A man who had a great deal to do with this recovery was John Perkins, the Chief Clerk whose name and character emerges for the first time during this period. Perkins was a good man of business, well able to take responsibility in routine matters and, as we shall see, in emergencies, and a man of ambition both financially and socially. He was in the concern in which first the Halseys and the Thrales had arisen from rags to riches. He spent many years of frustration attempting to follow their example. It seems to have been in his character that he never presented the image of a go- getter, but that surrounded by such personalities as Hester and Henry Thrale, Dr. Johnson and the circle of influential friends and advisers, his own personality could never sufficiently establish itself. Clearly during the row over Jackson and the threat of a walk-out by the clerical staff, poor John Perkins felt himself under attack from every quarter. When Mrs. Thrale more or less took charge of affairs he did not hesitate to open his heart to her and, subsequently the running of the business was frequently discussed in confidence between them. Hester recorded a conversation with him in 1773 when he complained “Why ‘tis a hard thing Mrs. Thrale (those were his words) to live always in Servitude, a Servitude never made light by kind or even civil Treatment”. In the same year he complained to her that Thrale had “not done trying Experiments”, as he left a cask of sick beer worth £600 perish when it might have been cured with “50 barrels of good stout porter”. At a later stage when Thrale’s mind seemed to be disordered, Hester noted “Perkin’s Expression was that our Master was Planet-struck”. Whatever the state of his physical and mental health, Henry Thrale persisted with his brewing and with plans for the development of the business, with John Perkins at his elbow always in a state of anxiety, not without justification. Things frequently went wrong and were recorded by Hester as diligently as were her social triumphs. In 1778 she wrote “Mr. Thrale over brewed himself last Winter, and made an artificial Scarcity of Money in the Family which has extremely lowered his Spirits: Mr. Johnson endeavoured last night & so did I, to make him promise that he would never brew a larger Quantity of Beer in One Winter than eighty Thousand Barrels; but my Master - mad with the noble Ambition of emulating Whitbread & Calvert - two Fellows that he despises - could scarcely be prevailed on to promise even this, that he will not brew more than fourscore Thousand Barrels a Year for five Years to come. He did promise that much, however; & so Johnson bade me write it down in the Thraliana..."
The following year at a time of national crisis when “Publick Concerns now claim every one’s Attention”, Hester gave vent to an agonised cry. “In the midst of publick & private Distress, here is my mad Master going to build at the boro’ House again:- new Store Cellars, Casks, & God knows what. I have, however, exerted myself & driv’n off his Workmen with a high Hand. - Is this a Time as Elijah say’d, for oliveyards, & Vineyards? Men Servants & Maid Servants? when our Trade & our profits are both decreasing daily? & the Nation itself stagnating with Embecillity? I never saw anything so absurd - surely his head is still confused; nothing but frenzy can at this Time excuse Expence to the amount of ten or twelve Thousand Pounds sure”.
When the next crisis came to Southwark, the Thrales were away on a round of pleasure at Bath, and John Perkins became the hero of the occasion. In June 1780 the No-Popery riots led by Lord George Gordon broke out and mobs rampaged in London for about a week. Henry Thrale as a public figure had shown some sympathy to the cause of the emancipation of the Roman Catholics. This gave rise to the rumour that Thrale himself was a Papist, and consequently the brewery became a target for violence. The mob came direct from the assault on Newgate Prison and the release of the prisoners for their first attack on the brewery. They carried Newgate chains with them as spoils. John Perkins faced them at the gate. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine he mildly protested, “it were a shame that men should be degraded by so heavy a load; and he would furnish them with a horse for that purpose”. The bait succeeded. He gave them some porter, and they departed with loud Hourahs! James Boswell amplified the incident, “the brewery was not in great danger, and at the first invasion the rioteers were passive with fifty pounds worth of meat and porter”. After this Perkins took no chances; the brewery was manned by troops when the mob made their second attack.
As soon as the Thrales heard the rumour at Bath that they were likely to come under attack they “made a dawdly Journey across the country to Brighton where all was likely to be at peace ...“ There Hester learned of Perkins’ heroic conduct which was duly rewarded, “Letters ... shewed us how near we were to Ruin here in the Borough; where nothing but the astonishing Presence of Mind shewed by Perkins in amusing the Mob with Meat & Drink & Huzzaes, till Sir Philip Jennings Clarke could get the Troops & pack up the Counting House Bills Bonds &c. & carry them which he did to Chelsea College for Safety; - could have secured us from actual Undoing. The Villains had broke in & our Brewhouse would have blazed in ten Minutes; when a property of £150,000 would have been utterly lost, & its once flourishing possessors quite undone.
“Let me stop here, to give God Thanks for so very undeserved, so apparent an Interposition of Providence in our favour.
“I left Mr. Thrale at Brighthelmston, & came to Town again to see what was left to be done: we have now got Arms, & mean to defend ourselves by Force, if further Violence is intended. Whenever I come on these mad Errands, Dear Mr. Johnson is sure always to live with me, & Sir Philip comes every day at some Hour or another:- Good Creature how kind he is! and how much I ought to love him! God knows I am not in this Case wanting to my Duty. I have presented Perkins by my Master’s permission with two hundred Guineas, and a Silver Urn for his Lady, with his own Cypher on it. . ."
In fact, Henry Thrale had only authorised the gift of £100 and for some years Hester had to keep quiet about her generosity, but in that same year John Perkins showed that he was not to be satisfied with generous gestures. He had ambitions. In the light of history these seemed justifiable. At the time when they first came into the open, Hester was outraged by them: “Mr. Perkins - the Duce take him - distresses me cruelly: he wants to have a part in the Trade forsooth, & seems to think nothing will pay his Services but that. Mr. Thrale’s ill health making His Death too probable, my Name may be joined with Perkin’s commodiously enough under an Alehouse Checquer. Good God! how such an Idea shocks one! & how little Sensibility has the Proposer of what I am feeling. The Truth is Perkins did behave vastly well both in the dangerous Days of the Year 72. when Mr. Thrale had by implicit Confidence in Jackson reduced his Trade to Distress, and himself to the Necessity of explaining Matters to his Wife, who reconciling Perkins and the rest of ‘em, set the Business once more free from the Rock, and heaved her into deep Water - and afterwards in the Year 80. when the Rioters would but for his Skill & attentive Diligence, inevitably have destroyed our whole property - yet I could wish me thinks not to erect a Servant because he is a good Servant, into a Master; and tho’ a Man saves my Nation, I see not I, - why he should share my crown. Five hundred a Year I am willing to give the Man, but he has set his Heart upon Power, and tells me - truly enough - that when we first began to understand each other, in the Year 1772, that he swore he never would serve Mr. Thrale, but that he would serve me, and abide by my Generosity. - Now I thought my Temper generous enough when I made his Salary - then £300 a Year - £500 a Year by Presents, which I have done ever since, in hard Money I mean; besides Presents to his Wife of pieces of Plate &c. He is not satisfied however, & his ill-tim’d urging of his Claims perplexes me. Mr. Thrale is not in a Situation to be talked to; Johnson & Sr. Philip feel full of Indignation at the Fellow, but that’s their Kindness, & not Perkins’s Fault - he breaks no point of Compting House Honour, and who should expect a Clerk to behave like a Gentleman? The Man knows he is advancing his Wealth & providing for his Family - what cares he for my Anxiety? further than to congratulate himself on being too hard for a Woman of imputed Sense - Duce take him!”
Henry Thrale was indeed suffering from intermittent apoplectic attacks and had only one more year to live, but social life went spinning on. The Thrales reached a new social summit when they took a town house. “So now we are to spend this Winter in Grosvenor Square;” wrote Hester in 1781, “My master has taken a ready furnished Lodginghouse there, and we go in tomorrow: He frightened me cruelly a while ago, he would have Lady Shelburne’s House - one of the finest in London: he would buy, he would build, he would give 20 - 30, Guineas, a Week for a House? Oh Lord thought I! the people will sure enough throw Stones at me now, when they see a Dying Man go to such made Expences, & all - as they will naturally think - to please a Wife wild with the Love of Expence.”
Meanwhile, Perkins took up quarters in the brewery. “Perkins takes every step to worm himself into this proposed partnership” Hester wrote, “the artful Creature told Mr. Thrale a Week ago that it was idle of us to be thus at the Mercy of every Brat that could brew - we have got a young Brewer now:- that he would himself study the operative part of the Business, & learn the Work done at the Copper Side - how plausible this, & how true? but this Business being almost all Night-Work, he must not be deprived of his Wife &c. no sure! so he must have an Apartment allotted him in the Dwelling House - Bravo! Mr. Perkins!” To this she appended a footnote: “He wants now to fix himself in the House we are leaving - & tho’ I never did anything but wish to leave it Since I lived in it - of Course - yet I hate to be edged out of it by Perkins”. However unpalatable the advance of John Perkins might be, it was inevitable that he took more and more control of the business during the last few months of Henry Thrale’s life.
He was not named among the executors, who included Dr. Johnson when Thrale died in April 1781, but clearly his value at managerial level was taken for granted. Hester, with her five surviving daughters, inherited the property and the business: “He has been very generous to me in his Will”, she wrote, “but my being entangled with the Trade perplexes me greatly - perhaps I may rid my hands of it however, perhaps we may sell it without much Loss: my Coadjutors are all willing to assist while I carry it on, and willing to quit when I wish to part with it: never were Men more obliging to be sure, & I am half inclin’d to hope for Happiness once more, when I see their Disposition to comply with my Desire.
“God forbid though that my Pride or Delicacy should so far influence me as to make me quit the Business at any Rate: My Children have a Claim to all that I can do & suffer - yet how will they be benefited by keeping their Money at hazard? Mr Scrase says ‘tis Madness to try at carrying on such a Trade with only five Girls ... Mr. Johnson did wish my Continuance in Business, but I have pretty well cured him of his Wishes; though when I was obliged Yesterday to go & court a dirty Goaler to suffer our Brewhouse to serve his Tap, & when I complained even with Tears to Mr. Johnson of the Indignity; Dearest Lady says he your Character is exalted by it; I tell you it advances in Heighth, Yes replied I, it advances indeed, & rises from the Side Box to the upper Gallery.”
Though she complained greatly, Hester was conscientious, appointing herself to “three Days a Week to attend at the Counting house”. No small consolation came from the fact that Dr. Johnson was also involved: “If an Angel from Heaven had told me 20 Years ago, that the Man I knew by the Name of Dictionary Johnson should one Day become Partner with me in a great Trade, & that we should jointly or separately sign Notes Draughts &c. for 3 or 4 Thousand Pounds of a Morning, how unlikely it would have seemed ever to happen! - unlikely is no Word tho’ it would have seemed incredible: neither of us then being worth a Groat God knows, & both as immeasurably removed from Commerce, as Birth, Literature & Inclination could set us. Johnson however; who desires above all other Good the Accumulation of new Ideas, is but too happy with his present Employment; & the Influence I have over him added to his own solid Judgment and Regard for Truth, will at last find it in a small degree difficult to win him from the dirty Delight of seeing his Name in a new Character flaming away at the bottom of Bonds & Leases.”
Hester Thrale and the executors soon realised that the business would have to be sold and Hester had purpose to overcome her scruples about the ambitions of John Perkins by offering him a splendid bribe. He was to take over the Thrale dwelling house in the brewery with most of its furniture if he found a purchaser - and with surprising alacrity Perkins came into his own.
An enviable aspect of Hester Thrale’s character was her ability to find pleasure in higher things even in the midst of disturbing material situations. She was well aware of this quality in herself. Thus, on May 17th 1781, only a month after her husband’s death, she declared: “The power of emptying one’s head of a great Thing, and filling it with little ones to amuse Care, is no small Power; & I am proud of being able to write Italian Verses while I am bargaining for £150,000 - & settling an Event of the highest Consequence to my own and my Children’s Welfare. David Barclay the rich Quaker will treat for our Brewhouse, & the Negotiation is already begun. My heart palpitates with hope & fear, my Head is bursting with Anxiety & Calculation; yet I can listen to a Singer and translate Verses about a Knife.”
The business and social life of London in the eighteenth century always seems by our standards to have proceeded at a leisurely pace. Hester Thrale’s circle was quick-witted by any standards in their talks and could be sudden in their amusements, but their movements across the crowded Thames bridges, through the narrow cobbled streets and out into the countryside of winding dusty lanes were indeed sluggish. Their affairs were conducted in chilly, dimly lit counting houses, coffee shops and inns, recorded by the scratch of quill pens with sand to dry the ink, with communication by messenger, carrier or coach with no more despatch than by those of the ancient Romans. So it is a matter of astonishment that the sale of the Anchor Brewery in spite of its attendant anxieties and complaints, took place with a speed which could not be equalled today. Henry Thrale had been dead for less than a month when the executors agreed with Hester to put the business on the market and advertise it for sale by auction. Notices immediately went up on the brewery walls, and it was these which were observed by David Barclay, and by the end of May some six weeks after Thrale’s death, a Barclay had joined forces with John Perkins in taking over the business.
It was said that David Barclay, accompanied by Silvanus Bevan, both partners in Barclays Bank, spotted the sale notices while walking across one of the Thames bridges, and said “This business will do for young Robert”. This Robert, born in America and sent back to make his way in the business world of London under the powerful guidance of the family, was David Barclay’s nephew. David Barclay himself was the grandson of the famous Robert Barclay who wrote the Apology for the people called in scorn Quakers and his family, like that of John Courage, came from Aberdeen where the apologist had, “clothed in sackcloth and ashes, walked through the streets and testified against its people”.
With David Barclay and Silvanus Bevan young Robert made a close inspection of the Thrale concern which included the brewhouse, public houses, plant and machinery, and stock-in-trade. The shrewd Quakers were impressed with the managing abilities of John Perkins but dismayed by the way Thrale had conducted the business, by his extravagant way of living and by the unprofitable wildcat schemes on which he squandered his money - one of them the invention of an anti-fouling compound for preserving ships’ bottoms.
On the day of the sale, May 31St 1781, there was considerable public interest, for this was no ordinary brewery, but Barclay was the only one who meant business. Hester Thrale went to Southwark early that day. “She told me”, wrote Fanny Burney, “that if all went well she would wave a white pocket handkerchief out of the coach window”. It is not clear from this where the members of the circle - of which Fanny was one of the most famous - positioned themselves on that day. The successful bid was £135,000, a very substantial sum in those days, to be spread over four years. That it was value for money we are left to no doubt, for Dr. Johnson, in the course of the transaction, stated: “Sir, we are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” John Perkins was now rewarded for all that he had suffered in patience. Not only did he get the Thrale house but a partnership in the business. Although Robert Barclay’s name was given as the sole purchaser in the documents which bear Dr. Johnson’s signature as a witness, there already existed an agreement under which David Barclay, Robert Barclay, Silvanus Bevan and John Perkins should each find one quarter of the price and be equal partners.
Perkins did not find his share of the money too easy; but finally his love-hate relationship with Hester Thrale bore its last somewhat bitter fruit: “We have had another hot storming Day last Tuesday 3rd July” she wrote “about this everlasting Brew house, but ‘tis over. Perkins wanted more Indulgence than we as Executors could give him, so I lent him the Money I had saved & put in the Stocks - £2,000 it was, & sold out for £1,600 & odd. He is, or ought to be much obliged; but when a Man has not all he wanted, nothing will make him quite happy. The whole is quite finished, & within three Months too.”
So within those three hectic months the scene at the Anchor Brewhouse was transformed. Hester went off to marry her daughter’s music teacher Gabriel Piozzi (whom Perkins called ‘Powzy’ through ignorance or perhaps contempt) at Southwark. For the four years during which the purchase money was being paid the business was carried on under the style of H. Thrale & Company. Thereafter it was changed to Barclay, Perkins & Co. and to this day there are Barclays, Perkins and Bevans with the descendants of John Courage at the head of affairs.