Whitbread proudly proclaimed by the early twentieth century that it was the world’s largest bottler of beer. The figures certainly demonstrate that this was so, it putting 353,936 barrels Pale Ale, Stout, Extra Ale, and the interestingly named ‘Family Ale’ (amongst others) into bottles in 1910. It had also opened up network of bottling stores and depots to supply demand, the number reaching 38 in that year.
Forty years earlier the situation had been very different. In 1870 it had put only 1,293 barrels of beer into bottles (372,384 pints, for those keeping count). The first bottling occurred in 1868 at 26 Worship Street, Finsbury Square and then a more permanent residence was taken up in 1870 at 277 Grays in Road. In both instances the company’s agent, Robert Baker, was in charge. However, no more bottling stores or depots were opened until 1891.
The question that has vexed me is why was this so, and what role did the cost and accessibility of transport play in this? This line of enquiry also speaks to broader questions about how transport networks, access to them, and the cost of using them, can render freight mobile or immobile, and business activity stymied (similar issues can be considered when thinking about human mobility). Redman, the company’s archivist, argued that whilst Whitehead executives may have envisioned further mobility for their beer beyond London and market expansion, it was limited by the blocking force of excessively high railway rates before 1892, when the brewer made a ‘deal’ with the railway industry.
I have always been sceptical about this claim on a number of counts. It is rare that companies would make a deal with the whole railway industry, and indeed, later Whitbread dealt with railways on a case by case basis. Also, whilst consumption of bottled beer grew steadily after 1870, because of high prices demand was never too high until the 1890s, suggesting that there was no need to transport huge volumes of beer before then. This is despite Whitbread’s bottled beer becoming cheaper over the period, the cost then stabilising before 1889. In 1870 a dozen bottles (pints) were retailing in Bury St. Edmunds at 5 shillings, but by 1889 in Hastings London Cooper and Family Ale cost 2 shillings 6 pence, Stout and Pale Ale were selling at 3 shillings. This suggests that price was not the only determinant of demand and drinking habits needed to change before bottled beer became popular. But most significantly, before 1892 the brewery could absorb transport costs into the price of bottled beer with ease, even if the margins on each bottle shrank.
Indicative of this, before 1892 the company was utilising the railway network to send beer nationwide and grow its share of the market. Redman himself acknowledged that customers in Leeds ‘received their beer in heavy closed three dozen cases sent up on the railways.' After trawling through nineteenth century adverts it also appears outlets were selling Whitbread’s product in Newcastle, Bury St Edmund’s, Leamington, Bedford, Dundee, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Bath and Herne Bay, amongst other places. The final nail in the coffin was a note on an advert from 1877 (shown) which stated that beer was ‘Delivered free to any Railway Station or Carrier in London, in quantities of not less that Three Dozen, at from 2/6 to 4/- per Dozen.' Whitbread was therefore offering to send its beer anywhere in Britain, an offer which resulted in the bottling operation growing 38,782 barrels being put into bottles in 1890.
What is therefore likley is that railway rates were not a huge limit on Whitbread’s bottled beer operation expanding before 1892. Rather, changes thereafter were possibly the result of an intersection between individuals’ spending power rising, shifting habits towards home drinking and, in response, a change in Whitbread’s corporate strategy, the result of it converting to a limited company in 1892 and needing to service its capital. Although, naturally, further research may reveal more, and other ideas might come to mind.
This research is part of my ‘brewing and railways’ project 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) and 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.