Friday, 23 December 2011

Aitken and wells again

What is it about James Aitken and  wells? I keep finding more about their troubles digging one. They seem to have been cursed.

The text below is a newspaper report of the opening of Aitken's new brewery in 1900. The chairman James Aitken's speech is of particular interest.

But let's start with a description of the lunch:
"The extensive new brewery which Messrs Aitken and Co. have erected in Falkirk. was formally opened on Wednesday afternoon, about 500 guests from all parts of the country, on the invitation of the firm, sat down to a sumptuous luncheon, which was served in the large packing room of the new works, which was specially lit with electricity for the occasion.

. . . . .

THE LUNCHEON. arrangements for the luncheon were of the most complete and satisfactory description, as will be understood when it is said that the purveying was in the hands of that well-known catering firm, Messrs Ferguson and Forrester, Street, Buchanan Street, Glasgow. The service for a large company as 500 guests was in itself a work of no little magnitude, but with a staff of about 60 waiters everything passed off a hitch. The purveying and serving were most ably supervised by Mr Moss, late of the House of Commons catering department, and now manager to Messrs Ferguson and Forrester. Mr James Aitken presided, and Mr A. Wilmot, who has been head brewer to the firm for seven years, was croupier. After justice had been, done to the recherche repast provided.
Falkirk Herald - Saturday 22 December 1900, page 7.
With 500 guests attending, this was quite a party. They'd been invited to Falkirk from all over the country. It must have cost a pretty penny. Aitken's had been through a few good decades of steady expansion and were clearly optimistic about the future. If only they'd known, eh, what was about to happen. The good times for Britain's brewing industry were nearing an end. Increased taxation, the reduction in pub licences and new leisure possibilities (such as football matches) all combined to drive down sales and reduce profits in the first decade of the 20th century. After that, things got much worse.

And I now also know that the head brewer from 1893 to at least 1900 was Mr A. Wilmot. Useful to know, that.

Those flash bastards using electric light. They were clearly out to impress.Though you should remember from an earlier description of the new brewery that it contained a generator.

"Mr James Haddow then proposed "Success to the Falkirk Brewery." In doing so, he said that the Falkirk Brewery was not an institution of mushroom growth. It was instituted in the year 1740, before the Jacobite rebellion, and that being so, they would agree with him that it was one of the landmarks of the country. (Applause.) Falkirk was celebrated for some things all over the world, and he need not tell them that they were light castings, made first at Carron, and now manufactured by about 20 or 30 different foundries. But what was quite as well known to-day was Falkirk Aitken's beer. (Applause.) The beer manufactured in Falkirk was known all over world, and in every colony over which the British flag flies. There was a saying that when the North Pole was discovered would find there a Scotchman, and very likely he would have with him a bottle of Aitken's beer with the big "A" on the label. (Loud laughter and applause.) The beer manufactured by their their esteemed host was known and appreciated second to none manufactured in the United Kingdom. (Applause.) Very great success had followed the old Falkirk Brewery for 150 years, and he was sure that they would all join with him in wishing that that success would not only continue to attend the new brewery, but that the business would be developed and extended as it deserved to be, and as he felt sure it would be through the energy and enterprise which was now being displayed by the gentleman who was at the head of affairs in the firm. (Applause.) In these days science played a most important part in the manufacture of certain goods. Mr Aitken had shown that he was quite alive to that fact, and in the fitting up of his new brewery he had taken advantage of every appliance and method known to science at the present moment He (Mr Haddow) had been told on good authority that this was the finest brewery in the United Kingdom (Loud applause.) Mr Aitken was everything they could desire at the head of a business such as this, and they were proud of him as a Falkirk "Bairn." (Cheers.)"
Falkirk Herald - Saturday 22 December 1900, page 7.
It might seem like a gross exaggeration to claim that Aitken's beer was famous all over the globe. But that's just from a 21st-century standpoint. Because Aitken's renown faded long ago, when the export markets for Scottish beer dried up after WW I. But in 1900, unbelievable as it may seem, this modest Falkirk firm really was one of the most famous breweries in the world. Sic transit and all that.

Now it's time to listen to the big man himself, James Aitken, speak:

"The toast having been cordially pledged. The Chairman, in replying, said he had often spoken before a large number of people, but be did not think he had ever addressed so vast an assemblage or addressed a gathering with more pleasure than he had that day in replying to the toast which they had just pledged in such a very hearty manner. (Applause.) He was not going to keep them long, but he thought it would interest some of them to hear something regarding the history of the Falkirk Brewery. (Applause.) That history extended over a Period of 160 years. One hundred and sixty years ago this brewery was started by an ancestor of his, and the business had since been passed on from father to son. That was a very long record for any, firm, and a record of which be was very proud. (Applause.) It had been his object in building this brewery, in a part of which they were now met, to keep up the name the firm in a worthy manner, and to extend its name, if possible, in more countries and more parts of the world than it had even yet already penetrated. (Cheers.)
Falkirk Herald - Saturday 22 December 1900, page 7. 

Confidence and optimism for the future just drips from his opening remarks. The future, as we know,  was very different from the one he imagined. That was full of opportunity and expansion. The real future of depression and contraction.

What's all this got to do with wells? We're getting on to that. In this very next section. Though it still leaves me with many unanswered questions about Aitken's water supply.

"This brewery was begun, 160 years ago, in a very small way - so small, indeed, that the water had to be actually carted in carts to make the beer with from several several miles distant. What would occur now were they to cart all the water they used in brewing their beer ? He did not believe all the carts in Scotland would be sufficient, far less all the carts of Falkirk. Time went on; the brewery gradually extended; and one of his ancestors started to brew a more bitter beer. What had formerly been brewed was sweet ale, but one of his ancestors had a happy thought and started the manufacture of a more bitter beer. So well was it thought of that it extended to London, which was in those days, a week's journey from Falkirk; but it took much longer to convey their beer there, as it had to be shipped at Grangemouth, three miles distant, and carried to London by sailing vessels. This new beer proved such a great success that the firm could no longer cart water for brewing purposes, and they obtained a well of their own. But most unfortunately for the then firm, the well was sunk down, to a strata where the whole drainage of the Falkirk Churchyard went into. Those of them who were chemists and those of them who wore not would readily understand that, however estimable might have been the corpses which were buried in the old Falkirk Churchyard, they could not really make very good beer. (Laughter and applause.) And the result was, he was sorry to say, that all the beer sent to London turned a bright red. (Laughter.) It also developed a peculiarly disagreeable odour, no doubt an odour such us one would think would come from a churchyard. The result was that his family was very nearly ruined. But a brother of his great-great-grandfather, who had retired from the business with a considerable fortune, in a most laudable spirit returned to the firm, and put in a considerable sum into the business again. By this time the fault of the water supply was discovered, and another well was sunk, which would enable them to manufacture any quantity of beer. From that time onward they began to produce another quality of beer, but unfortunately their connection with London ceased from the time they sent them the essence of Falkirk Churchyard. (Laughter.)
Falkirk Herald - Saturday 22 December 1900, page 7.
We already knew that originally all the water had been carted to the brewery. Nothing new there. It would have been nice if a date had been put on the brewing of bitter beer. The 1830's are when the first Scottish brewers began to dip their toes into the Pale Ale lake. So if by bitter beer they really do mean Pale Ale, the digging of the well probably took place around then.

Sending beer from Scotland to London by sea was nothing novel. It had been going on since at least the 18th century. Before the railways, it was the easiest way to move bulky goods between England and Scotland. And it was doubly attractive for Scottish brewers because the same vessels that took their beer to London could bring hops and barley back.

I'm not 100% convinced of the story about bright red beer. I struggle to see what could have been in the water to cause such an effect. And why weren't the funny colour and horrible smell of the water apparent before brewing? Falkirk chruchyard is very close by, so I've no reason to doubt that the well could have been contaminated by it. But surely someone would notice the smell?

You can see from the map below just how close the old brewery and the churchyard were (the brewery is in the top left hand corner.

This statement confuses me: "another well was sunk, which would enable them to manufacture any quantity of beer". Yet in 1861 we know that they were drawing their brewing water from the town supply. So the well obviously couldn't provide enough water to brew any quantity of beer as claimed.

"He now was going to slip over a long period of time, as it was uneventful in its history. Shortly after his father came to the business 50 years ago, he started the export trade to the colonies, and so considerably did he develop that trade that for many years Aitken's export ale was known wherever Scotchmen and Englishmen were to be found all over the habitable globe. The firm's name became famous, and for many years they did a huge trade. Gradually the prices they obtained for all classes of beer In India, China, Australia, the Cape, and almost everywhere they had been in the habit of shipping to, began to go down owing to the competition of other firms, until at the present moment they made nothing off their export beer. It therefore became necessary for them to make efforts in other directions, and when he came to the firm 15 years ago his father and he tried to develop the trade in Scotland, which up to that time had been a mere nothing, and he was glad to tell them - and this gathering was a proof of it - that they had been successful in developing their Scotch trade. (Applause.) He was glad to tell them that, in the course of the last 12 years, their trade in Scotland had increased to such an extent that it was now four times as great as it was then. They were selling exactly tour times as much beer per week in Scotland to-day as they did 12 or 14 years ago. That was why they had been compelled to build this new brewery, and he sincerely hoped that in the course of the next 12 years its powers of production would be taxed to the utmost. (Applause.) "
Falkirk Herald - Saturday 22 December 1900, page 7.
This section is very revealing about the fortunes of  the export business. If Aitken weren't making any money from their exports, why did they bother? The very heavy dependence on distant markets and lack of much in the way of local trade was typical of the Scottish brewers who were successful in the middle of the 19th century. Alloa brewers like George Younger and James Calder were in a similar situation.

A 400% increase in trade over 12 years is impressive. But how much beer was that? Had the Scottish trade increased from 1,000 barrels a year to 4,000? or 10,000 to 40,000? It must have been a decent-sized trade  or they wouldn't have need to build a new brewery. A few actual figures would be handy. Unfortunately one of my usual; sources - calculating capacity from the vessel sizes listed in Barnard - is no use in this case. As Barnard toured the old brewery.

"There had been a very great scare in England as to the quality of the beer produced by certain firms, and it had been said in the public prints - and very possibly with truth - that there has been a lot of beer produced by certain firms with a certain quantity of arsenic in it, which was injurious to health. He wished to take this opportunity of stating publicly that in the whole course of the firm's history there had been, used in the making of their beer no ingredient except what was of the first-class. (Cheers.) So long as he remained at the head of the firm there never would be used anything but the best materials, and he might say that he had at present in his office guarantees from every person who supplied them with barley, hops, and everything else they used in the manufacture of their beer, that the materials were absolutely free from any injurious substances whatever. (Applause.) He had only to add how glad he was to see them, all present that day. He received from numerous friends who were absent very kind letters of apology. They were so numerous that ho could not undertake to name them all, and it would be quite invidious to pick out the names of any one. He hoped those present had all enjoyed their visit to Falkirk, and be had to assure them that he would be glad to see any of them at the brewery on any future occasion. (Applause.)"
Falkirk Herald - Saturday 22 December 1900, page 7.

This last section is a vague testimonial to the purity of Aitken's beers. Note that he doesn't say that they are brewed from malt and hops alone. Did Aitken use sugar? Most breweries did at the time. And the source of the arsenic contamination in English beer was . . . sugar. Sugar where non food-grade sulphuric acid had been used in the inversion process.

We've learned a lot today.  On several different topics. So much stuff in my. I need to go and lie down for a week or two.

1 comment:

Gary Gillman said...

The discussions have a local flavor, mixing business data with pride in a business of evident importance to the community.

As to red beer: maybe the beer contained too much iron, and changed colour upon something being added to it later, sour beer (an acid) with finings, or something added to check for adulterants. Indeed copperas, often added to help form the head, is a form of iron I believe. So maybe if the brewing water was unusually high in iron, a test for copperas produced a red colour.