At the Western Headquarters of the Courage Group at Georges Brewery by Bristol Bridge there is preserved a worn leather-bound Cash Book. It is substantially thick but pocket-sized - that is to say it fitted well enough in the capacious eighteenth century flap-pocket of one who carried it constantly, used it assiduously for his business, domestic and even religious affairs, and thus leaves us a curious personal record of a man who went into brewing in Bristol a year after John Courage crossed the Thames at Southwark. Both of them turned to beer as a diversification in an already active life. A hundred and seventy three years later the two businesses built up by their descendants and successors were to merge.
The owner of the pocket Cash Book was Philip George who was thirty-eight years old and in a substantial way of business when he formed a partnership with six other notable Bristol merchants to establish a brewhouse by the bridge at Bristol in 1788, trading under the name of Philip George and the Bristol Porter Brewery.
Philip himself was a first generation Bristolian, his father having come from Worcester in 1736 to set up as a distiller in Baldwin Street. Philip, born in 1750 - the elder of two sons - entered the family distillery and was thus connected from the beginning with the drink trade. Very soon he was involved also in dealings in hops and malt, but his most consistent venture, apart from financial flutters which appear in the extracts from his Cash Book, was the manufacture of lead shot.
He acquired this interest from William Watts, a Bristol plumber, who is said to have invented his patent lead shot as a result of a curious dream his wife had in the seventeen-sixties. Mrs. Watts awoke the good plumber - presumably in the morning - with a startling command: “go and fetch a ladle and some lead”. Following a procedure conducted by her dream, she placed a bowl of water at the foot of the stairs, went to the top of the stairwell and emptied a ladle of molten lead through a colander. On striking the water the drops of lead became perfectly round. This remarkable ex- periment was celebrated in verse:
Down from the staircase-head she throws small drops of lead One fell on Watt’s nose. ‘twas scalding hot, The rest into the water cold In drops of perfect roundness roll’d And Watts with wonder did behold The birth of Patent Shot.
No doubt the story is apochryphal, but there is no doubting the fact that Watts took out a patent for his shot in 1782 and that a few years later an enterprise came into being called Watts. George and the Patent Shot Company. By 1790 Philip George had taken over from the inventor and the concern became known as Philip George and the Patent Shot Company.
William Watts lived in Redcliffe Parade in Bristol, and his original shot tower has only recently been demolished. Happily full details including drawings and photographs of this item of industrial history have been preserved at Bristol Museum. Watt created it by taking part of the roof off his house, erecting a tower above it, and cutting holes through existing ceilings. He obtained the necessary length of drop for the larger size of shot by bringing into use a well, directly underneath the house, and which was as deep as the tower was high. Continuity has been maintained. The Sheldon Bush & Patent Shot Co. Ltd., to whom the business has descended, have erected a new shot tower just across the river from the brewery. Philip George’s interest in the shot business was not, as it might appear, a side issue for this enterprise helped to carry him through the early years of his brewing - which frequently showed a loss.
Philip George dominated the affairs of the brewery during the period of its slow and difficult first decade of trading, and gradually established it firmly on its feet after the turn of the century. It is clear from the old Minutes that he was the active force in the partnership in spite of his many other interests. His partners, while taking some interest in the financial business such as Bills of Exchange, left the practical side of the brewing very much in his hands.
That Philip George had already had some practical experience before the brewery was founded is indicated in his mother’s Will, dated 1782, in which he, as beneficiary, was described as “a maltster and brewer”. This seems to imply that he had been in some way indirectly involved in one of the Bristol brewing enterprises while following his family business as a distiller. The 1788 foundation was not started from scratch. The partnership took over intact the Bristol Porter Brewery which had been built by Isaac Hobhouse and others about half a century before, at the end of the seventeen- thirties.
Isaac Hobhouse was one of the most famous of the Bristol slave traders; he was a merchant behind slave voyages and owned ships. After his death his share of the brewhouse passed to his two nephews, John and Henry. John Hobhouse lived at Westbury-on-Trym and was the grandfather of the great Radical statesman, John Cam Hobhouse, Lord Broughton, who played a part in the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. Though the Hobhouse family returned to brewing and indeed are still represented in the Courage Group, the Bristol brewhouse was sold to James Grimes in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and it was he who in turn sold it to the Philip George partnership. It consisted then of the original brewhouse, a malthouse and a warehouse in Tucker Street. Originally there were eight equal shares in the concern at £2,000 each, but it appears, from a study of the Minutes of the first meeting on January 3rd 1788, that the number of shares was in fact seven, and that James Morgan, who is named as the eighth partner in a draft Co-partnership Agreement, never actually took up his share.
The partners were mostly eminent Bristol merchants. Some were in the slave-trade, then a dominant feature of commercial life in the city. Indeed, two of the partners were involved in a public controversy on the “traffic” as it was called, on opposite sides. Mr. Peter Lunch was secretary of the first provincial committee set up to encourage legislation abolishing the slave- trade, and Mr. Samuel Span was a member of a committee of well-to-do local merchants defending “a traffic on which the welfare of the West India islands and the commerce and revenue of the Kingdom so essentially depend”.
It is conjectural whether Messrs. Lunnell and Span ever became involved in arguments on this explosive subject in the Board Room. Certainly a great measure of Bristol’s prosperity at that time was bound up in the slave-trade. One of its principal industries was the refining of sugar, many of the refineries being in and around Counterslip, Temple Backs and Tucker Street, and vessels often made a round trip from Bristol to Africa where the slaves were obtained, from thence to the West Indies where they were sold or bartered for raw sugar or rum, which was brought back to the city for refining or blending.
According to Latimer’s Annals of Bristol, the year was not an auspicious one in which to enter the brewing trade. “With the year 1788”, he wrote. “commenced a series of bad harvests and a long period of distress.” Possibly because of this it was necessary for Philip George and the Bristol Porter Brewery to look beyond Bristol for the sale of their porter. On the 18th March. 1789, Mr. George told his partners that trade had been opened up with Ireland and with Liverpool, that 80 barrels of porter were being shipped to Cork, the same number to Waterford, and a further 100 barrels to Liverpool.
It was in the Bristol tradition of course to look west for trade, and Philip George seems to have realised from the start that the Irish market had great potential. Within five years of taking over the business he sent a traveller, John Bradley, on an Irish tour to promote the company’s porter. The journey lasted for five fatiguing months. Bradley wrote a journal, the text of which unfortunately has been lost, though some extracts survive. Arthur Hadley, former Managing Director and Head Brewer of Georges, who had read it stated that: “It constitutes not only an interesting contemporary record of the competition of Bristol, London and Liverpool firms in supplying Ireland with beer and of the early days of the Irish brewing industry, but is a document of historical value, as it throws many sidelights on Irish life of that period.” Bradley had left Bristol in January 1792. “By the middle of February, Bradley reached Waterford, where he had some successful interviews with large firms, but saw that a Liverpool Company would prove a dangerous competitor. Horseback was then the only method of getting over the ground, and 20 miles a day was as much as a traveller could do. He visited various small towns, and on one occasion completely lost his way. Eventually we find him at Cork on 26th February, where he was received ‘with great politeness.’ Among the many that he interviews was one Edward Haynes of whom he writes:
“I find he began with but little, but is believed to be worth money and still getting forward rather rapidly, and no wonder, for besides being an active pushing man in business, he calls in the powerful aid of various Spirits, and being well acquainted with them, I’m informed they assist him greatly, and on his part, if they at times happen to be weak, it seems with great readiness he’ll strengthen them, in return for services rendered him, thus mutually supporting each other.’
“Haynes was persuaded to take 500 barrels and Bradley, after other successful negotiations, wrote: “It is likely you will have, at least for the present, a good sale here for, I’m informed Cork imports 60,000 barrels annually.’
“He reached Limerick on March the 6th, 1792, where he found the people ‘rather against the Bristol Porter.’ At Galway on March the 11th, he records that: ‘people here complain of the colour being too deep, but approve of the body, which they acknowledge considerably superior to the London, therefore they mix them to make the London better and sell it as London Porter where they can, tho’ some will prefer at the Pot Houses the Bristol Porter and ask for it as such, which is a proof of its gaining ground here.’
“His accounts of Irish inns and cabins, where he often slept on the floor or sat all night by a turf fire, of the pride, sensitiveness and poverty of his hosts, of the appalling state of the roads, and many other impressions, form a remarkable pen picture of Ireland at that time.”
Note: George's Brewery (The Bristol Brewery George's & Co Ltd) was Bristol's premier brewer until it was taken over by Courage's in 1961. It began in 1788 when Philip George, the son of a distiller of Baldwin Street, and his partners bought two brewing premises, in Bath Street (on the opposite side of the river from Castle Park) and Tucker Street, St.Thomas's. The Bath Street brewery, which only ceased brewing in 1999, was known as Rickett's Porter Brewery, while Tucker Street became The Philip George Bristol Brewery. The two were almagamated in 1816.
Philip George bought the Tucker Street brewery from James Grimes, who had purchased the premises from John Willes, his wife Frances and their son John Freke Willes 11 years earlier, on 13 October 1777.