Thursday, 1 August 2013

South West Brewery embarks on historic three-year archive project

A family-owned Brewery in Cornwall has begun what could be one of the biggest ever archive projects in the brewing and pub trade, in an attempt to document its 160-year history.

St Austell Brewery in Cornwall has appointed dedicated archivist Chris Knight to catalogue every item of brewery correspondence, estate documentation and brewery-related items from cupboards, safes and attics around the Victorian site, in the first phase of the project which is likely to take up to three years to complete.

Chris will be using source materials such as comprehensive beer and brewing timelines, full public house histories, changing tenancies, signage and photos, brewery employment records and the all important beer mat and bar memorabilia collections to begin to plot the history of the Brewery.

The St Austell Brewery Company Limited was founded in 1851 by Walter Hicks, who mortgaged his farm for £1,500 to set up his business in St Austell, Cornwall. The Brewery is now one of the largest in the South West with 168 pubs and inns across the region.

One of the longest established of only a few independent family brewers left in the UK, the business has remained in the hands of Walter Hick’s descendents, who are involved as shareholders, employees and directors.

The Brewery’s Visitor Centre is already home to a vast array of artefacts and relics including the original malt hoist and barley mill from founder Walter Hicks’ first brewery at the nearby Tregonissey House. 

In addition to documenting the industrial heritage of the site, the Brewery is keen to dig deeper and capture the contribution that the company has made to the social history of the local area, through employment at the Brewery itself and across its estate of pubs and inns in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.

Lead archivist Chris Knight has already unearthed fascinating insights into the Brewery’s dating as far back as the First World War. Letters from pub tenants have been found, including several from the widowed wife of a landlord killed in action, asking for the Brewery’s permission to take over the tenancy of the pub so she could continue to make a living.

James Staughton, Managing Director of St Austell Brewery and great-great grandson of Walter Hicks said: “Over the past 160 years, St Austell Brewery’s history has become intertwined with that of people living all over the South West. So many local people tell us about relatives who used to work for the Brewery, or ask questions about the history of our public houses. As a family firm, our past is very important to us and we have long celebrated key milestones and events in our history with the Brewery Visitor Centre and History Book.

“Our aim now is to go a step further, to fill in the gaps and create as complete a picture of our past as we can, giving everybody the chance to share in our heritage and find out about the people, the places and processes that have played their part in making St Austell Brewery what it is today.”

St Austell Brewery’s archive project is one of the biggest ever to take place in Cornwall, and will create one of the most extensive records of brewing history in the country.

Archivist Chris Knight said: “Documenting the entire 160 year history of the Brewery is a humungous task, and as far as I am aware nothing similar has been done on such a large scale in Cornwall, or in the brewing and pub trade. There aren’t many breweries as rich in history and heritage as St Austell and there is a goldmine of fascinating information and artefacts to work through.

“Our aim for the project is to produce a complete history of the Brewery and each of the pubs and inns in the St Austell estate, and open this up to anyone interested in finding out more about their local or their family history in connection with the Brewery. We will make this available online, so that you can search by pub and discover its entire history, going right back to the date it was built.”

The archive team are also organising roadshows to take place across the region, to encourage local people to come forward with anything they have that relates to St Austell Brewery’s history. There are also plans to reach out internationally to mining families who relocated during the Cornish Diaspora in the 18th and 19th century, to countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa.