Home » My Blog » Whitbread’s beer by boat – a longer story than we knew about

Whitbread’s beer by boat – a longer story than we knew about

I cannot say that researching how Whitbread distributed beer to their bottling plant and stores after 1870 is the easiest thing in the world. Researching Bass’ distribution activities is much easier; the company’s own files are okay and the railway companies that served Burton detailed the process repeatedly. Whitbread however were operating all over the country in a much more atomised way, meaning that finding their very occasional dealings, contracts and agreements with the railway companies is like looking for a needle in a haystack. A lot of trawling is involved.


Whitbread Advert, The Era, Saturday 9 April 1892

The trawling can however pay off and very occasionally you find something that changes what we know. This is what happened today. Review the Whitbread company histories, and indeed the surviving company files[1], and you’d be mistaken for thinking that after 1892 most plants and stores were supplied by rail. Redman’s history of the brewery, for example, states that “The bulk beer for bottling was sent out from London, usually by rail.” Generally rail charges stymied the development of the company’ network until 1892 when new rates were agreed, which allowed the network to grow. Only Norwich remained supplied by “steamer to Great Yarmouth and then by lighter or wherry to the depot”[2]

Yet, the Great Northern Railway’s (GNR) files give a different picture. In 1901 Whitbread asked the railway if it could expand its bottling stores at City Road, Bradford. The company agreed on the proviso that all beer be sent there by rail, because at that point Bradford was supplied from Leeds, which received its delivery by boat. This demonstrates that not only was Whitbread supplying more than just Norwich by boat around 1900, but that water transport retained a cost advantage after the agreement of 1892 (these have not been found however).[3] This supports my findings from brewing press at the time that rail carriage costs were prohibitively high for most brewers between 1870 and 1914.[4] But this broader subject is for another post, another day.

logoThis project is funded by the Business Archives Council’s bursary for business history research. For more information see here.

If you are interested in learning more about British railway history, perhaps you want to study the University of York, Centre for Lifelong Learning’s online Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies, which I teach. How the railways changed goods transportation in Britain is covered in module 1 (The coming of the railways to Britain, 1830-1900). The railway rates issue is covered in module 2 (The declining profitability of the British railway industry, 1870-1914). More information on the course can be found here.


[1] At the London Metropolitan Archive
[2] Nicholas Barritt Redman, The Story of Whitbread, 1742-1990, (London: Unknown Publisher, 1990) 24-25.
[3] The National Archives, RAIL 226/161, Great Northern Railway Traffic Committee Minute Book, 01 November 1901, p.237.
[4] Commercial Motor Magazine, February 29, 1910, 29. “Why Motor Transport Thrives”, Commercial Motor Magazine, September 19, 1912, 12.

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