A History of The Nidderdale Brewery

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Nidderdale Brewery in Pateley Bridge was the foundation of the township's prosperity in the nineteenth century. The small town in the Yorkshire Dales is now fully geared to tourism, but in earlier times was highly industrialised, with lead mining, flax spinning and stone quarrying flourishing. The Metcalfe family who operated the brewery had substantial interests in all the other enterprises, and established themselves as the major employer in Nidderdale. They acquired substantial property assets and became leaders of the community with strong religious and social consciences, as well as being very cultured.

In 1771 Elizabeth Ragg, daughter of a Pateley Bridge tallow chandler, married Thomas Smith, a flax dresser of Hartwith, the next township. They had two children, possibly three, but only one, Betty, survived into adult life. Two years later Thomas died, leaving Elizabeth to support herself and offspring. According to the family, she inherited the George and Dragon Inn (built in 1664 and usually known as the George) near the top of the High Street in Pateley Bridge about this time. Insurance policies indicate that Jacob Ragg, her father or brother, was the owner and Elizabeth the tenant, but this may have only been some legal nicety. She was now able to support herself with a home and income. Most inns in the area produced their own liquors, and Elizabeth became so successful that in 1777 she applied to the justices at Ripon for a licence as a commission brewer, whereby she could sell her ales to other establishments. In order to accommodate the extra equipment she bought the adjoining property, one part of which was still visible in the fermenting rooms over a hundred years later. Water “of remarkable purity” came from a spring on Panorama Walk and was piped 200 metres down the hill.

Through this venture, she probably met her second husband, George Metcalfe, an Excise Officer. They married in 1779 and were devoted to each other - there is a touching note from Elizabeth telling him not to worry, so long as they and the children were well, nothing else mattered. They were true partners in everything, although since Elizabeth was producing six more children in the first ten years of her second marriage, George probably took over the practical running of the businesses. In December 1792 he was regarded as the licensee of the George, and he must have in some way expanded the business, or put it on a firmer footing, because an advertisement of the 1860s declares 1796 as the year of the foundation of the concern, although subsequently 1777 was always given. We do tend to forget, however, that, before the Victorian period, women were frequently equal partners with their husbands in business.

Elizabeth's first husband had been a flax dresser and soon after their marriage George and Elizabeth were active in this field also. They bought flax imported from Russia, at the port of Hull, brought it back, prepared it by retting and heckling, then put it out to spinners working in their own homes. They then collected it and distributed to home hand weavers, bleached or dyed the linen and sold it as far afield as Shropshire and Newcastle. The flax was transported from Hull as a return load for lead being exported from the local mines. George and Elizabeth invested in the Smiling Fancy Mine on Greenhow, four miles away, and because lead required coal for smelting, had shares in a local coal mine also.

Four of their children were still surviving when their father died in 1798, and Elizabeth was once more alone. Until the two boys, John, 15 years old, and George, aged 10, grew up she continued the businesses by herself. According to her grandson, in his account of his property, “It is well known my grandmother managed her house well and engaged in brewing and kept many flax hecklers to provide line (sic) for the spinning wheels for many miles around”. She rode to Hull each summer, taking one day for the journey of at least 60 miles there, one day for her business with lead, flax & grain merchants, and a third day to ride home again. The block by which she mounted is still in the yard behind the inn.

She continued to prosper and by May, 1801, when she drew up an inventory of her goods, had in hand £232 in brewery assets of liquor and debts owing to her, but this was only a small proportion of her total wealth of £4,019, less the debts she had incurred. Strangely, the value of the brewery property is not mentioned, although another fire insurance policy does quote George and Elizabeth as being the owners by 1786, so one would expect that she did own the buildings and land at this time. One interesting short note in the firm's records is from John Bailey, a hop merchant in Skipton 15 miles away, dated 15th May 1804 about blockading in the Napoleonic Wars - “This packet of hops I should have sent to you earlier but it has been detained by a French privateer”.

As John and George grew up they were gradually initiated into all their mother's concerns, and by 1812 she was ready to take them into partnership. John seems to have been the one more interested in the brewing of ale, and keen to develop it from a very small output of sixteen barrels a week since the following year he entered into a long correspondence with John Richardson of Wilton about the secrets of making porter. Richardson was demanding 36 guineas for his information in spite of John pointing out that, as he only brewed 16 barrels a week, this could hardly be a profitable investment. In 1821 he made entry at the Excise Office in Ripon of “One Malt House, one Cistern, one Kiln, one Working and one Withering floors, likewise four rooms for the storing of Barley and Malt”  : this is the only description of the buildings as they were at this time. He did continue to develop and tidy the premises, pulling down an old blacksmith's shop at the corner of the site, which improved the general approach down into Pateley. A malt kiln was operating just across the road, adjacent to the flax hackling shop.

The range of products was extended in 1833, when John again sought advice, this time from William Carver at the New Dolphin Inn at Halifax. John had two surviving sons, George and William. As in the previous generation, George paid more attention to textiles, whilst William became involved in the brewery, although it is clear that in each generation both were well acquainted with all aspects of the family's affairs. By 1855, George, senior, had lost interest in the brewery, particularly since considerable reinvestment and rebuilding was required. He relinquished his involvement, though retaining a financial stake, to the other three, and the brewing business was henceforward known as John Metcalfe and Sons. George may have also surrendered his financial stake, since John bequeathed the brewery from his own estate in 1862.

The new buildings were erected on the eastern side of the site, going round the corner from the George Inn to the Ripon Road, whilst the lower half was converted into stables and warehouses. More men were taken on - from only five at the time of the 1851 Census, there were seventeen thirty years later, before the final enlargements were carried out.

In 1859, John had a stroke, and was unable to take any further part in the business. When he died two years later, his sons expected to be made full partners with their uncle in all the combined ventures. George, senior, disapproved of William, who was fond of gambling and drinking, and refused to allow him into the mill. When both nephews protested, he declared he was the only partner, but secretly arranged a deal with George, excluding William. The younger brother asked that he might at least be allowed to buy or manage the brewery and accused his sibling of engineering the situation. His appeal being rejected, he stormed out of the family home for ever on Pateley Feast Saturday in September 1862.

He had, however, already acquired some wealth and invested it in building a rival establishment, The Nidd Valley Brewery, across the river. Unfortunately, there were problems with the water supply and so it was never successful.

When George, senior, died in 1865, he left all his share of the businesses to George, junior. William decided to claim his quarter share left him by his father, and as he and his brother could not agree as to how the complicated mesh of property and commerce was to be divided, they instituted a long and costly legal battle, which resulted in an arbitration hearing in the Queen's Hotel, Leeds. The notes of the solicitor representing George, George Strafford, a family friend, are preserved. They give an almost verbatim account of the testimony of each brother, the growth of the concerns and the acrimony which had developed between them. The result was declared very much in George's favour - out of the property and assets valued at £25,000 William received £2,250, but after expenses of £1,000 for George, and £2,000 for William had been paid.

William was thrown completely off balance, and never spoke to his brother again, except to threaten, and possibly attempt, to shoot him, for which he was bound over for two years. Nearing the end of the period, he renewed his vow, terrifying the family governess by his threats when he accosted her in the town. As it happened, he died before it could be carried out, refusing to be reconciled even on his deathbed. The new brewery was sold to two brothers. One, W. Pullan, had been William's brewer and continued to manage it successfully. However, the other, landlord of the Somerset Hotel in Harrogate, went bankrupt and pulled his partner down with him. When no buyer had appeared after six months, George bought the premises, but used them only for storage, and as a base for the local Volunteers when they formed in the 1880s. It became used as a public hall, and also as a gym and dining room for the Bridgehousegate School a few yards away, until the 1960s, when it was closed on grounds of safety, and eventually turned into flats.

George continued to develop the original brewery, increasing both the range of products and their markets: by the 1890s they were being exported all over Britain, and to France and Germany. By the end of the century, the company was producing a wide range of mild and pale ales, stout, porter and bitter pale ale, which was their star attraction. The buildings of the main premises were completely refurbished and enlarged on the tower system in 1883, with offices and “a special store cellar... underground for the purpose of maturing and storing beer for continental customers”. Randall has a complete description of them, and the processes which were carried out there. The tower of the brewhouse held the mashing-water reservoir and hot-liquor plant, an iron vessel heated by steam coils, holding 2500 gallons. Below the tank was the mill room containing a pair of chilled-iron rollers, over which was a screen for finally cleaning the malt. It was then delivered by an elevator to the hopper above. When converted to grist, the malt fell into a receiver over the mash tun. The brewhouse followed the process used by most other Yorkshire breweries of the time, with nothing but malt and hops and the purest spring water being used.

On the second floor of the brewhouse was the mashing room, with the copper house adjoining but at a lower elevation. The latter had an open roof and paved floor with two coppers heated by fire and the whole process was conducted by gravitation. The cooling loft had latticed walls and louvred roof with the whole floor covered by a shallow open cooler in the centre of which was a fixed hop press. The fermenting square room was triangular in shape and 90 feet in length, open on one side to the racking room below. Ten large fermenting squares were hewn from stone from the Metcalfes' own Scotgate Quarry. When the beer was finished it was racked into casks and then taken down to the stores. In addition to three stores on site, there were five others across the river in the New Brewery.

Apart from the manufacturing buildings and a suite of offices, there were cask washing sheds, hops stores, cooperage across the road and other workshops. In the lower yard behind the George were the double decker stables for ten dray horses - because of the steep slope of the land both levels could be entered directly from the ground. The George Inn was closed and made into a house for the head brewer or traveller. By this time outlets in the town had multiplied by the purchase of most of the other hostelries as they became vacant, sometimes because of serious financial difficulties. In George's detailed account of the property holdings in the mid-nineties there are five inns in Pateley - The Crown, King's Arms, Shoulder of Mutton, Black Bull and Star - as well as the Birch at Wilsill, Prospect (Darley), Queen's Head (Kirkby Malzeard) and Joiners' Arms at Hampsthwaite.

In all their businesses, the Metcalfes were known for their fair and benevolent treatment of their workers, being always ready to listen to suggestions for their welfare and liberal with their treats. In addition to subscribing regularly and generously for the brewery workers' own supper, the third George responded to an idea from the cashier that a party for the wives and families would be appreciated. He provided a knife and fork tea for 70 men, women and children with a magic lantern show and other entertainment. Light refreshments, tobacco and drinks were also on offer although “not one became overbalanced and all left at midnight”. The head brewer and traveller, Henry Richardson, stayed with them for 37 years, retiring to take over a public house in Ripon.

As George's older sons grew up, they, too, were incorporated into the concerns, with John specialising in brewing, and George IV spinning. A younger son, Herbert, was also interested in brewing and went to South Africa to learn more secrets of the trade. Many people find it hard to reconcile the fact that the Metcalfes were staunch Methodists as well as brewers, but of course the teetotal movement did not really take hold until the 1880s. They believed in moderation, not total abstinence, and continued to serve the Methodist church as Sunday School teachers, trustees and officials until almost the end of the century.

In 1896 the brewery became a private limited company, and about the same time went into the bottling business. After their father's death in 1898, Herbert joined John and attempted to modernise the processes, but some methods were not appropriate and did not succeed. There was also a clash of personalities. Combined with the difficulties experienced in the spinning trade, the businesses went into terminal decline, and the brewery was closed in 1912, when the family went bankrupt.

John Smiths bought the premises, but appear never to have used them for brewing. They were later used as a furniture store by an eccentric old man and became increasingly decrepit, until eventually they were condemned and pulled down in 1962. Now all that remains of the upper buildings is an oddly shaped garden at the top of the High Street, with flag stones marking the lines of the walls. In the lower yard part of the stable block is a private dwelling, but the George Inn has returned almost to its original function, being now the Conservative Club.

The Metcalfes dominated the industrial and commercial life of the upper dale for over a century. They have left their imprint in buildings and institutions, but of their ventures nothing remains but the scars. Pateley Bridge is now a large village, rather than a town, a home for commuters and retired people, lively but with none of the manufacturing vigour which Elizabeth and her descendants poured into it. Her brewery is marked only by a tiny park at the top of the High Street, welcoming visitors into the town.


My grateful thanks to Dr & Mrs G.C.Metcalfe who gave me hospitality and allowed me free access to the material contained within their family papers, and to Nidderdale Museum for access to its archives.


Please note: a) The Metcalfe papers are uncatalogued and many are undated. b) There are very few complete copies of the Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale Herald in existence. Most references are from cuttings found in T.Lumb's scrapbook and many can be dated only by inference. The Lumb scrapbook is in Nidderdale Museum.

The Society is most grateful to Mrs Burgess for her kind permission to reproduce this article.  Copyright is retained by the Author.