Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Trouble at Whitbread

1866 was an eventful year at Whitbread. Two incidents at the Chiswell Street brewery hit the papers within a few months.

The first wasn't that unusual. Breweries were always catching fire. There probably wasn't a brewery which didn't have a fire at some point in their history. That's why so many of them had their own fire engines. Maybe this is what prompted Whitbread to get theirs:

On Thursday morning, between three and four o'clock, a fire was discovered to have broken out in Chiswell-street, Finsbury, in the premises belonging to Messrs. Whitbread, the brewers. The discovery was made by a watchman, who noticed smoke issuing from the ale tun room and the boiling back room, a building about 45 by 30 teet, in the highest part of the brewery. Underneath were the stables, and at one time it was feared that the fire would extend to them. The escape conductors and others got about 30 horses out, and by the time this was accomplished, the flames shot through the roof and illuminated the whole district. Nine land steam fire-engines and one manual power machine attended, and the mains of the New River Company affording a bountiful supply of water, three land steamers and one manual power were set to work. Some thousands of gallons of water were thrown upon and into the burning premises, and in about hour and half the fire was extinguished, but not until the ale tun room, the boiling back room, and the roof were nearly destroyed, and a considerable quantity of ale the coolers seriously damaged by water. The misfortune will not interfere with tbe business of the firm."
West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal - Saturday 28 July 1866, page 3.

This image shows why having your own fire engine was a good idea:

Whitbread's Chiswell Street brewery in 1953

The brewery is in the centre forground with steam coming out of it. Note the total destruction around it. Because they had their own fire engine, Whitbread could protect their brewery from the icendiaries that caused most of the damage.

The next is much odder. Though it does involve a regular killer in breweries: CO2. Usually the deaths were accidents. But not this time.

On Thursday forenoon inquiry was held by Mr Richards, deputy coroner, at the Green Gate Tavern, City Road, London, relative to the death of Wm. Ward, aged 30 years, who committed suicide. The deceased was employed as a labourer at Whitbread's brewery, in Chiswell Street, St Luke's. He was of a gloomy and morose temper. Within the last few days he was suspended for using violent language to a foreman — but on his promising better behaviour he was placed on again. He appeared to converse with his brother, with whom he lived at 20 Rose Street, St Luke's, principally upon the best way of getting rid of oneself. He frequently said to him that he would like to know the best way to get rid of himself, for he was tired of life — but he did not know what to do. His brother and his landlady tried to joke him out of his state of mind. The manner of his suicide was deposed to by Daniel Freeman, a 'leather holder,' a person whose duty it was fill casks with beer from the vats by means of leather pipes. On Tuesday morning at nine o'clock he was underneath vat No. 19, which was empty of beer, but was filled with carbonic acid gas. He heard a lucifer match struck at the top of the vat, which was 27 feet high, and called out twice, but received no answer. He ran up to the top of the vat, and there he found a light burning, and the name 'W. Ward' chalked on the beam over the vat in large letters. He raised alarm, and the deceased was seen lying the bottom of the vat quite dead. No one dared enter the vat, and drags had to be employed to get deceased out. Dr Yarrow said that was called in to the deceased, and found him quite dead. His face was distorted and the body swollen. He had been killed by carbonic acid gas, and death must have been instantaneous. A light was instantly extinguished when lowered into the vat, which was 27 feet deep, and was filled with the deadly gas to within foot or two of the top. It was stated that the deceased, who had been long employed at the brewery, was perfectly acquainted with the nature of the gas, and that, without doubt, he knew well what he was doing when he jumped into the vat. Latterly he had complained of not feeling as he ought, and said he wished to end his life. The coroner having summed up, the jury returned a verdict 'That deceased committed suicide by leaping into vat filled with carbonic acid gas at Whitbread's Brewery, whilst in state of unsound mind.'
Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser - Saturday 03 November 1866, page 3.

There are worse ways to top yourself. You'd be unconscious pretty quickly.

That aside, the article does tell us something of the workings of the brewery. Like that a "leather holder" racked beer from vats to casks. I knew leather pipes were used - bet they were fun to keep hygienic - but was unaware of that particular trade. Sounds awfyully specialised.

A 27 foot high vat - that's almost 9 metres - was in all probability used for maturing Porter. That's a pretty large size. Just as well Ward did himself in in the 1860's. If hed waited a few more years the vats would have been gone. Whitbread, like most London brewers, dropped Keeping Porter in the eaarly 1870's and ripped out all their large vats.


The Beer Nut said...

This new-fangled "wire service" is brill! All the hilariously gruesome reports from London's coroners' courts, whisked up to a Paisley newsroom in the blink of an eye!

Jeff Renner said...

What was the cause of the widespread devastation in the 1953 photo? Was it from the blitz a decade or more earlier?

Ron Pattinson said...


that's damage from the Blitz. There were bomb sites in London well into the 1960's. Probably even later.

The Beer Nut said...

Food was still rationed in 1953: the British economy really was in the toilet after the war.

The Barbican development nearby didn't have its plans finalised until 1959 and wasn't finished until 1975.