W.H.Brakspear & Sons; The Henley Brewery.
Born in Faringdon in 1750, Robert Brakspear by the age of nineteen was landlord of
the Cross Keys Inn at Witney. He stayed there for ten years, brewing for himself and
for sale to other publicans in the town. His uncle, Richard Hayward, ran a brewery
and malthouse in Bell Street, Henley; in 1779 Brakspear moved there and two years
later became a partner in the brewery. On Haywards death in 1797 his half share
passed to Brakspear, who was able to buy out the remaining partner in 1803 and thus
become sole proprietor.
The brewery in these years was small by national standards; it produces less
than 4,500 barrels in 1784-5 when the big London breweries were turning out 100.000
barrels each. Its successful management, however, demanded great skill and financial
sense. Hops and malt were expensive, and their purchase and storage needed careful
judgement and planning; the brewing of the beer itself was a process still only
imperfectly understood in Brakspear’s day, and he set about improving his own
understanding of it, taking scientific measurements and keeping a detailed record of
each brew in books of ‘Practical Notes’. Between 1795 abd1811 about 105 brewings
were taking place each year, of three types of beer—a strong, an amber strong and a
weak ‘small’ beer. Brakspear also experimented with making an amber porter.
Competition between breweries was increasing, particularly through the acquisition
of tied houses and by 1812 Brakspear had 34 such houses; his main local competitors
were Simonds of Reading, Haywards of Watlington, and Appleton and Shaw, brewers
in New Street Henley. In 1812, the year of his death, Robert Brakspear negotiated the amalgamation of his
own company with Appleton and Shaw. Soon afterwards the old Bell Street Brewery
was closed, and all activity concentrated on the New Street site. Robert’s son William
Henry Brakspear, inherited his fathers good luck and energy. He became a partner in
1825, and by 1848 a Brakspear was once again sole proprietor. During his 57 years at
the brewery, W.H.Brakspear worked tirelessly to expand the company. More
beerhouses were acquired and malthouses taken over. Production increased to serve
the new outlets, from 9,000 barrels a year1838 to 14,300 in 1882. His sons, Archibald
and George were taken into partnership, and after their fathers death in 1882 steered
the company successfully through the difficult years of the late nineteenth century.
They introduced improvements to their houses and to the brewery itself—a new
coopers shop in 1886, a new brewhouse in 1892—though there was no complete
rebuilding as at some local breweries. In 1896 Brakspear’s bought out and closed
down their main local rival, the Grey’s brewery in Henley. The capital to do this
could only be raised by establishing the firm as a limited company; successive
members of the family have continued to serve as chairman.
In this century, Brakspear’s has managed to retain its independence, gradually buying
out all its remaining local competitors; the last was Gundry’s Goring Brewery in
1941. Methods were improved, particularly of transport to the extensive collection of
tied houses. By 1979, their bicentenery year, production was over 30,000 barrels a
year and their range of beers was being supplied to 130 tied houses, as well as some
free houses, in the towns and villages of South Oxfordshire.
In the last two decades, Brakspear’s has been through a period of rationalisation.
Many of their charming, out-of-the-way country pubs have proved expensive to
maintain and difficult to get to. Now, after years of closing these small unprofitable
pubs, Brakspear’s is displaying a greater determination to enhance its remaining
estate of 101 mostly tied pubs, which boasts many excellent, unspoilt hostelries, all
serving traditional ales. The larger pubs are being converted to managed houses with
10 per cent of the estate to be under management by the end of 1998. Some 70 free
trade pubs are supplied direct and trading arrangements with Whitbread and Scottish
Courage mean that Brakspear’s ales are available throughout southern England. A
small bottling line was opened in 1998 and many of Robert Brakspear’s original
recipes have recently been decoded from the ‘heiroglyphics’ he used to protect them
(remember his books of ‘Practical Notes’). The 1998 Vintage Ale, sold in stone
bottles, is one such brew.
BOND, J. and RHODES, J. The Oxfordshire Brewer, Oxfordshire Museum Services, 1985.
PREECE, J. (Editor) The Good Beer Guide, Campaign for Real Ale Ltd, 1999.
SHEPPARD, F. Brakspear’s Brewery Henley on Thames 1779-1979, W. H. Brakspear and Sons Ltd, 1979.