Water Lane & Berkhamsted Brewery | Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Water Lane & Berkhamsted Brewery

Water Lane & Berkhamsted Brewery

Water Lane is the oldest recorded street name in Berkhamsted. It was named in a charter of 1318 and is one of the original old streets of the town, the others being High Street, Castle Street and Mill Street. Despite its antiquity, little remains of Water Lane today. Water Lane originally ran from the end of Mill Street to the High Street and like the Wilderness, to which it ran adjacent, it now lies under a car park, the only remaining indication of its route, being the street name on the side of what is now Tesco.

The area was considered a “rough quarter”. The gas works stood in the Wilderness in 1849 until moved to Billet Lane in 1906, and a brewery stood in Water Lane itself.

Local historian, Percy Birtchnell, wrote that Water Lane was particularly narrow. Until the market house burned down in 1854, the loft was used to store grain. The Market house was situated on the High Street at the end of Water Lane and there was constant traffic between the market house and the water mill in Mill Street and “…congestion in Water-lane sometimes led to free fights between rival waggoners.”

Birtchnell also noted that “Before modern drainage was installed, the lane was often known as ‘Watery-lane.’ An eighteen-inch drainage pipe installed in 1831 “…failed to cope with the flood waters from the High-street, and the lane then resembled a tributary of the Bulbourne. The Brewers were apt to frown on the name ‘Watery-Lane’.

In 1876 the Rural sanitary Authority took steps to alleviate the drainage problem and passed a resolution “That a cesspool be formed in accordance with the plan now submitted by the Inspector to receive the solid sewage flowing down Water Lane and Wilderness, with an outfall into the river.” (Bucks Herald, September 1876).

In 1879, there were proposals to install mains drainage in the town, the cost of which would have been born by the local ratepayers. One such ratepayer, local coach builder John Pethybridge, wrote a letter published in the Bucks Herald opposing the “sewerage craze” and “…any attempt to force the parishioners into an expensive scheme of sewerage…” He pointed out that in 1840 the town had seven medical practitioners for a population of under 3,000 whereas in 1879 there were three doctors and a population of 4,000. This increase in population and the decrease in number of doctors was in his view “…conclusive proof of the healthiness of Berkhamsted…” and that as the town was healthy, the expanse of installing mains drainage was “quite unnecessary.” Pethybridge was not the only inhabitant of the town to oppose the proposed works on the ground of cost. Captain Hamilton of Highfield House said no one outside Bedlam would think of spending so much money on “a useless and dangerous experiment.”

It was not until 1894 that the Rural Sanitary Board, in one of its last acts before it was superseded by the local council, installed mains drainage in the town at a cost to ratepayers of £13,812. When the Berkhamsted Urban District Council was formed in 1898, it found much of the work was faulty and had to be reconstructed at a further cost of £8,645.

The Brewery

Brewing and malting are thought to have started in Berkhamsted in the 16th century. Inns in the town, such as the Swan brewed their own beer and by 1800 John Page was brewing his own beer at the King’s Arms. Slightly later a brewery was built in Water Lane. Whittaker (Brewers in Hertfordshire,  2006)  says that Thomas Archer started large scale brewing in 1811 at the brewery in Water Lane when Elizabeth Billington was the owner of the property. Whittaker writes that Archer was followed by William Tomlin (1828-44); John Frost (1844-6); John Newman Frost (1846 -55) and Alfred Healey (1855-1868). The 1851 Poor Law tax records show that a malting was also built on the site. Malting is the process by which grain is steeped, germinated and dried to convert it into malt before it can be used for brewing.

In fact, the 1839 Tithe records reveal that at that date there were two breweries in Water Lane. On the east side of the lane stood two houses, brewery, farm yard and buildings owned and occupied by William Tomlin, named by Whittaker as the owner of the brewery between 1828 -44, but opposite on the west of the lane was a dwelling, brewery, malting yard, garden and premises owned and occupied by John Manship Mills. John Mills seems to have run into financial difficulties. The Hertford & Mercury Reformer carried a notice in May 1845 that Mills’ property “a well established BREWERY and MALTING PREMISES , well supplied with water, a comfortable and roomy dwelling house, garden yard and outbuildings…” was to be sold by auction by order of the mortgagee. These premises seem to have then fallen out of use as a brewery. The Ordnance Survey maps of 1878 and 1898 both show only one brewery on the west side of the lane and we know from a newspaper report in 1867 of a fire which broke out opposite the brewery that the premises which caught fire then consisted of “…an old wooden building used as a hovel and barn…”  Healey’s brewery only narrowly avoided the conflagration. The newspaper report explained that the woodwork of the brewery caught fire:

“The devouring element made rapid progress, but with much difficulty the brewery was saved. Mr Healey seems to have some faithful servants about him. One of them, the gardener, gave him the alarm…two more Batchelor, his carpenter, and Godman, his cooper, by their prompt endeavours merited the cheers of onlookers. Having provided themselves with pail, they mounted the building…and from a tank, fortunately at the top, they dashed pailfuls of water on the flame, and although nearly blinded by smoke, they stuck to their post, and saved the brewery.”

As the newspaper commented, the premises which caught fire were adjacent to the Gas Company’s gasometer, the tar on which was melted by the fire.

In 1868 Locke & Smith bought the brewery from Alfred Healey. They began acquiring a number of inns and beer houses in West Hertfordshire and a few in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. In Berkhamsted they held the Bell, Boot, Crooked Billet, George & Dragon, Goat, King Edward VI, Lamb, Plough, Royal Oak, Stag, and White Hart.

Locke & Smith seem to have treated their employees well. In 1877, one of the brewery’s proprietors, Mr E H Smith, made available a field he owned adjoining Butts Meadow and which was divided into 24 garden allotments for use by brewery employees and in 1882 the brewery employees had been treated to dinner in the Town Hall.

The workers also enjoyed annual excursions. In 1887 “Employees at the Berkhampstead Brewery were treated by their employers, Messrs. Locke and Smith, with a holiday. They went by the London and North-Western excursion to Brighton, where the firm provided for them a good dinner, sailing boat, and all the requisites for a seaside holiday. The Berkhampstead party, with a few of the relatives of the men, numbered about forty… [they] very much enjoyed their outing.” (Bucks Herald, Jul 1887). In 1888 Locke & Smith employees, together with employees of East & Sons saw mills had an excursion to Margate and Ramsgate and in 1888 they were taken to the Agricultural Show at Windsor, the firm bearing the cost and providing luncheon and dinner.

The brewery fielded a cricket team, and newspapers of the time carried numerous reports of the matches in which the brewery played against other local teams.

In addition to the brewery’s human employees, horses were kept by the brewery to haul the waggons (known as “drays”). The Nash family had a forge near the Town Hall from where “…the ring of the anvil could be heard in the heart of Berkhampstead… Mr Alfred Nash, the last of a long line of professional shoeing smiths, told me he was often up at 5.a.m. to shoe the 24 dray horses kept by Locke & Smith.” (Beorcham, Berkhamsted Review, Apr 1973).

One of the draymen employed by the brewery was James miles who in 1911 was living with his wife Elizabeth and five children at 3 George Street. A Drayman, it was his job to deliver beer to public houses in the villages between Berkhamsted and Dunstable. An article which appeared in the Berkhamsted Review described James’ life as a drayman.

 “He left his home in George Street every morning at 6 a.m. and more often than not he did not return home until 10 at night. He had one very satisfying compensation for these very long hours however, in that he brought home a gallon of beer every night which helped no doubt to ensure the enjoyment of his spare time at home… The long hours and hard work he had to do in delivering and unloading his barrels took its toll and made him very tired, and in fact he often ‘fell asleep at the wheel’ It is recorded that during a snowstorm one night on the way home from Dunstable, he dropped off to sleep and the horses brought him safely home to the brewery in Water Lane where his colleagues had to wake him and no doubt revive him with a little of the Company’s liquid refreshment.”
(Gossling, C J. “Horse Brought Him Home”, Berkhamsted Review, June 1970.)

The brewery also often made gifts of beer and tobacco for the Christmas dinner for the inmates of the workhouse.

The partnership was dissolved in 1883 and Locke retired. By 1890 the brewery seems to have run into financial difficulties which were solved by mortgaging the business. In 1898, Locke & Smith, bought Tring Brewery for £30,050. By 1911 the premises were again in financial difficulties and a receiver was appointed. In The brewery had been charged to London County and Westminster Bank, which decided it should be sold. Benskin’s brewery of Watford acquired it and the tied public houses for £37,600, but closed the brewery in 1914.

During the war the buildings were used by the Inns of Court OTC to stable their horses.  After the war there was a recommendation that the building be demolished and a war memorial built on the site. That did not go ahead but there was a further fire in 1929 and this time the building, then being used as a woodenware factory did not escape destruction. The Bucks Examiner of 21 June 1929 explained what happened.

“Known locally as ‘Old Foster’s Brewery’[1]  and now used as a woodenware factory, owned by Messrs Kepston Ltd., in the centre of Berkhampstead, this place was gutted by fire during the early hours of Tuesday morning. The outbreak was discovered at 1.20 a.m. and when the fire was at its zenith, flames from the factory wood rose to a height of 100 feet. There was no loss of life, but a poignant incident was the death, from shock, of Mrs Nash, aged 69, who lived in a cottage near the factory. One of her sons, a member of the Berkhampstead Brigade, was on duty at the fire. The factory is immediately behind the High-street and very near some of the oldest property in the town. The absence of a strong wind saved these houses, but preventative measures were taken by inhabitants by the removal of furniture into the streets.”

The remnants of the brewery were demolished and the area converted to a car park.

[1] There seems to have been some confusion as to the name of the brewery in the newspaper report. James Foster in the mid 19th century had owned and run the Swan brewery in Chesham Road, which was later acquired by the Lane family, before being sold to Chesham Brewery. The brewery in Water Lane was not owned by Foster.


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