12 Sept. 2023, Thetford: A talk on beer, brewing and supplying pubs in the 18th century

The Norfolk Museums Service will host a talk by historian Margaret Bird at the Ancient House Museum at Thetford on Tuesday 12 September 2023 at 2 pm.

Entitled ‘Beer, brewing and supplying Norfolk’s public houses in the 18th century’, it is a ticket-only event. Details on buying tickets are at the foot of this page. The talk will focus on the problems facing the rural brewer and his workforce.

Margaret Bird was an honorary research fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, from 2006 to 2021. She is the editor and author of nine volumes on the Norfolk diarist Mary Hardy, whose portrait is at the top of the page. The diarist, as the wife and mother of Norfolk brewers, wrote of working lives in the industry every day for 36 years until her death in 1809 aged 75.

Vertical integration in the brewing industry

Like almost all wholesale brewers in East Anglia in the diarist’s period the Hardys were farmers and maltsters as well. They also had a string of public houses across a wide radius. The talk will examine the benefits and disadvantages of what later became characterised as ‘vertical integration’.

It was more than diversification, which is generally adopted to spread risk. Vertical integration offers control, in terms of quality of the product, supply and liquidity.

By growing their own barley and wheat, at the ‘upstream’ end, the Hardys as maltsters and millers could produce the type of raw material they needed. By using their own malt, kilned to the temperatures required for different brews, the family were sure of what went into their beer. And by renting, owning or otherwise ‘tying’ their outlets they had some control over the retail end ‘downstream’.

Competition in the trade

They were not alone. Competition was fierce in their region, famed for its good brewing springwater, top-quality malting barley (seen at the banner) and relatively easy means of distribution on level ground and by navigable waterway and the sea.

NE Norfolk breweries in the 1780s

The 26 ‘common’ (wholesale) breweries trading in north-east Norfolk in the 1780s, from a slide used in the talk

In north-east Norfolk alone, 26 commercial breweries were trading towards the end of the 18th century; some of these were very large indeed in provincial terms.

The village of Coltishall, where Mary Hardy wrote her diary for seven years, had three. And when they moved to Letheringsett, south of Blakeney and Cley, there were breweries nearby at Cawston, Guist, Binham and Reepham. The first three of these did not survive the difficult trading conditions of the time. They closed during the years Mary Hardy wrote her diary at Letheringsett 1781–1809.

You can read more about Mary Hardy and her incomparable record on the Home page of this website.

Delivering the beer

The weather and the horse were the two greatest problems facing draymen in the 18th century. Struggling in the snow to reach the village brewer’s tied houses across a 25-mile radius the Hardys’ men managed to get through when even the mails were stopped across the country.

A drayhorse in 1799

A drayhorse eases his muscles at the end of a delivery, his tack on the ground. The drayman perches among the barrels

The men delivered to the public houses on top of all their other tasks in the fields and in the maltings and brewery. After a long working day they could be called upon to make a delivery in the dark of a winter’s night.

The horses too worked extremely hard. In wintry conditions the carts and wagons were difficult to handle and serious accidents occurred. One drayman, Robert Lound, had his thigh crushed and may never have worked again. Another, Thomas Baldwin, broke his arm and later his leg and was off work for months.

Distances of 2500 miles a year, at 3 mph

It is sometimes thought that villagers led static lives in the days before the railways came, followed by the car and good roads. This is far from the reality. Individual members of the workforce of a mixed concern like the Hardys’ achieved easily 50 miles a week, and often much more.

In the difficult period 1781–82, when William Hardy was running two breweries, the mileages covered by his team were heroic. William Lamb of Letheringsett, near the north Norfolk coast, lumbered 555 miles a month with the beer cart or wagon. He served a 37-mile radius right down to the Yare valley at Limpenhoe and the Bure marshes at Upton.

Buying tickets at £5.00 each

The Norfolk Museums Service website gives advice on buying tickets online. Each ticket costs £5.00, and advance payment is strongly recommended. The event is free for Friends of the Ancient House Museum.

The Ancient House is a Tudor building set in the centre of the town on the old London road at 21–23 White Hart Street, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 1AA, tel. 01842 752599. Parking is available across the main road from the museum.

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Margaret Bird

Margaret Bird in 2016

The editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes

You can read about the historian Margaret Bird on the link above

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