Wolverton’s First Brewery?

Brewing beer is an ancient and simple craft that doesn’t require sophisticated equipment and can be a cottage industry. In fact it was not until the 18th century, when larger breweries started up in London, that brewing began on an industrial scale. Inns and alehouses typically brewed their own beer and this practice was still common in Stony Stratford in the early part of the 19th century. As you might imagine quality control could be erratic. The specialist part of beer making, producing the malt, was made by maltsters who had the facilities for roasting the germinating barley. There were two maltsters in Stony Stratford.

When New Wolverton came into existence in 1838 there were new opportunities for those wishing to serve the drinking public. First into the field were Joseph Clare, owner of the Cock, and John Congreve, a Stony Stratford solicitor, who quickly formed a partnership to build the Radcliffe Arms adjacent to the site of the first station. In their enthusiasm to make a quick fortune they built too hastily, because the station was moved to the south in 1840 and the newly built Radcliffe Arms was isolated. (The full story can be read here.) They then prevailed on the Radcliffe Trustees to lease another acre outside Wolverton and they built the Royal Engineer in 1841.

One peculiarity that Wolverton suffered from the beginning is that the Radcliffe Trust made it a condition of sale that no licensed premises were allowed on railway property. I suspect the early intervention of Messrs Congreve and Clare behind the insertion of this covenant. Whether or not this is true or that there was some purer motive behind this clause, the fact renaming that both the Radcliffe Arms and the Royal Engineer were built outside Wolverton as it then was.

This was not a very good environment for brewing, or was it?

Let me briefly explain the Brewing Act of 1830. This was designed to encourage the drinking of beer rather than more harmful beverages like gin and also to break the monopoly that local magistrates had over licensing. The new act allowed anyone to brew beer and sell it on the premises on payment of a fee of 2 guineas (just over £2). By 1840 some 45,000 people had taken advantage of the opportunity. Most of these places were known as beer shops.

Wolverton was a special case. With a population quickly equalling that of Stony Stratford there was clearly a market, but there was the issue of the covenant. Congreve and Clare had established a monopoly in public houses but this did not apparently stop the creation of beer shops, and therefore small breweries.

Thomas Carter, who had a small brewery in Stony Stratford on the High Street, moved to Wolverton in the early 1840s. It is not known where he set up shop, but since 8 properties were built at the north end of Bury Street expressly for shops it is likely that it was one of these. It was a retail as well as manufacturing operation and those who can remember the old off-licences, where people could take a  jug along and have it filled with beer will understand the set up. Thomas Carter, who was about 50 at the time, may, with some fairness be claimed as Wolverton’s first brewer.

 Also in the same period Benjamin Blakey had a beer shop in Wolverton. Neither man was there in 1851 so it would seem that their enterprise was short lived.

One who did prevail was a man called George Spinks. He was an early arrival in Wolverton and established his Locomotive Eating House at the very north end of Bury street beside the canal. He did not immediately establish a beer shop and the temperance-minded Hugh Stowell Brown wrote approvingly of him in his later memoirs. Spinks at any rate did establish a beer shop in the late 1840s and judging by the letters written by Congreve and Clare to the Radcliffe Trustees he must have been serious competition to the licensed pub owners. Beer shop owners did sneak in under the radar. The licence was granted by central government and magistrates had no power over them. The railway company did not care to get involved and Spinks and others were probably free to sell
unimpeded. The only recourse that Congreve and Clare had was to get the Trust to put pressure on the railway board. Eventually they did, and there are some letters written in the 1850s to ask the railway company to investigate.

Nothing immediately came of this and one gets the impression that the railway board were reluctant to get involved and to work on the assumption that on a technicality at least they were not breaking the covenant. Had they wished to so anything about it they had a simple remedy as landlords of the property that Spinks was renting, but plainly they chose to do nothing about it.

The matter was only resolved in about 1856 when three northern streets of houses and that part of Bury Street where Spinks had his shop were demolished to create space for more workshops. George Spinks then moved his family and his business to Lancashire.

By this time local brewing operations were no longer necessary. There were two breweries in Stony Stratford, one in Newport Pagnell and Phipps and NBC in Northampton had been established. In time many small breweries were absorbed and the idea of pubs brewing their own beer was out of date. However, for a brief period, Wolverton did have a brewery of sorts.

The Beer Shop

Today the media headlines are all about binge drinking and the apparently low cost of alcohol. Citizens are concerned. Governments are concerned. Something must be done!
It was ever thus.
In 1830 Parliament passed the Beer Act. There were serious concerns in those days about the consumption of cheap gin, then a fairly recent invention. The act was designed to promote beer as a more healthy beverage than gin and enable any rate-payer to apply for a 2 guinea license from the excise authorities to brew and sell beer from their home. The Beer Shop was born. They were distinct from taverns and alehouses, usually larger operations, which were still required to get their license from the Justices of the Peace. So in the context of Wolverton the proprietors of the Radcliffe Arms and later the Royal Engineer would need to make application for their licenses to the local bench, whereas George Spinks, the owner of the Locomotive Beer Shop needed only to pay his two guineas to the Excise and set up his own brewing pails to remain in business. Later in the century successive acts of 1869 and 1872 brought all establishments selling or dispensing alcohol under much tighter control.
Wolverton only ever had one beer shop. It was located at the very north end of Bury Street beside the canal. It probably opened in 1840, as soon as it had been built, and operated as an Eating House and Beer Shop until it was pulled down in the later part of the 1850s to make way for workshop expansion.

The shop was operated by George Spinks and his wife Eleanor. Spinks was born in Spalding in Lincolnshire and somehow fetched up in Caernarvonshire where he met and married his wife and where their first child was born. By some means or other he heard of Wolverton and moved there in 1840 to set up his Eating House. Given the fact that the new population was largely male and single at that time I imagine they did a good business.  While in Wolverton they ran a busy household. In 1841 they had four lodgers and a servant and in 1851 five children and a servant. Given that the front room was taken up by shop activities there was very little living space for the family.

Hugh Stowell Brown, who worked in Wolverton as a young man from 1840 to 1843 and later had a career as an eminent Baptist preacher in Liverpool offers us this little vignette: 

At the station close to the canal bank there was a small temperance coffee-house, kept by a man named Spinks. A few of us thought that we might hold a Sunday School there. We obtained the use of the room, and started the Sunday School, and I taught there on Sunday forenoon and afternoon for some time. That was the first and for more than a year the only religious service of any kind in Wolverton.

I suppose that his description of the establishment as a “temperance coffee-house” reflects the prevailing view of the day that beer was not essentially a harmful drink.