J C F Grier

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The Story of Mr J C F Grier of the Eltham Brewery Co


Peter Moynihan

One drizzly afternoon in July, 1890, a gentleman stepped absent-mindedly off the pavement in Carey Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, into the path of a hansom cab driven by John Walker, of Shepherd's Bush. The cabbie shouted a warning to the gentleman, who hesitated for a moment and turned back for the curb. The horse narrowly missed his shoulder and Walker thought that the pedestrian had jumped clear, until he felt the cab give a lurch. Unfortunately, the gentleman had slipped on the wet granite setts and the wheel of the cab had passed over his body. The injured man was put into the cab by a police officer and taken to King's College Hospital; his wife and doctor were sent for.

The unfortunate pedestrian was found to have three broken ribs and a dislocated thumb; he was treated for his injuries but refused to stay in hospital overnight and was taken to his home at Vanbrugh Court, Blackheath, and put to bed. Within days he was dead, his doctor suspecting internal injuries accelerated by his recent history of valvular heart disease. An inquest found that his death was accidental, and the cab driver was exonerated of all blame. So far, this may sound like the beginning of a Conan Doyle mystery and I can hear you thinking “What has this got to do with beer?”

So ended the life of 53-year-old Major John Court Ferguson Grier, the proprietor for many years of the Eltham Brewery. He had been born at Lakeview, County Longford, Ireland, the son of Captain Robert Grier, of the 44th Regiment of Foot, a veteran of Waterloo. Young Grier served in the 2nd Royal Lanark Militia, was gazetted as an Ensign to the 9th Foot and then as a Lieutenant of the 37th Foot. By the mid-1860s he was serving in Dover as a Major of the Argyll & Bute Artillery and while in Kent, he met the 21-year-old Grace Ellen Shepherd. They were married in 1865 and Grier retired from the army. Grace was from a prosperous family and the Major had some income as an absentee landlord in Ireland, in addition to his army pension. However, he sold the family lands in Ireland in 1873 and in 1875 he purchased the Eltham Brewery for £13,675, paying only a small proportion in cash and mortgaging the property for the remainder. Grier had no experience or training in brewing; perhaps he had noted the success that his wife's family had made of their breweries in Faversham and Rochester…. yes, THOSE Shepherds! See: Shepherd Neame Ltd.

It was necessary for Grier to take a partner who actually knew something about brewing; 21-year-old Willie Tress. Tress’s widowed mother had married a Dover dentist and no doubt they provided the money to buy Willie his partnership. Whether the two did not get along, or perhaps Willie did not know as much about brewing as Grier had hoped, the partnership only lasted until July 1876. At which point Grier prevailed upon his mother-in-law, the widow of Henry Shepherd, the Faversham brewer, to become his partner, investing £10,000 and receiving half of the profits. Grier would continue the management of the brewery and would live there rent and tax free. This would provide not only money to prop up the business in Eltham, but experience, in the form of his brother-in-law, Harry Reginald Shepherd, who had served a rigorous pupillage under his late father at the Faversham Steam Brewery. At the Eltham firm’s first annual ‘beanfeast’, held at the Sydney Arms, Perry Street, in August of 1877, Grier announced to his staff that ‘he had the pleasure to announce to them that his brother-in-law (Mr. Shepherd) had joined him in his brewery (cheers); and he could assure them that he would not enter their busy hive as a drone bee, but as a trained and tried man; for after leaving school he entered his (Mr. Shepherd’s) father’s brewery, and there learned the business; and in taking him he believed he would be bringing a great acquisition to the Eltham Brewery; he called upon them to drink the health of Mr. Shepherd (received with cheers and musical honours)’.

But even this partnership with his mother-in-law failed; business declined steadily from the 6000 barrels brewed in the first year and in June 1880, Mrs. Shepherd sued Grier for dissolution of the partnership and the sale of the brewery by auction to recover her investment. Grier however, wanted to buy the concern by private treaty with some friends because, if the sale went to auction he would be unable to afford to bid for it in the open market, and would therefore lose his business and his home. The evidence of Mr. Collins, a brewery valuer, who had been appointed by the Court as Receiver, and to manage the business pending the court case, throws some light upon Grier’s business acumen. He was of the opinion that ‘Major Grier did not appear to possess a practical knowledge of the brewery business...... he manifested the utmost ignorance of everything which a man conducting a brewery business should know. He knew neither the amount of trade, the condition of the books, the amount of profit or loss, or anything about the matter’. At this point the presiding Judge stated that he should have thought that when a man set up a brewery business he ought to know something about it. Eventually a financial settlement was reached and the partnership dissolved.

In 1880, Messrs. George Garrett and Richard Sandford, presumably the ‘friends’ referred to above, set up the Bayerische Lager Beer Brewery Co. Ltd., with a Capital of £100,000 in £5 shares, ‘to acquire the Brewery premises at Eltham, and to extend and convert same for the purpose of a lager beer brewery’. Lager beer was of course something of a novelty at this time, there was certainly a market for it in the Metropolis, but a later prospectus reveals that they intended to produce a ‘non-intoxicating’ beer at a cost of 40/- per barrel to sell at 78/- per barrel. They anticipated selling some 12-13,000 barrels per annum with a maximum capacity of 100,000brls per annum. Unsurprisingly, this somewhat over-ambitious project did not come to fruition. Another attempt was made to launch a lager beer brewery in 1883, this time known as the Bavarian Brewery Co. Ltd., and it struggled on for five years until in May 1888, a Mr. Edward Courtney, of Alveston House, Herbert Road, Woolwich, who was a creditor of the company, issued a petition for its winding up under the Companies Acts of 1862 and 1867; it was duly wound up and a liquidator appointed in July of that year.

All of this time Major Grier was farming on a small scale; he even tried to get approval to slaughter his own cattle at the brewery at one time! He wasn't really a brewer...... an interesting character maybe, but not really a brewer. After his death the brewery continued under a variety of names until about 1920, when it became a paint and varnish factory; it was largely destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War.