A Short History of Elgood's Brewery

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To Brewery from Tannery - via Oyl Mill and Granary

by NIGEL S ELGOOD

The earliest surviving deed of the Brewery, dated 2 February 1690, tells us that 'a loft, old messuages, 3 roods of land, orchard and garden' were in the hands of a certain Swithin Audling, woolcomber, whose mark is witnessed at the foot of the document. The wool trade flourished in Wisbech at this time and fleeces were shipped down river to the port, from where they went by sea to Hull, then inland by canal to Bradford and the mills of the famous Yorkshire wool towns.

Facilities on the site were obviously basic at this time and it is not until about 50 years later - 1739 - that we find that Matthew Goslin, felimonger, had added to the property. It now boasted an 'oyl mill' (one of seven in Wisbech at that time) granaries, barns, stables, orchards, gardens, waters and water-courses. Tanning leather, like brewing beer, requires a great deal of water and the deeds of this period suggest that Matthew Goslin was responsible for digging out the reservoir and build¬ing the wells. The sale particulars show that a new reservoir had been planned to provide more water.

It was about this time that the adjoining property, belonging to Mr Gardiner, was acquired and a house was built, possibly the existing Brewery House which is known to be older than the brewery itself. In fact, during alterations to a bedroom in the 1960s, part of the wall collapsed disclosing that the bricks were bonded by a mix of mud and feathers.

Bankruptcy followed and a rescue operation was mounted by John Bellamy. In 1757 Thomas Audley purchased the oil mill and increased the size of the holding to about six acres, which is similar to the present-day.

It is unclear when the conversion from the oil mill to brewery took place. What is known is that it was sold as a working brewery to Thomas Fawsett on Christmas Day 1795! There was then much activity in Wisbech. Joseph Medworth had bought the Castle and grounds in 1793 and begun his re-building programme of the whole Crescent area. The Wisbech Canal, called Elm Learn, linking the Nene to Outwell was started. It was also the year of great shortages as a very wet summer had decimated harvests and, in particular the wheat supply.

The North Brink Brewery is thought to be the first classical Georgian brewery built outside London. It was designed and built by the partnership of Dennis Herbert of Biggleswade, in conjunction with John Cooch, common brewer of Wisbech and formerly of Baldock. The building still stands proudly on the bank of the river Nene, so essential to its success. It has "seven bays of broad big segment-headed windows, a five-bay sham pediment and a big central carriage-way" (according to Pevsner’s Cambridgeshire 1954). Certainly its solid 24 inch brick walls were designed to last!

Georgian features include the absence of rainwater pipes on the front elevation. Water from the roof is channelled along valleys concealed by the parapet into gulleys and thence via lead-lined wooden channels through the building to the rear where it is discharged in the normal way. These channels in turn are camouflaged to look like beams supporting the roof.

Water is the most important commodity both for tanning and brewing. Not only is there a large reservoir, now a landscaped lake to the rear of the premises, but also five wells. Three of these are still in use today, together with water drawn from the river, which is used for cooling purposes. All this water is returned to the river through a culvert which passes under the Brink and is discharged into the Nene.

During the years between 1757 and the completed conversion, James Ellerker, an innkeeper, in conjunction with Dennis Herbert and John Cooch, acquired four public houses which they arranged to supply from the North Brink premises. The Brewery still retains the ownership of one of these houses, the Spread Eagle in Bridge Street, which was re-built in 1932.

William Watson, whose History of Wisbech is well known, took over the Brewery in partnership with Abraham Usill in 1801. It was they who built up the number of public houses to forty, thus establishing a Tied House System of brewing which involved the company owning a number of public houses and tying them for sole supply, moving away from the individual 'brew-house pub'.

In 1836 Phillips, Tlbbitts and Phillips purchased the estate but unfortunately their partnership came to grief. Richard Tibbitts put the brewery and public houses up for sale in 1853. It was George Frederick Phillips and the Phillips family who took over until 1877 when they in turn sold the North Brink Brewery and its tied houses to the partnership of John Elgood and George Harrison for £38,965.

That was a lot of money to find and, regrettably, after only nine years, Harrison was declared bankrupt and the partnership dissolved.

John Elgood, (son of Thomas, a merchant from St Neots, whose family numbered 16 children) had left the safety of his maltings at Godmanchester which he had sold in order to finance his half of the partnership. With a family of seven children, he was stretched to find the necessary money to remain in business on North Brink. Fortunately, he did, and the family ownership was firmly established.

On New Year’s Eve 1890, John Elgood died and his third son Horace took over the running of the business. Four out of five boys were involved and a limited company formed in 1905 which embraced the whole family. Christina had married Thomas Dawbarn, solicitor of Wisbech and this established the only outside shareholding. A widespread distribution of these shares was to save the company from inheritance tax problems in later years.

Much of the plant and machinery now in use was installed by my father, Stewart, who took over from his uncle Horace in 1933. The main investment came in the early 1950s. This action modernised and replaced most of the 1920s plant installed by Horace, although some of this is still in use today. My own contribution has mainly been focused on modernising the public houses which had been neglected largely due to war-time and post-war building restrictions. These now number 48 and are all let under tenancy agreements and lie within a 30 mile radius of Wisbech. Belinda Sutton, my eldest daughter, is the fifth generation of the Elgood family to be involved with the brewing of beer at North Brink. Further modernisation of equip¬ment at the brewery has enabled the company to keep pace with modern technology. The first 'low alcohol bitter' in the United Kingdom was produced here and today Elgoods exports packaged beers to Finland and America as well as supplying Real Ale to all parts of the British Isles.

This Georgian Brewery still stands determinedly on the bend of the river Nene, surveying the changes all around it and resolute to face the next century. I wonder if Dennis Herbert and John Cooch, all those years ago, gave any thought to their building surviving 200 years, and ready for more!

Sources:

  • History of Wisbech, by William Watson Esq FAS (1827)
  • History of Wisbech & the Fens, by Walker & Craddock (1849)
  • History of Wisbech & Neighbourhood, by F J Gardiner (1898)