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MORRELLS OF OXFORD A Personal Observation by Charles Eld, Managing Director
Charles Eld, the sixth generation of the family to run the company welcomed the BHS to The Lion Brewery and in the presence of the Author, the current Head Brewer, David Polden, and past Head Brewer, Louis Gunter, who joined Morrells as a pupil in 1937, gave a short presentation on the history of the brewery. As he put it, this was the commercial and anyone who wanted to know more should buy the book. The History splits up into three parts.
The Site and Brewing in Oxford up to 1800 The Morrell Family as Brewers 1670 -1800 Morrells Brewery 1800 -1993
The story of Brewing in Oxford was interwoven with the academic and ecclesiastical life of the City. Oseney Abbey founded in the early 12th Century and Rewley Abbey founded in the late 13th Century both had their own domestic brewhouses. Many of the Colleges produced their own ale at one time or another, and Queen's College Brewhouse dating from 1341, was in continuous use for nearly 600 years until the last brew of Chancellors Ale (1100 O.G.) was carried out by Louis Gunter in 1938. After the St. Scholastica Day Riot in 1355, caused by undergraduates objecting to the price of ale in the town, the University took over the control of the annual Assize of Ale and this continued until the Assize was abolished in 1836!
In the early 15th Century, the Monks of Oseney decided that the land they owned on the western side of Oxford, which adjoined the City Wall and straddled the main route to the west, was ideal for development. Now known as the Parish of St. Thomas' this area consisted of a number of islands surrounded by navigable streams and the availability of good wells and water transport made milling, baking and brewing the most logical uses. In 1452 the monks built the first brewery in the locality and leased it to a common brewer. Later converted into a maltings, this site became part of Morrells Brewery in 1800 producing malt for the company until its sale to the University in 1950s after a major fine.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII the lands of Oseney Abbey were given to Christ Church in 1546 to endow the new College. As a result most of St. Thomas' was then owned by the College and rented out for residential or commercial purposes. In 1563 Robert Luike who was a professional Chorister at the Cathedral took a lease on the nucleus of the current site and built a large Elizabethan brewhouse which he sublet. A plan of Oxford drawn by David Logan in 1675 shows three brewery sites which would later become part of Morrells Brewery the 1452 brewhouse, Locke's brewhouse and another brewhouse built in 1628 which is now the site of the Estates Department. Christ Church College records show a Thomas Kenton taking the lease of the brewery in 1718 and in 1743 his widow sold her interest in the business to Richard Tawney. He was a retired barge-master and therefore had the necessary funds to run the business as well as the contacts to maximise the benefit of water transport. His elder son, Richard born in 1721, took over running the brewery and bought the King & Queen in Wheatley in 1759 which is still part of the Morrells estate. The younger son Edward became a maltster and in 1773 bought the disused brewhouse built by the monks in 1452 to supply malt for his brother.
On Richard's death without heir in 1791, Edward took over the running of the brewery and added it to his growing empire of maltings and mills. Some of the transaction's made by Richard and Edward Tawney would appear to have been in conjunction with a prominent Oxford lawyer James Morrell and his brother Mark, who had been a lawyer in Wallingford. It was Mark Morrell's sons also called James and Mark, who entered into a partnership in the brewery with Edward Tawney in 1797 and bought the business on his death in 1800. This is probably the cause of the confusion that used to exist about the 1782 founding date of Morrells Brewery and the research for the Brewery History Society has finally resolved the matter. In 1807, James Morrell married Jane Wharton a great- niece of Edward Tawney and the link between the two families was complete.
The Morrell Family originated from the area around Wallingford and had both milling and brewing backgrounds. Records show that in 1670 an unnamed Morrell who was the Wallingford town miller complained to the Council that his monopoly was being violated. This was probably the father of Jerimiah Morrell who was a miller and brewer in the town and left his brewing vessels to his younger son Mark in his will dated 1766. As brewing in the town was dominated by the Wallingford Town Brewery run by the Wells family, Mark moved to Oxford to join his elder brother James who was making a name for himself as a lawyer to various colleges and a political agent. Mark still ran the Wallingford Mill and appears to have continued his father's water transport business on the Thames. There are no records of how he became involved with Richard and Edward Tawney although they both had very similar backgrounds. However he apprenticed his son James to a Wallingford Maltster and Mark to a London Brewer William Tunnard of Southwark so both were well prepared to go into partnership with Edward Tawney in 1797.
The first priority for Mark and James after taking control of the brewery in 1900 was to pay off the sizeable loans which they received from their Uncle James and make the final payments to Edward Tawney's executors. Their business interests then began to grow rapidly. In 1808 the brothers became partners in a bank Cox, Morrell and Co., and after some dubious transactions made by the Cox's in 1831 they took over total control of the business which included a coal mine in the Forest of Dean and a sizeable holding in the Oxford Canal.
Although Mark was happy to invest his earnings in shares, James began to buy farms on the outskirts of the City and also the site on Headington Hill where he built the magnificent Hall which was later to become the home of the late Robert Maxwell.
During this period the company continued to grow with the extension and refurbishment of the brewery and acquisition of many public houses. On his death in 1843 Mark had left his total estate to his brother James, so in 1851 James then aged 78 was able to transfer the whole business to his son also called James. The younger James was content to leave the running of the brewery with competent managers and preferred to pursue the life of a country gentleman. However he died in 1863 after a fall from a carriage and his wife died the following year, their only child Emily was left an orphan at the age of 10 years. Therefore, the family assets were put into the hands of Trustees. She later fell in love with and then married a distant relation George Herbert Morrell of whom the Trustees did not approve and as a result the brewery was run by the Trustees from 1864 until her death in 1938.
Although many advances were made between 1863 and 1938 including the purchase of the freehold of the brewery in 1878, the building of the present offices in 1892 and major improvements to the brewhouse between 1890 and 1901, the business lacked entrepreneurial flair and the rate of expansion of the first sixty years did not continue. However, in the early 1900s a spate of takeovers of breweries began in the City with Halls Brewery taking control of four other companies. In 1925 Halls themselves were taken over by Allsopps who were taken over by Ind Coope in 1927 with all brewing ceasing in the City. It was no coincidence that Emily's son James, realising that the Morrell family now owned the only surviving brewery in Oxford, persuaded the Trustees to allow him to take over as Acting Brewery Manager on the death of the previous Manager in 1925. He was anxious to keep the company going and after his mother's death in 1938 he supervised the winding up of the Trusts and the reformation of the business as a limited company.
In 1943 after only 18 years as Acting Manager, James Morrell great-grandson of the namesake who had founded the brewery became Chairman and Managing Director of Morrells Brewery Limited. This perhaps should have been the bi-centenary of the brewery as Richard Tawney had taken over the lease in 1743.
The next fifty years saw a determined effort to bring the company up to date and survive the rapid changes going on in the brewing industry. The fire in the Maltings in 1956 was the end of the Morrells involvement in malting and the Bottling Hall was closed in 1985 because the plant was worn out and volumes had dropped. However, investment in the brewhouse continued apace with new boilers and a new copper being installed in 1966 and the replacement, in 1971 of four old open fermenters installed in 1896 with four conical fermenters. The closure of the Bottling Hall enabled the company to install a new dual purpose brewhouse able to produce up to 50,000 barrels of ale and 25,000 of lager per year, ten 240 lager fermenters and a new kegging plant. Although over œ4.5 million has been spent on the brewery in the last eighteen years a copper dating from the 1890 refurbishment is still in daily use.
In 1990 Morrells bought a Warehouse on Oseney Mead to give more space at the brewery and to enable the company to wholesale a complete range of beers, wines, spirits and soft drinks.
Charles Eld who claims to be the 8th generation of the Morrell family to be a brewer took over as Managing Director in 1988 and with over 98% of the shares are owned by descendants of his grandfather James Morrell, family control is determined to keep the company independent. Having been high in the second rank of brewers in 1890 with an asset value of £750,000 Morrells now is one of the smaller local companies with an estate of 138 houses mainly in Oxfordshire. However with excellent brewing and distribution facilities and a full range of Cask Ales, Morrells are intent on continuing their traditions for many years to come.