Alton & Co. Ltd - a full history

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Alton & Co. Ltd, Derby


John Arguile

Alton & Co was the oldest of the three main Derby wholesale brewers, having been established by Thomas Lowe, a maltster turned brewer, sometime between 1767 and 1788. He built on a portion of a defunct former brewery on the Wardwick, in the bustling heart of the town centre, subsequently extending the business four-fold. Thomas (also a Mayor of Derby) passed the business onto to his son, Charles in 1828, who, after ten-year period, sold the business on to Moreton Charles Wedge; the firm trading as MC Wedge & Co.

In 1863 the business came into the Alton family, when acquired from Wedge by William Alton. Initially it was jointly owned with Edward Barnett (as Alton & Barnett), until the latter retired in February 1871. After a further two years, George D’Arcy Clark, a lawyer, entered the business of Alton & Co, as co-partner.

The brewing and malting business thereafter flourished, enabling much of the adjoining property owned by Brasenose College, Oxford and Lord Scarsdale to be purchased and incorporated. The enlarged site was very much larger than was apparent from its 80-foot Wardwick frontage. The brewery was built behind the offices and the maltings were built beyond the brewery. The maltings entrance broke into Colyer Street. The wide Colyer St access suited the flow of goods into the site.

The extra land allowed the brewery to be rebuilt and enlarged in the 1860s, to the designs of George Henry Sheffield. Alton’s used the Burton Union system. Their new brew house contained two union rooms; the No 1 room had 63 x five-barrel union-casks and the No.2 room 84 x seven barrel union-casks. The adjacent two fermenting rooms contained eight fermenting vessels with a total capacity of 512 barrels. A further 126 union casks were added around 1890. The ground floor of the union room had a capacity for storing several thousands of barrels as well as leaving ample room for racking operations. This was in addition to the other cask cellars holding nearly 1,000 casks for the private trade.

Malting was a significant business for Alton & Co., as historically it was to the town. In the late seventeenth century, the production of malt was the most important industry in Derby. In 1693 John Houghton recorded that there were 76 malt houses out of 694 dwelling houses in Derby. Production was well in excess of local demand with 1,800 bushels (14,400 litres) a week being sent to Cheshire, Lancashire and by ferry to London. The high quality and therefore demand for Derby malt was attributed to the fact that unusually it was dried using coke.

The malt house including kilns was originally located at the rear of the site in Colyer Street. However, as the business grew (Alton’s also supplied malt grist to the very numerous Derby home-brew pubs) newer, and more extensive, maltings were needed. Alton engaged the noted brewer’s architect, Richard Hardy of Nottingham to add a 180-quarter maltings, facing Colyer Street, maximising the space available. The maltings therefore were built on several levels with two floors in the roof for storing large quantities of grain, three malt kilns and an ale cellar under the working floors. The working floor area of each was 8,200 sq ft. The company was large enough to employ its own coopers and had an extensive stud of shire horses and stabling for 35 horses. They also had malting premises on Curzon Street, Ashbourne Rd (Weall’s former premises) all close by – and at Castle Donington, some ten miles to the south east. The site’s Wardwick frontage housed the company’s offices and counting house (and is the only portion of the original business – as ‘Bess of Hardwick’ (formerly ‘Wardwick Tavern’) - to have survived to the present.

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After William’s death, his interest passed to his nephew, Hepworth Tropolet Alton, who was made a director, along with Arthur Walkden, a brewer. The new business was registered as a private Limited Liability Company on April 17th, 1888. The registered capital of £110,000 was divided into 6,000 preference shares of £10 and 5,000 ordinary shares. George D’Arcy Clarke and Hepworth Alton were each allocated 4,398 shares and Arthur Walkden, got 1,800 shares. The remainder of the stock was taken up by the public.

The company grew by buying more licensed premises, Alton’s being amongst the first in the Derby to expand by buying up and tying down the local pub trade. Many were independent pubs or beer houses who already took their beers from Alton’s, others were free houses openly taking beer supplied by rivals. Often this was at the expense of the larger Burton brewers, Bass and Allsopps, who at that point believed their beer quality alone would sustain their trade and resisted buying licensed premises.

In the borough of Derby Alton’s was the largest of the established local breweries. Their Derby rivals, Stretton's Derby Brewery Ltd and Offiler's Brewery Ltd, were less well advanced; neither had yet been launched as a public company and thus lacked the capital required. Both went public in 1890. In 1895 Alton’s announced the purchase of Messrs Weall Brothers, 50 Ashbourne Rd, Derby business, including 7 pubs. This was in addition to six other licensed premises bought that year.

It was further reconstructed on July 21st, 1899, to add Charles Walton as a Director and Hepworth Alton as Managing Director. At this point the Company supplied 216 licensed premises, 91 of which they owned. However, in 1902 at Alton’s AGM, they acknowledged they were having problems ‘and had obtained further assistance in the general management of the brewery’. This is thought to be Stretton’s who had been connected to Alton’s since 1896. Hepworth Alton, Alton’s Managing Director had been in indifferent health for some years and died in November 1903 aged just 44.

In January 1903 Stretton's Derby Brewery Ltd, Ashbourne Road purchased all the ordinary shares of Alton & Co. Ltd. At this point Alton’s had 154 tied houses. R H Tennant, Managing Director of Stretton’s was awarded £5 000 for arranging the purchase and J N D’Arcy Clarke, recently the former Managing Director of Alton’s, joined the Stretton’s Board.

When brewing ceased in March 1911 after the takeover, all brewing was transferred to Stretton’s Manchester Street / Ashbourne Road brewery. Alton’s brewery at the rear of the Wardwick site was demolished and used for the new Derby Telephone Exchange. The remaining buildings were used for the total wine and spirit side of Stretton’s business, with the wine stores being in Colyer Street. The actual wine cellars for the maturation of choice wines were underneath Alton’s old maltings and ideally suitable for the maturation of vintage ports.

In 1927 the business of Stretton’s, including 143 public houses, was acquired by Samuel Allsopp & Sons Ltd of Burton. As a result, Stretton’s Ashbourne Road premises were sold (to Burrows, Sturgess & Severn) and on Dec 31st, 1929, the registered office of Stretton’s was transferred to the Wardwick premises, all brewing having transferred to Burton in 1928.

The premises eventually became the trading Head Quarters of Ind Coope (East Midlands) and from 1969 a public house known as ‘Wardwick Tavern’.