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The brewing industry

Although there is no large local brewer today, Northamptonshire has a long history of brewing. You can see physical remains of the industry across the county. For example, in Oundle, the McKee’s Anchor Brewery building still stands today.

In medieval England, weak ale was the staple drink because it was safer to drink than water. It was brewed domestically – in the home, or in country estates and institutions for their own use. Home brewing continued for centuries.

Later, brew pubs, or ‘brewing victuallers’ who sold out of pubs, emerged and co-existed alongside home brewing. However, both domestic and pub brewing began to decline at the end of the 19th century as larger ‘common brewers’ replaced them. Common brewers sold to pubs and often owned ‘tied estates’ of pubs who only sold their beer.

Improved water supplies reduced the need for beer and public tastes moved from dark, cloudy ales to lighter, clearer ones. These were made using new methods of brewing, requiring too much investment for smaller brewers. Furthermore, the development of canals and railways made it cheaper and easier to transport ales, bringing increased competition. Publican brewers could not keep up. Brew pubs produced 40% of beer in the 1830s, but only 10% by 1890.

Phipps pub sign

In Northamptonshire, many common brewers opened their doors in this period. For example, Dulley’s Swan Brewery was built in Wellingborough in 1802 and Manning’s Castle Brewery in Northampton opened in 1878.

However, their number shrank as larger breweries took over smaller ones. In 1906, there were 24 common breweries in Northamptonshire, but only eight in 1940 and five in 1960.

The last one was the Phipps Northampton Brewing Company (NBC). Both Phipps and NBC started as independent breweries in the 1800s, but expanded and bought up smaller businesses. When they merged in 1957, they became the largest brewer in the Midlands and one of the largest companies in Northamptonshire. They were later acquired by Watney Mann and replaced by a Carlsberg plant in 1974.

However, in the late 2000s, Phipps NBC was revived. It now brews in the restored Albion Brewery (an independent brewery opened by Ratliffe and Jeffrey in 1864, but taken over by Phipps in 1899). The real ale and craft ale movements have also led to the appearance of several other microbreweries in Northamptonshire.

Historic local breweries

  • Dulley's of Wellingborough

    ​David Dulley built his Swan Brewery in Wellingborough in 1802. The town was known for its medicinal water and Dulley’s Redwell Stout was named after the famous Redwell Spring. The business stayed family-run until it was taken over by Praeds in 1920.

  • Hopcraft and Norris of Brackley

    The Hopcraft family began brewing in the 1840s and founded Hopcraft and Norris in Brackley in 1895. The brewery siren sounded at 1pm every day and was so loud that it could be heard in nearby fields. Townspeople and farm workers used it as a signal for lunch. The company expanded during the 1900s, buying other breweries. At the end of the Second World War, Hopcraft and Norris merged with Chesham Brewery to become Chesham and Brackley Brewery.

  • King's of Syresham

    King’s Brewery of Syresham was built in 1903, expanding Herbert King’s earlier brewing. By 1914, King’s had seven horse-drawn vans, which delivered within a 20-mile radius. These were later replaced by a fleet of red motor delivery vans, one of which you can see in the picture to the left. In 1924, King’s had 8000 customers and was the largest employer in the village. The company was sold in 1955 and its brewery demolished.

  • Smiths of Oundle

    ​Smiths of Oundle and its North Street Brewery were founded in 1775. A large military contract quickly led to the expansion of the company. During the Napoleonic Wars, Smiths was contracted to supply beer to the prisoner of war camp at Norman Cross near Peterborough. Soldiers were allowed five pints of beer a day. In 1799 alone, Smiths sold the camp over 160,000 gallons of beer! Over the next century, Smiths bought up pubs, off-licenses, and other breweries, and the family also ran Oundle’s main bank. However, the company was sold in 1955 and its brewing was transferred. The last brew at Oundle was on 11 September 1962.

  • The Bantam Cock

    ​The Bantam Cock in Northampton is an 18th-century pub that still stands today. Its first recorded brewer was Edward Nicholls in 1768, but the pub changed hands many times. In 1786, the owner was given the unusual privilege of being allowed to produce ale tax-free. This photo was taken around 1900, shortly after it was rebuilt.

  • The Horse & Groom

    ​The Horse and Groom was first recorded as a brew pub in 1859. By 1877, it was selling Phipps stout alongside its home-brewed ales. Phipps later bought the pub. It was closed in 1958 and the building was demolished.

To visit - Wellingborough Museum is housed in Dulley’s Baths, an indoor swimming pool built by a local brewer. It features displays on the local brewing industry.
For further research - Northamptonshire Archives Service holds many records relating to the brewing industry. These include photographs, licensing records, Brewers Association minutes, and the Phipps Brewery Collection.
To visit - Northampton Museum & Art Gallery has a small section on local inns.
Image acknowledgements:

Albion Brewery employees in front of barrels, 1902 © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Excavated malting oven © MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)

Phipps Brewery inn sign © Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

Frog Island Brewery © Frog Island Brewery

Boiler room at Campbell Praed's Brewery, 1911 © Brewery History Society

Dulley's Brewery © Wellingborough Museum

Hopcraft and Norris advertisement © Brewery History Society

King's Brewery mobile delivery van © Brewery History Society

Smith's Brewery employees, c. 1890 © Brewery History Society

The Bantam Cock pub © Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

The Horse and Groom pub © Northampton Museum & Art Gallery

Wellingborough Museum © Wellingborough Museum

Scroll © Northamptonshire Archives Service

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery © Northamptonshire County Council