Burning Questions

Before moving on to the Trent Valley Brewery, I’ve found a little more information to share on the City Brewery, regarding what happened on the night of the fire, and in the aftermath.

The Maltings survived the fire that destroyed the majority of the City Brewery in 1916.

At a Lichfield City Council meeting in November 1916, two versions of events were heard by those present. The report by Mr Salford, Captain of the City Fire Brigade, had already been accepted by the General Purposes Committee who told the meeting that they were satisfied with the work and conduct of the brigade, and proposed that the report, which I’ve summarised below, be adopted.

At quarter past five on the morning of 25th October 1916, the police telephoned him to say that the City Brewery was on fire. On hearing the news he turned out and met Fireman Gilbert in Lombard St, who was on his way to tell the Captain and the horsemen that they were needed. His own alarm bell had not rung, as it was out of order.  On arriving at the Fire Station, some of the crew had already left with the hose cart and so, with the help of two others, he attached horses to the engine. On arriving at the Birmingham Rd, it seemed to the fire had been burning for some time. The engine was set up to work from the City Brewery basin of the canal with two lines of hoses, one of which was used inside the malt house (half of which was saved), and the other used to protect the boiler room (also saved). At some point, other crews arrived  and though they battled hard against the fire in other parts of the brewery, it was beyond saving. The Captain believed that even if the other brigades had arrived at the same time as the City Brigade, the outcome would still have been the same, as the fire had already taken too much of a hold. A third line was set up at a hydrant in the brewery yard, but as the pressure was poor it was useless when trying to tackle the blaze in the high buildings and so was used on the wooden buildings between the brewery and the railway line, which were damaged but saved.

The other brigades in attendance left in the afternoon, with the Lichfield City Brigade returning to the Fire Station at 6.30pm. The Captain then returned at 8 o’clock to check the premises and was satisfied that it was safe. However, early the next morning, he received a call to say that something was burning at the brewery. This turned out to be one of the vats on the top floor and again, the poor pressure from the hydrant hindered the operation. However,the Captain didn’t believe it worthwhile getting the steamer out and left them (the brewery employees?) the standpipe and hose.

The main fire was thought to have started in the grinding room. Only one man was on duty and the Captain considered this insufficient cover. He also felt that there should have been a means for them to telephone for help immediately, without having to call for others to telephone and lose valuable time.

Other members of the Council weren’t so quick to accept the report and questioned the delay in responding, the lack of water pressure, and the out of order fire bell. The most critical of those present at the meeting, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Alderman Thomas Andrews, the City Brewery’s Managing Director. Despite initially claiming that he didn’t want to say too much, as he felt too strongly, the account he gave of the fire called into question the effectiveness of the Brigade (at one point Mr Andrews went as far as to call them ‘absolutely useless’). To summarise Mr Andrews’ version of events:

On discovering the fire, the man at the brewery told the cashier to call the police. An initial call was made at 4.45 am but due to difficulties getting through, a second call had to be made at 5.15 am. Mr Andrews admitted that as he had not been notified of the fire until just before 6 o’clock, much of his version of events was based on what he’d heard from others, but believed that it could be substantiated.  He’d been told that the brigade arrived around quarter to or ten to six and then there were delays in getting to work as the hose burst two or three times. It had also been reported to him that at this time there was ‘absolutely no discipline or method’ amongst the fire brigade.  Mr Andrews believed that if the Captain had followed his advice and sent his men into the brewery building to fight the advancing fire (something the Captain had refused to allow), then it would have been saved. He rejected the Captain’s claims that the brigade had saved the malt house, suggesting that that the hoses had only been turned onto this building at his and another brewery employee’s suggestion. Had it not been for this and the fact that the head maltster had gone inside to fight the advancing flames (with a rope around his waist in case he was overcome by fumes), then in his opinion, the malt house would also have been lost.  

The Deputy Mayor acknowledged that Mr Andrews’ statements called for very serious consideration, but gave the brigade credit for doing everything within the means at their disposal, event though their means were absolutely inadequate! He considered half an hour to turn out reasonable, in view of the fact they were an amateur brigade but believed that the telephone call issues had lead to an unfortunate loss of time. Another of those present, Lord Charnwood, was concerned in relation to the telephone service, and  the fact that there had been a serious allegation as to a mistake of judgement by the Captain (although believed that no doubt he had done his best). He suggested that a small sub-committee should be set up to examine the facts in more detail. Some of those present suggested there should be an independent enquiry, and other expressed concern that any members of the General Purposes Committee taking part in the enquiry may be biased towards their brigade’s captain. Eventually it was decided that the committee be made up of councillors, with the findings of the report presented to the whole Council (at a later date, an independent enquiry was deemed more appropriate after all).

I have found a report from the Annual Meeting of the shareholders of the City Brewery held in December 1916. The Chair, Mr H J C Winterton, stated that, due to the difficulties in rebuilding at the present time, it was difficult to know what the future had in store. The Ministry of Munitions had expressed their desire to protect and repair the partially destroyed buildings and he hoped that if manufacturing was able to resume at an early enough date, the company’s losses would be very slight.

We of course know that what the future had in store.  The City Brewery was never rebuilt and what remained was sold to Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries in 1917. The maltings remained operational until 2005, and is in the process of being converted to apartments.

I haven’t yet been able to find anything on the outcome of the enquiry, so I am unsure as to whether or not the Captain of the City Fire Brigade was found to be negligent in his duties. However, surely true negligence and error of judgement would have been to send ill-equipped men into a burning building (even with the ‘precaution’ of a rope around the waist!). The brewery may have been lost that night, but thankfully, lives were not.

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Thirsty Work

My efforts to find out more about the City Brewery (Lichfield) Co were rewarded this week when I came across the work of Alfred Barnard. Between 1889 and 1891, Mr Barnard toured more than 100 breweries recording his visits and research across four epic volumes known as ‘The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland.

Happily, Mr Barnard considered two of our breweries here in Lichfield to be noted – the aforementioned City Brewery Company, and the Trent Valley Brewery Company (which I shall cover in another post). Although by and large, both breweries have disappeared, we can still take a look at these buildings through Mr Barnard’s eyes (though sadly not his tastebuds).

And so to the City Brewery in 1891, seventeen years old and,

‘a stately block of red-brick buildings, five storeys high…..built on the Company’s own freehold land, facing the South Staffordshire Railway, from which a siding has been planned, and will shortly be constructed. Immediately at the back of the brew house there is a small harbour on the Birmingham Canal, together with a wharf and warehouse, so that the brewery possesses every convenience for land and water carriage’.

The malt house (which survives today) is about to be built to the right of the West Brewery Yard and on-site there is also:

– a well, 70 feet deep from where water is pumped up to a reservoir in the roof of the brew house.

– a washing out shed, where the casks are cleaned, next to a cooperage employing four men

–  a horse-chop room (just to clarify this was where food for the horses was prepared!)

– new model stables with six stalls, each with a Staffordshire blue-brick manger and across the yard, the head horse keeper’s house and old stables with eighteen stalls (plus a further three for travellers ‘nags’)

– a dray shed that accommodates twelve drays

–  the  brewery foreman’s house and other cottages for workers behind the cask washing department

–  a store for maturing old ales, a blacksmith’s shop and a carriage house on the wharf

–  general offices near the main entrance, just past the engine-room (with a horizontal engine of fifteen horse power and two Cornish steel boilers).

– a bottling department where ales and stouts are bottled for the firm’s public houses (there is a further bottling store at St Mary’s Chambers in the city).

– the manager’s house with an adjoining two storey building containing a counting-house, cashiers office, a manager’s office and a board-room.

Mr Barnard doesn’t record the names of those who live and work at the City Brewery, together with their families, but of course the census helps us with this (the one below is for 1891, the year of the visit).

As discussed in earlier posts, most of the brewery was lost to a fire in the early hours of an October morning in 1916. After burning for ten hours, all that was saved the malt house and the manager’s house and offices (I think this is on the left of the picture. Today it is divided into three houses). Seventy men lost their job, and possibly some of them lost their homes.

I’ve been thinking about the visual differences of the scene today, but of course the sounds and smells have also disappeared. Would there have been a malty aroma mingling in the air with the smoke from the chimneys, and the trains? The sound of horses hooves and the noise of the engine room? As for a taste of the City Brewery, all that’s left now are the empty bottles that turn up in collections across the world, and so we shall have to take Mr Barnard’s word for it that the East India Pale Ale was ‘pleasant to the taste, bright and invigorating, and well-flavoured with the hop’, that the bitter ale was ‘clean to the palate, of light-specific gravity, sparkling as champagne, and highly suitable for family use’, that the XXX old ales were the most suitable drink for a working man, and the stout, although heavy was wholesome and nutritious. Cheers, Mr Barnard!

Notes

This was Mr Barnard’s follow up to his earlier tour of every whisky distillery in the UK – 162 in all.

The remaining houses and offices together with the malt house can be seen from the Birmingham Rd, next to Magnet.

Huge hat tip to Steve Williams and his blog here as this is where I discovered that the four volumes were available on line.

I have only included a fraction of the information given by Mr Barnard. Anyone who wishes to read the accounts for themselves (there is a lot more detail on the brewing process for example), or to look at some of the other breweries included, can find it here on the Ask About Ireland website

Concrete Evidence

Due to a vague notion I had that canals had to follow a straight line, my previous attempt to follow the route of the Wyrley & Essington canal from the London Rd bridge to Sandfields Pumping Station had not been a resounding success. Determined to find the stretch of the Curly Wyrley (the canal’s nickname derived from the way it, ahem, doesn’t follow a straight line) that I’d missed,  I had a walk along the Birmingham Rd. Near to the Duke of Wellington, half a canal bridge and two modern street names – ‘Wyrley Close’ and ‘Essington Close – confirmed that this had once been part of the route of the canal between Shortbutts Lane and Sandfields.

Canal where?

Essington Close and Wyrley Close to the left as you look at the photo.

Standing in Essington Close looking back up the line of the canal towards the bridge.

In fact, I’d already been over the bridge plenty of times before but just never taken any notice of the clues staring me in the face. My excuse is that my head is always turned the other way, ready to look out for the old Maltings on the other side of the road.

Lichfield Maltings

One of my first friends in Lichfield used to live on the site.  One of our favourite topics of conversation, inevitably, was the history of the building we could see from her house, especially on those occasions when my friend had chatted with one of the employees and was able to regale me with tales of burning buildings, footsteps and orchards.  Through these chats and a bit of reading, we discovered that the malthouse had belonged to The City Brewery Company (Lichfield). In October 1916, a fire destroyed most of the brewery leaving only this building, and the red brick brewery manager’s house and offices (see my earlier post on the fire here). Shortly afterwards, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries took over the site.

What we didn’t appreciate enough at the time is that as we were scouring the archives for events that took place nearly a century ago, history was also happening right there under our noses – in 2004, this was one of only six remaining operational floor maltings in the country.The following year, it closed and the building was eventually purchased by a propery developer. Thanks to a Historic Building Assessment and photographs from urban explorers, the architectural features of the building have been documented. However, I wish we’d have talked to more people and asked more questions and recorded the first hand experiences of people doing a job that would very shortly cease to exist, in a building that would soon no longer be used for its primary purpose. You live and learn….

After standing unused for several years, scaffolding now surrounds the malthouse, and the adjoining modern shed has now gone. This could be an indication that the building’s transformation from industrial to residential use is now underway.  It seems to me that giving new life to an old building like this is a good way to balance the need to protect the past and the need to look to the future.  I hope that wherever possible the old features that tell the story of the building’s old life are retained, as recommended by the Historic Building Consultant’s assessment.

On the opposite side of the road to the Maltings, I followed a drive that lead under a railway bridge to some rusting gates. Until I got home and looked at an old map, I had no idea that this had formerly been a concrete works. Back in 1986, the Domesday project recorded that this was once the site of Bison Concrete. Unlike the canal and the maltings, I can see no reference to the site’s recent history. Maybe the time when we celebrate concrete is still to come…

I think that those of us that don’t have the nerve to explore & photograph the inside of derelict buildings or the necessary funds to pay for the physical restoration of a building, do have another weapon that we can employ in the defence of our history – the ability to listen.

The three places I visited above are all a part of Lichfield’s industrial heritage. On my way over to them, I passed a fourth – Sandfields Pumping Station. David Moore is gaining a lot of support for his campaign to safeguard this overlooked yet important part of our social and industrial history. You can listen to what he has to say by visiting his blog here!

Notes

I think my research could also be described as a bit ‘curly wurly’ as I never seem to be able to resist taking the scenic route instead of going from A to B. When I was on the Domesday site, I read some of the other entries for the Birmingham Rd area and the one that especially caught my eye was ‘Shire Horses – Lichfield’, with an accompanying photograph of said horses emerging from stables on the Birmingham Rd. Does anyone know anything about these in addition to the short description here?

On a final curly wurly note, this tree on the Birmingham Rd looks like it has teeth.  The one next to it doesn’t, so I’m not sure why…

Bark worse than its bite?

Sources:

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/maltings

City Brewery Co (Lichfield) Fire 1916

Lichfield Maltings taken from Magnet car park
moments before my camera broke!



During the 19th century beer boom, brewing was the most important industry in Lichfield(1), which was home to five breweries during the period(2). Eventually, most of these merged and were taken over by some of the big companies but we do still have some interesting buildings around the City to remind us of the industry.

One of these is the former Lichfield Maltings (a grade II listed building), on the Birmingham Rd, once the malthouse for The City Brewery Co, formed in 1874. Along with the manager’s house/offices, it survived the huge fire that destroyed the rest of the brewery.

The fire started a few hours before dawn, on an October morning in 1916. The Lichfield Mercury reported that ‘Never has a conflagration of such magnitude ever been witnessed in the City’. The fire burned for around 10 hours, and it took five local Fire Brigades and 750,000 gallons of water to extinguish it.

The Mercury suggested that the people of Lichfield would ‘extend their sincerest sympathies to the directors and shareholders for the severe loss’, with estimates for the damage running to ‘not less than £30,000’, although this was covered by insurance. I’m sure the people of Lichfield’s sincerest sympathies would be also have been extended to the 70 workmen, left without a job following the blaze.(3)

In the days that followed, the City’s provision for dealing with fires was criticised. People wanted to know why it had taken thirty minutes for the Lichfield brigade to arrive at the scene of the fire, when other brigades in surrounding areas were said to turn out in less than ten. It added fuel to the ongoing campaign for a motor fire engine in Lichfield. Presumably, the brigade was still using the steam engine presented to Lichfield by Albert Worthington (the brewer!) in 1898, which was housed in the former police station at the Guildhall5. Opponents of a motor engine had argued that when attending rural fires (which most fires at the time were), the wheels wouldn’t be able to grip ploughed land and fields. It took another six years, but in 1922 the city got its first motor engine, with half the cost being met by the City’s rural district.(4)

Another view of the Maltings, taken at dusk, hence the gloom

Following the fire, the City Brewery was bought by Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries and the Maltings remained in operation until 2005. A visit by the Brewery History Society to the site at this time suggests a range of economic and practical reasons led to its closure, including a reduction in demand for floor made malt and new hygiene regulations. The building is currently owned by a property development company, who submitted an successful application to Lichfield District Council in 2008 for the building to be converted into apartments. Perhaps I should get out more, but the planning application actually makes for interesting reading as it includes a historic building assessment.

I’ll try and have a look at some of the other old breweries in the coming weeks.

Sources:

1 & 4 Lichfield: Public services’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990)
2 The Old Pubs of Lichfield – John Shaw
3 The Lichfield Mercury Archives, accessed at Lichfield Records Office