Bell Brewery and William Garton

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Courtesy Geoff Dye

The story of the Bell Brewery at Woolston and William Garton by Geoff Dye

The Itchen Brewery was situated in the area of Southampton known as Woolston north west of the railway station and on the road junction between the High Street and opposite Albert Road. This hillside location was on the eastern side of the River Itchen originally a small village and connected to Southampton by a ferry. Most of the villagers were either employed in agriculture, as fishermen, on wharves dealing with cargos or building boats. The brewery was founded early in the 17th Century by the Bell family as a small concern. It contained a curious horse mill, a 10 qtr plant, cellars, stores, offices, yard, stables, malt house, piggeries and two kitchen gardens. There were attached two dwelling houses containing two sitting rooms, kitchen, scullery and four bedrooms. One of the houses was occupied by John Bell the other by John Henry Bell. The Bell family had been an established part of of Woolston life from the early 17th century and were originally merchants residing in the Peartree area of Southampton. They were devoted laymen of the Jesus Chapel with W Henry Bell, John Bell, John Henry Bell, and Richard Bell all being churchwardens.

In 1765 the brewery was rebuilt in a typical Georgian style somewhat resembling the current Elgoods brewery in Wisbech Cambridgeshire. Over the years production increased with the purchase of public houses and a growing population in the area assisted by the coming of the railway line connecting the village with Southampton and via Netley to Fareham and Portsmouth.

On the 23rd March 1870 John Bell, one of the partners owning the brewery at the time died. A valuation in March 1871 valued the brewery at £3,230. Another one of the partners John Henry Bell died shortly after his will was made on the 16th October 1874, he left £50 to his wife Laurie Henderson Bell and income from rents. His property interests were split between Richard and Frederick reaching 21 years of age.

On the 16th September 1889 the Red Lion Itchen and the Angel Inn Bitterne were sold to William Garton . This was followed, on the 5th November 1889, by an ownership transferred from Lawrie Henderson Bell of “Fernleigh” Woolston (widow) Richard Bell (the brewer) and Frederick Bell to William Garton for £2,140, less than the 1871 valuation but with some of the houses sold. At that time the brewery traded as John Bell and Son. The reason for the sale has not been established but it is likely that the family had simply lost interest in the brewery.

The William Garton period of ownership

William Garton was born in 1832 at Bath where his father had a small brewery. When his father died his mother and elder brother Charles carried on running the brewery. William was attending Bath Grammar School and by the 1850s his brother had started on his own a brewery in Bristol. The Garton's family were pioneers of using sugars in brewing and experimented with invert sugar taking a patent out in 1859 in Charles name.

The Bristol brewery specialised in brewing light palatable bright stable ales of low alcoholic strength and were received a Gold Medal at the 1862 Brewers Exhibition.

On leaving school, William joined with a Mr Thomas Hill of Reigate and Francis Christopher Hill of Southampton and started the first Invert Sugar works in the Docks trading as Hill Garton & Company with Mr Hill he was also in partnership trading at The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery Co. Ltd until 30th September 1881 when the partnership was dissolved but carried on separately. He still maintained links with the Bristol brewery.

William moved to the area to carry on his studies purchasing the Bell brewery with assistance from the family. In his researches he had grasped the fact that if the yeast was presented with sugar in a readily fermentable form (invert sugar) that fermentation would start rapidly leading to a stable finished beer. He was also attributed to the discovery and 15 development of treating of brewing liquors to resemble those of Burton on Trent (known now as burtonisation).

The brothers were also credited with devising the dropping system of fermentation where fermentation was carried out in one vessel and then dropped to another to complete the fermentation leaving behind the majority of the yeast. (a system still operated at Wychwood for the Brakspears beers).

Anglo ales Digby Tap 10 June 2000.JPG

After purchase the Bell Brewery was put under the control of William Garton Junior while William senior concentrated on the refinery business and his studies at Shepton always willing to help other brewers. Eventually the refinery merged with Manbré to become Manbré & Garton. The Southampton site was closed while the London plant at Hammersmith on the north side of the Thames by Hammersmith Bridge carried on until 1974. William Garton senior died in 1905 and in his obituary it was stated that “to no one man does modern brewing owe more than to William Garton”. In his career he was one of the greatest innovators of the 19th century.

Disastrous fire at the Bell Brewery

A fire broke out at the brewery on 25th May about 1.30 pm in a upper room above the copper, after brewing had taken place earlier in the day. It was first found by a young man who tried unsuccessfully to extinguish it using an inch size water hose. It was tackled by a couple of men and help was summons by phone from the Southampton Fire Brigade. Superintendent Johnson and men took 25 minutes crossing the Itchen by the floating bridge arriving about 2 pm. Casks were removed from the brewery as the fire took hold. Next door in a house occupied by Mr A Johnson most of the furniture was removed to the road. Mr William Garton Senior was contacted in London and arrived by train at about 3pm to see massive damage to the building.

After two hours the fire finally came under control but the new machinery recently installed was badly damaged. Destroyed was the tank room, copper room, mill room, mash tun and part of the cooling room and cellar. The mineral works remained unaffected. The report by Colonel E Bance acting as insurance assessor made sad reading. The fire had spread from the copper room up to the roof and then curved downwards to the cellar causing a great deal of damage. The roof crashed down destroying many of the floors. The tun room was saved together with the beer in five vats each holding 45 to 50 barrels of beer and two large vessels of 300 to 400 barrels apiece. Not much was left of the business.

The devastation left by the fire undoubtedly led Sir William to seek a way forward. This came with an agreement with Crowley & Co, Alton to purchase the properties and lead to his partnership with Harry Percy Burrell the then owner of Crowleys. Together they floated Crowleys as a limited company. Crowleys, via William, acquired the brewery in 1889 for £2,140. It is suspected that the premises were never operational again and have long been demolished and built on, only some of the former pubs remain.

Separate to the Woolston brewery William had founded his own brewery The Anglo-Bavarian Brewery Co. Ltd at Shepton Mallet in Somerset; here he set about brewing light beers using invert sugar. The brewery still stands and is very impressive but no longer brewing.

In 1899 The Brewers Journal reported that the Anglo was working day and night to keep up with demand and an expansion program was underway. This included a new smoke stack of 155 feet high completed in early March 1899. The chimney was on a base 17 feet by 17 feet and 20 feet high in Buff Cattybrook brick specially moulded and laid in a spiral bond with a parallel core of 6 foot 6 inches. The capping is of “bastard freestone” with brick and metal head and two lightning conductors. A Green’s economiser and two water tube boilers were provided. The Anglo carried on until the First World War when trade fell as the name did it no favours.

Eventually after closing and reopening it failed, a full account can be found in Fred Davis book on The Anglo Bavarian Brewery.

A pub called The Digby Arms Sherborne Dorset has some large enameled signs showing the brewery and labels. (See illustration right, The Digby Arms, Sherborne. Courtesy Roy Denison.)'

An excellent photo of it can be seen on Francis Frith website of reproduction Photographs and prints.