A Storm Brewing

A comment from Mrs P on an earlier post about the City Brewery on the Birmingham Rd revealed another unhappy chapter in the story of Lichfield’s brewing industry.

In 1900, in many towns and cities across the north and west of the country, there was a huge rise in cases of what was originally thought to be alcohol related neuritis. Eventually doctors in Manchester, one of the worst hit places, began to suspect that alcohol may not be the cause.  After discovering arsenic in samples of local beer these suspicions were confirmed – people were in fact being poisoned.

There were thought be around six thousand cases of poisoning across the country, of which at least seventy were fatal.  On February 15th 1901 The Mercury reported that ninety one cases were discovered in the Lichfield urban district but there were no fatalities.

Samples from the City Brewery on the Birmingham Rd and the Lichfield Brewery on Upper St John St were taken. These tests showed that whilst beer from the City Brewery was arsenic free, the poison was present in beer brewed by the Lichfield Brewery.  Along with the other affected breweries across the country, they had been using contaminated brewing sugar from Bostock & Co of Liverpool. The sugar had been produced using sulphuric acid designed for industrial use, rather than of a food grade quality.  Bostock & Co blamed their supplier – a Leeds company called Nicholson & Son, whose defence was that Bostock & Co had not specified the need for ‘pure’ acid.

Offices of the former Lichfield Brewery, Upper St John St

Unsurprisingly, the City Brewery and another local rival, the Old Brewery on Sandford St were keen to inform consumers that their beers were arsenic free and took out large adverts in the Mercury announcing this. The Lichfield Brewery used the local press for a damage limitation exercise. On 12th December 1900, they printed the certificate that the public analyst and consulting chemist Dr Bostock Hill had issued to them from his laboratory in the Unity Buildings on Temple St, Birmingham, which included the following statement:

Gentlemen – I beg to report that I have analysed the three samples of Ales, and one of Stout, received from you on the 11th instant and find them to be PURE AND FREE FROM ARSENIC OR OTHER DELETERIOUS MATTER

Dr Bostock Hill’s opinion was also reported in the Mercury – he believed the brewery was not to blame and was instead a victim of circumstance. The report also praises the brewery for their honesty and openness in dealing with the matter noting that,

‘the strain on the executive has naturally been considerable, but it is in process (sic) of being completely relieved, The ordinary shareholders may possibly experience a slight temporary depression in the value of their holdings – nothing more; for the position of the company is now so secure, owing to its large reserve fund that the incident can only have a temporary effect, especially in view of the fact that it is one over which they had, under the circumstances, not the slightest control …despite the loss, the commercial value, importance and position of the Lichfield Brewery Company is quite unshaken’.

It seems the ‘considerable strain’ on the executive was relieved and the Lichfield Brewery continued for another thirty or so years, until Ind Coope & Allsopp Ltd took over the brewery and its 198 licensed houses in 1935.  So far, I have not been able to find a report into the strain on the health or livelihoods of those actually poisoned by the arsenical beer.

For a much fuller account of how events unfolded across the country, please read the article ‘Death in the beer-glass: the Manchester arsenic-in-beer epidemic of 1900-1 and the long-term poisoning of beer‘ by Matthew Copping. It also makes some very interesting points regarding how in addition to the complacency of the brewing industry, prejudice and stereotyping of those affected (mainly the working class) may also have contributed to these terrible events.

In the article, Matthew Copping describes the arsenic poisoning episode as a wake up call for those at fault, a phrase that’s has been heard again in recent days, due to the ongoing enquiry into contaminated meat. The timing of this post is actually coincidental (isn’t it, Mrs P?) and I don’t want to try too hard to draw parallels between these two events, separated by over a century. However, I think it is fair to say that, as in 1900, the public has been let down by complacency and broken systems once again.

Sources

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/poison.pdf

The Arsenic Century:How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play by James C. Whorton

http://www.weasteheritagetrail.co.uk/salford-people/biographies/entry/the-salford-poisoned-beer-scandal.htm

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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.

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