks leave the machine they are each placed on drying and cooling nozzles, and pure filtered air is driven into them under pressure. Great care is exercised over the Pure Air Filter, and the two plates following show air before and after filtration.

Unfiltered air and air after filtration, The Black Eagle, July 1930.

Except at the end of the process, of course, things suddenly get very ‘craft’, with the human nose coming into play:

Each cask is then “smelt” and “pricked,” i.e., any remaining pieces of broken shive, etc., are removed from the interior, before they are passed as fit to go into the cellar.

“Cask smeller” was a real, very skilled job and we can actually see cask smellers in action at another London brewery, Whitbread, in this film from 1959:

Pryor concludes with what might be read as a shot across the bows, or as encouragement to do the right thing, depending on your point of view:

This last work is of very real importance, and is entrusted to some of you, who make it a pride not to pass a suspicious cask. If you should by chance miss one you are pretty certain to hear of it, as each cask is again examined in the cellar before filling.

Beer history beer reviews

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.