It was what we would now call a shrewd diversification. In 1787 John Courage was in the prime of life, and in the course of eight years he had consolidated his position in London. He had come from Aberdeen as a younger son of a French Huguenot family exiled and settled in Scotland a century before. He had prospered in the flourishing maritime trade of the Thames tideway, acting as agent for Scottish interests, the Carron ships, which plied from Glasgow Wharf on the north bank down stream from the Tower. From that base he cast his eyes across the busy river to the Southwark foreshore with its frieze of masts, rigging and furled sails and decided to diversify his interests by going into beer.
So the name of Courage was associated with brewing, with London, and with Southwark where in the fourteenth century Geoffrey Chaucer had celebrated the ale and primed his Canterbury pilgrimage on it. The association has had a triumphant continuity. There is still a Courage, John’s direct descendant at the head of the business, and the punning slogan Take Courage has a national familiarity, its message often being taken as a moral exhortation by twentieth century pilgrims.
When John Courage settled for the purchase of a brew house at Horselydown across the river, he was investing his acumen and money in a staple industry at an opportune time. The American Colonies had been lost for more than a decade, King George III was approaching his first bout of madness, yet Macaulay wrote that “The eight years which followed the General Elections of 1784 were as tranquil and prosperous as any eight years in the whole history of England.”
In that pre-Industrial Revolution society, brewing was becoming one of the nation’s foremost industries. The population was steadily increasing and the average household regarded ale and beer as a necessity, a staple item of diet for men, women and children upon which more money was spent than on any other commodity. Sidney and Beatrice Webb estimated that 100,000 ale-houses were serving a population of some eight million. More specific figures for production have survived. In the year that John Courage entered the business, Common Brewers and Brewing Victuallers produced over 14,350,000 barrels. This figure did not include the output of home and private brewers, whose activities in any case were beginning to diminish. The tendency was for brewing to develop in the hands of professionals from a mystery to an industry aware of scientific methods and capable of facing the problems of distribution.
John Courage may well have studied an influential work, Philosophical Principles of the Science of Brewing by John Richardson, published three years before he made his move. In this, the introduction of the thermometer “general as it is now becoming” and the saccharometer were taken for granted as scientific developments of that century. In more general terms Richardson also noticed changes in management: “The humble origin of the brewing business has long entailed a general concurrent opinion that its professors need neither genius nor education; and in conformity to that opinion, has this profession, more perhaps, than any other of the like national importance, been disgraced by sinking into the hands of the most ignorant and illiterate. . . . It is, however, a happiness that the extensive connections of modern times have induced men of fortune, education and liberality, in this country at least to adopt the profession, and render it respectable.”
For a man of John Courage’s generation, in the seventeen eighties there could have been little doubt about the respectability of the expanding profession. It had been socially acceptable for more than a hundred years, particularly in Southwark, as Peter Mathias noted: “In so far as business wealth became reflected in social position, this generation of the most important London brewers at the end of the seventeenth century shows a heightened status. Byde, whose ale Pepys thought it worth travelling out to Mile End to drink, was an Alderman of the City. George Meggott, Charles Cox, John Friend, John Lade, John Parsons, Felix Feast eventually became knights. A brewer’s daughter married a peer. Several brewers were already Members of Parliament - in particular Southwark, a borough which had brewing as its major industry, was for long thus represented. There can be no more revealing evidence than this of the importance of the brewing industry in the locality - a prominence dating directly back to the settlement of German and Dutch beer brewers. Where indirect evidence must be relied on, parliamentary representation becomes as good a guide as any to social position and economic strength.”
While family continuity such as that initiated by John Courage is one of the most remarkable features of the brewing industry - particularly strong in the Courage Group where there are not only Courages but Barclays and Simonds actively engaged in the business - there have always been times when new men, not brewers born and bred, entered the trade from outside. This intake of new blood to start a dynasty is traditional. It was explained by R. Campbell as early as 1747 in his GeneraI Description of all Trades: “The Brewer in London, as far as I can learn, seldom takes Apprentices; his work is carried on by Labourers who have acquired their Knowledge by experience, and those who intend to setup Business have either been acquainted with it, by being Son or Relation to some Man in the Trade, or take their chance by depending on the Skill and honesty of the Clerks and Servants. (Most new blood, in these circumstances, entered existing concerns) ... in Proportion to what cash they can advance, which is the most common way of coming first into trade, for to erect a Common Brewhouse and lay in Stock answerable, will sink many Thousands before they see any Returns.”
John Courage’s venture into diversification was in fact well timed and in keeping with his times. His choice of Horselydown for his venture was shrewd, so shrewd that the business to which he gave his name has never had to move. At that time there were plenty of small brewing concerns on the north bank of the Thames within the city boundaries close enough to the Carron and Continental Wharf (give it its present name) from which he conducted his shipping business. But Southwark brewing was already renowned and he wisely chose the south bank of the river for his investment. The ales of Southwark had long since been celebrated, particularly by Chaucer whose Canterbury pilgrims were well primed with the local brew before setting out for Canterbury. The cook’s apprentice ‘loved best the taverne than the schoppe’. The miller admits to being ‘dronke’ before setting out on his pilgrimage, and makes excuses for his condition ‘wyte it the ale of Southwark I you preye’. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales about 1387 and they were first printed by Caxton in 1475. The brewing of Southwark had therefore received a literary tribute some four hundred years before John Courage turned his attention to Horselydown.
His initial investment amounted to £616.13.11 d. The money was paid by cheque dated December 20th 1787 which, in accordance with the custom of the time, does not bear the name of the payee. An invoice dated the year 1765 rendering an account for 45 firkins of beer at 2/6d each still exists and indicates that John and Hagger Allis of Horsly Down Old Stairs were the vendors, and probably these were the people who sold their interest to John Courage. A little more than a year later on January 4th 1789, there was the first entry in the brewing book, stating that John Courage from Aberdeen had brewed 51 barrels of beer at The Anchor Brewhouse, Horselydown. No doubt his maritime connections inspired him to give this name to the new enterprise. There is no trace of its use before his takeover.
The 51 barrels of beer were a very modest start to what was to become a rapidly expanding enterprise. There were only ten years between his entry into the business and his death; but during that time his priorities changed. He became first a brewer and second a shipping man, and his portrait in oils which still hangs in the Board Room was captioned: “Picture of Mr. Courage, Brewer of Shad Thames, Agent for Carron Ships at Glasgow Wharf. . .“. It was said to have been the excitement of a parliamentary election rather than the anxieties of business which caused his sudden death in the prime of life - as his portrait shows - in 1793. In investing in this enterprise at Horselydown, Courage was not only buying his way into a local industry with deep and strong roots but he was also taking possession of property already established historically. There have been many spellings of the name which still appears in London Street Directories as Horselydown Lane. S.1. A map of 1544 has it as Horseye Downe. All variations agree at least in its literal meaning as an open space for pasturing the horses and cattle of the people of Southwark and Bermondsey. By the time Courage had moved in the whole area was built over. The eighteenth century had already industrialised it but then, as now, historical associations kept alive in the place names. The narrow street called Shad Thames still bounds The Anchor Brewery. Its derivation has sometimes been ascribed to the shad fish which were plentiful in the earlier unpolluted Thames. But the more likely logical derivation is from the corruption, in popular speech, of "St. John at Thames”, for the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem had been established in Horselydown for many centuries. It was the site of the old “Knight’s Hous” lying between the open space of Horseye Downe and the river which John Courage acquired. The property of the Knights Hospitallers, referred to as the Liberty of St. John of Jerusalem in the reign of Edward 1 consisted of three water-mills, three acres of land, one acre of meadow and twenty acres of pasture. In a survey of their estates in 1338 it was stated that: “. . . there are in Sutwerck two water-mills, one separate pasture, and three small pieces of meadow: and that the whole were demised to Hawise de Swale-Clive, for the term of her life..."
In 1505 “Sir Thomas Docwra, Prior of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in England, and his brethren, knights of the same hospital, demised to Ralph Bothomley of Horsadowne, yeoman, their water myln called, St. John’s Myln, situate at Horsadowne in the county of Surrey, with all the meadows and pastures, housings and appurtenances, thereunto belonging, for the term of forty years, from St. John’s Day then last, at the yearly rent of £8.”
The knights continued to hold some part of their land until the dissolution of the monastries by Henry VIII, but their presence at Horselydown was overshadowed by that of Sir John Fastolfe.
Almost as cherished as the eternal controversy as to the identity of Shakespeare himself is the lesser speculation about the connection between Fastolfe and Falstaff. The real man who cast his great shadow over Southwark and Bermondsey died at the age of 82 in 1459, having enriched himself in the neighbourhood of Horselydown. He has been described as “one-third warrior, one- third shrewd man of the world, one-third knave.” One of his foremost trading interests was in fish, an activity which is commemorated to this day in Pickle Herring Street, London S.E.1, which connects the Horselydown area with the Courage headquarters on Bankside. Fastolfe’s interest in the fishing industry so prospered that he built himself an immense castle on the Norfolk coast at Caister. Each side of this stately home was 300 feet long with a large tower at each end of its corners, one of them 100 feet high. It was well enough fortified to withstand a seige.
In London his home was in Stoney Street, between the two existing Courage Breweries, and formerly the Roman road leading to their ferry across the Thames before London Bridge was built. Here Fastolfe lived in palatial style, sometimes with royalty as guests, and with William of Worcester, the chronicler, as one of his retainers. This William, on one occasion, recorded that “the Parliament being dissolved, the King Henry VI, held the feast of Christmas at Leicester; but James Ormond, Count of Wiltshire, remained at the same feast at the house of Sir John Fastolfe in Southwark.” Much of Horselydown came into the possession of Sir John,. whose activities included money- lending, and whose nature - as many contemporary records show - was rapacious and acquisitive. Nearly 400 deeds relating to his possessions in the area went after his death to Magdalen College, Oxford - one of his beneficiaries. These included beer-houses, water-mills and gardens.
John Courage’s acquisition, the former Knight’s Hous, appears to have been among Fastolfe’s possessions. Evidently it had become known as the Manor House after the knights had relinquished their use of it. Then it had developed into a place of entertainment, a great river-side beer-house with a laid out garden. In the reign of Edward IV it was mentioned in Chancery Proceedings as the “High Biere-howse and gardeyn, lately known as ffastolfe’s”. A picture by Hoefnagle, now at Hatfield House shows a fete at Horselydown in 1590, with the Tower of London across the Thames in the background and the great beer-house itself shown in full festive activity, in the true tradition of Southwark as a place of entertainment.
But on one occasion at least violence was visited upon the area in general and Sir John Fastolfe in particular. When Jack Cade was marching on London, Sir John filled his Southwark palace with armed veterans from his campaigns in France and fortified it with munitions of war. As a member of the King’s Council he was prepared to resist the rebellion. He was prudent enough, however, to send forth one of his servants, a certain Payne, to enquire of Captain Cade, then encamped at Blackheath, what his intentions were. Payne was roughly handled, treated as a spy and threatened with death. Finally he was sent back with the message that “Sir John’s House in Southwark shall be burned down and all his tenuries.” Sir John was not a violent warrior. Hall’s Chronicles recording the battle of Patay during the disastrous French campaigns had noted: “From this battle departed without any stroke stricken Sir John Fastolfe the same year for his valiantness elected into the Order of the Garter.” Characteristically, therefore, Fastolfe listened to Payne and departed with all his followers from Southwark, which briefly became the headquarters of Cade before his death and failure of the rebellion. When it was all over Fastolfe returned to his possessions without apparently loss of face and certainly without diminishment of wealth. History treated him kindly and soon after John Courage arrived at Horselydown a biography of Sir John was published in which it was stated: “The streams of his treasure that fed the fountain of his munificence were numerous and plentiful ... Sir John Fastolfe, the brave experienced soldier, the wise and able statesman, the steady patriot, the generous patron, the pious benefactor.”
William Shakespeare could not have gone long unaware of Sir John Fastolfe when he arrived in Southwark from Stratford in 1586 - four years before the fete portrayed on Horselydown at which he may well have been present. The Knight had died well over a century before; but his name and reputation lingered on in the district and his doing had been well established in the chronicles from which Shakespeare took so much source material. So the immortal Falstaff owed his name in part, some of his character and much of his background, to the Fastolfe who had once proprietorily strutted Horselydown with brewing one of his local interests and the site of the first Courage brewhouse one of his many stakes in fifteenth century Southwark.
Whether Shakespeare himself made his home in Southwark has never been discovered. That he made his fame and fortune there as actor, playwright and playhouse proprietor is certain. Because playhouses, bear gardens and other places of entertainment were not permitted within the boundaries of the City of London, those in search of pleasure crossed the Thames to Southwark which had enjoyed a reputation for the frivolities of life since the days before Chaucer had celebrated them. Stow’s Survey of London published at the time when Shakespeare was in full activity refers to the stews and shady establishments luring those who approached by boat from the City, advertising with “signes on their frontes, towardes the Thames, not hanged out, but painted on the walles, as a Beares Heade, the Crosse Keyes, the Gunne, the Castle, the Crane, the Cardinals Hatte, the Bell, the Swanne . . .“ Stow also wrote of the Bankside bear gardens in 1598: “there be the two Beare-gardens, the old and the new places wherein be kept Beares, Bulles, and other beastes, to be bayted. As also Mastiues in Seuerall kenels are there nourished to bait them. These Beares . .. are . . . bayted in plottes of grounde. scaffolded about for the beholder to stand safe.”
Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn, founder of Duiwich College, were both in the bear-baiting business though it is as pioneers of the theatre associated with Shakespeare that they are mostly remembered. Indeed a Bankside carpenter named Gilbert Katherens undertook to build the Hope in 1613 as a game place or plaiehouse fitt and convenient in all things both for players to plaie in and for. the game of Beares and bulls to be bayted in the same..."
The Rose, the Hope, the Swan and, most renowned of all, the Globe were the playhouses that arose and flourished in Shakesneare’s day. The structure of the Globe had originally served as a playhouse at Shoreditch, another site outside the City of London boundaries favoured for theatrical presentations. In 1598 the lessees, Richard Burbage and others, were forced to move out of Shoreditch, pull down their theatre and transport all the wood and timber thereof unto the Banckside in the parishe of St. Marye Overyes, and there erect a newe playhouse with the sayd timber and woode.” The Globe was built on a plot in yhr Maid Lane. Southwark, now occupied by the Courage bottling plant. It was opened in July 1599 by the Lord Chamberlain’s men and managed by Burbage. Many of Shakepeare’s plays including King Henry V, King Richard II, As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar had their first performances there (Globe first nights were in the afternoons). Shakespeare himself was connected with the Globe not only as a playwright and actor but also as a shareholder. The original lease which shows the Burbage family to have had the main interest also refers to Shakespeare by name. During the production of one of his works in June 1613 the letting off of stage effects set fire to the building. “The burning of the Globe, or Playhouse on the Bankside, on St. Peter’s Day,” wrote a contemporary, “fell out by a Peale of Chambers (that I know not upon what Occasion were to be used in the Play), the Tamplin or Stopple of one of them lightin in the Thatch, that covered the House, burn’d it down to the Ground in less than two Hours, with a Dwelling-house adjoyning, and it was a great Marvaile and fair Grace of God, that the People had so little Harm, having but two narrow Doors to get out.” It was immediately rebuilt and opened again in 1614, but Shakespeare hardly knew this new theatre for he died two years later.
The Southwark playhouses continued to thrive until they were closed down by Cromwell. When the Restoration came, London’s theatrical life was re-established north of the Thames, leaving Southwark to less sophisticated entertainments such as baiting and prize-fighting. Samuel Pepys enjoyed the pleasures of the beer gardens in the summer of 1666 and in September of that year stopped at a little ale-house in Southwark from which he witnessed the great fire of London: “a most horrid malicious bloody flame”. At the time of Pepys’ visits to the south bank there was already a large community of refugees from religious persecution established in Southwark. They brought new talents and produced great wealth. They were particularly influential in the promotion of brewing. Flemings in particular brought with them great improvements to the trade, including the use of hops. Their breweries extended all along the foreshore from Bankside to Horselydown. Notable among them was Henry Leake, who founded St. Olave’s Grammar School, and Vassal Weblyng or Webling. The latter had a contract in 1578 to supply beer to St. Thomas’s Hospital. This he evidently fulfilled too generously for the Governors’ records showed a complaint that “the house beer is too strong and begets a taste; the poor go abroad especially on Sabothe day, and abuse themselves in taverns and alehouses, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, and the misliking of the Governors; they take order that no strong beer shall be allowed, and none fetched except a pynte at a tyme, by order of the physician.”
It has been suggested that Vassal! Webling was one of the figures portrayed in Hoefnagle’s picture of Horselydown. It seems almost certain that he came into possession of the Fastolfe breweries there and that the Webling brewing family was one of Courages’ forerunners on the site of the brewery at Horselydown. A certain Nicholas Webling granted a messuage there called Fastolphes in 1611 but the Weblings had faded from the scene by the time John Courage arrived in the eighteenth century.