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Thursday, 28 July 2011

"Demand for Burton Ale was Never so Great" - The Coming of the Railway to Burton

Before the railways arrived the majority of breweries produced beer for their local markets. Indeed, with the growth of the national population in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly in urban centres, the trade of these local breweries increased considerably. However, the railways changed things beyond many individuals’ wildest expectations, and while they did not revolutionise the beer industry, they certainly brought its products to a far wider market

The breweries of Burton benefitted the most from these new transport links. They had expanded their businesses in London, Liverpool and Birmingham in the 1820s and 1830s. Yet, beer prices in these places remained high to cover the costly transportation. The railway altered this situation and in 1871 the Nottinghamshire Guardian stated that ‘Mr Bass,’ the biggest Burton brewer, was ‘assisted greatly by the development of the railway system between 1835 and 1850.’[1] Burton was afforded a railway link to London in 1839 by the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway who connected to the London and Birmingham Railway. In Wilson’s opinion this did three things for the Burton brewers.

Firstly, the cost of transporting beer reduced. Prior to the advent of the railways the cost of transporting a ton of beer (about five barrels) to London was around the £3 mark. However, the reduced the cost to around 15s per ton. Indeed, this spurred the Burton brewery partnerships to push the railway companies to drop the price of conveying other supplies they used, such as hops, malt and casks.

The second major effect was that the speed at which beer could be moved also reduced. Thus, where beer moving from Burton to London took three weeks to make the journey in the 1820s, by the 1840s it was taking 12 hours. This increased Burton beers’ availability to the country and consequently the demand for them skyrocketed. Thus, Bass’ home trade quadrupled in the four years after 1839. Furthermore, in 1855 the output of Bass was 145,177 barrels. Yet, as the nation’s rail network had expanded considerably, by 1858 production had doubled. Indeed, this shifted the company’s focus from foreign trade, which had been a major source of revenue before 1839, to internal markets. On the erection of a new Bass brewery in April 1863, The Derby Mercury commented that ‘the demand for Burton Ale was never so great as at the present time, as we are informed that applications have been received for many thousands of barrels of ale which the brewers are unable to supply.’[2]

Lastly, the rail links allowed the beer company to move materials and beers quickly and cheaply from the brewery and maltings to within Burton itself. Thus, overall, Wilson argued that ‘no other town and industry in Victorian Britain demonstrated better the benefit of the railways.’ Indeed, as the Leicester Chronicle stated on the opening of a new Brewery by Allsopp’s and Sons in July 1853, ‘The splendid establishment which this enterprising firm has founded in this place is every way worthy of the magnitude and celebrity of their brewery, while its immediate connection with the system of railways, worked by the London and North Western Railway company, not only affords them an immense advantage in economy of material and transit, but enables them to bring their ales into the London market in the most perfect condition possible.[3]

Commentators were always impressed by the affect that the railways had on Burton, but also the affect that the increase in trade had on the railways. The Licensed Victullers’ Gazette in 1874 stated that ‘something like 120,000 railway trucks [were employed], enough if all placed on a line of railways in a straight line now to reach from London to Liverpool and back again.’ Furthermore, Bass became the world’s largest railway customer. When Bass reached its peak in the late 1890s the company was despatching 600 wagons per day and within a few hours they could be unloaded inside the company’s depots at St Pancras and at the London Docks. Indeed, Burton became a web of ‘intercommunicating lines belonging to the four companies operating in the town.’

Therefore, without the railways Burton ales possibly would never have become as famous as they did.


[1] Nottinghamshire Guardian, Friday, May 26th 1871, Issue 1316
[2] The Derby Mercury, Wednesday, April 29th 1863, Issue 6839
[3] The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Saturday, July 9th 1853, Issue 2224

All information, except where stated, came from Goruvish, T.R. and Wilson, R.G., The British Brewing Industry: 1830-1980, (London, 1994), p.149-151

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