Oct 3, 2020


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Early common brewers and their legacy

Considered as either the father of one of the great early brewers of Burton ale or perhaps himself as one, Benjamin Wilson was a man of honor. Nonetheless, he was, indubitably, the pioneer of the most reputed family-owned firm and the staple trade of Burton. Benjamin founded a trade that was all-new for its simple community, set up an unmatchable mercantile house of its time, and ensured the continued reputation of his business among his clientele. He did all this while taking full advantage of Burton’s locality.

With the kind of finesse he had achieved with his brewery, he regarded it as the best legacy he could leave for his children. And it was this same kind of excellence that was, later, diligently preserved by his sons and nephew, and finally his grandnephew. Benjamin Wilson had the character of a practical man, simple in his ways, and warm in his renderings – affectionately called ‘Old Benjamin Wilson.’

In the days of old Benjamin Wilson, when the roads were few, the High Street was unpaved, and the transport was sluggish – it took a ride of 10 days to reach London. And by then, no one at Burton had a clue about London’s growing market. Wilson had already reached out to the Baltic regions (St Petersburgh in particular).

The ‘strong English beer,’ as described by George Fowler in ‘Lives of Sovereigns of Russia,’ was first introduced as a luxury in Czar Peter the great’s imperial banquets, and later on, became a trendy, all-consumed, beverage in his court. After this, Wilson was the only one indulging in foreign trade and had the greatest brewhouses in the town.

This trade to the Baltic was made accessible with the Trent Navigation that extended to Gainsborough. Through here, the Burton ale found its straightforward way, connected via the Hull – the chief English port for Baltic routes – mostly in barter exchange. All the important merchants, with transactions to Russia, were well-informed in the utilization of timber, iron, flax, hemp, and other commodities expected to pay off in huge profits.

In 1834 John Marston established J.Marston & Son at the Horninglow Brewery in Burton Upon Trent
In 1834 John Marston established J.Marston & Son at the Horninglow Brewery in Burton Upon Trent. Photo credits: marstonsbrewery.co.uk

After Benjamin retired in 1773, his son, John Walker Wilson, took upon a newly-built brewhouse somewhere on New Street. In 1774, he sold-off his father’s running operations to his brothers: William and Benjamin. As per the periodicals, there were two large brewhouses at that time, with the third waiting to be assigned. William eventually sold off his half of the shares to Benjamin junior, who saw to it that the standard of success, set by his father, was duly met.

He was no short of a perfectionist, only purchasing sound barley from farmers to the east of Burton, in areas of Leicestershire and South Derbyshire or from wholesalers in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. He scored hops from Kent and Worcestershire and hired skilled labor for cautious production of malt in his very own malthouses.

Since Benjamin Wilson had no children, he brought his sister’s son, Samuel Allsopp, into the business and taught him the ropes of brewing and trade. Benjamin also dabbled in the merchandise with his contacts from the brewing business. After the collapse in the merchandising market, he retired early, leaving the stocks and farms in the capable hands of his nephew. At the age of twenty-four, Samuel became the head of the leading and oldest breweries in the country. Benjamin died in 1812.

When John Walker Wilson came back to Burton on learning the success of Wilson and sons’ breweries, Benjamin took the bloke into the partnership with him. Soon the problems arose with John expressing his conflicting interests over managing the breweries. He argued for setting up home-based trades also, but Benjamin was reluctant in his choice of foreign dealings only. The pair split up with John, as we previously mentioned, going local. However, in 1790, he contracted his New Street brewery to Henry Evans, based in Old Crown Inn.

Henry Evans was a small-time brewer of the 18th century. His father, a wealthy merchant from Derby, got him a property on the west side of the High Street. He founded two malthouses and a brewery on the premises and later leased-out an estate at Cauldwell (Derbyshire), where he passed away in 1805. In 1791, Evans betrothed his daughter, Martha, to William Worthington and settled with John Walker Wilson’s brewery on High Street. Soon afterward, Worthington also acquired Evan’s property on High Street upon his death.

Another celebrated common brewer of the mid 18th century was Samuel Sketchley, a Nottingham barkeep, who started working as a brewer in Burton from 1741. Approximately in 1752, he was running his own brewery in Horninglow Street. Sketchley’s interests in Baltic trades were extensive, earning him substantial profits. In 1758, he built a warehouse for storage on the northern end of the High Street. After he died in 1775, his sons, Samuel and William, took control of the operations. However, by the late 1780s, both of them had shifted to Newark and came back in 1790 to sell the Horninglow Street brewery to Benjamin junior.

The other two common brewers who had established their breweries in the 1750s were Joseph Clay and Charles Leeson. In 1751, Clay was a Derby maltster who purchased the Lamb inn for his brewery on the south side of Horninglow Street. He died in 1800, and later his youngest son, Joseph Clay, opened the gates of one of the first banks in Burton and passed on the administration of his father’s brewery to another maltster, Thomas Salt. After some time, Salt was maintaining it as part of his brewery on High Street.

Charles Leeson launched his ale business in 1753, that too, on the south side of Horninglow Street. He passed away in 1794, and his son in 1800. Another son of Clay, also Joseph, then acquired the Leeson brewery. 

Other than Allsopp, there were only two other brewers that continued their business into the next century: William Worthington and William Bass. Worthington was a cooper who came to Burton in 1744, and young Bass was the owner of a smallholding in Hinkley, newly entered into a carrier-business with his brother.

Check out our next articles in this series to know more about the Bass Family and the history behind the legendary ‘Bass ale.’

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Burton Upon Trent History

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