Burton Upon Trent can trace its brewing roots back to the 11th century, and during the latter half of the 19th century, a quarter of all beer sold in Britain was brewed in the town. Burton stands on the River Trent on the A5121 and close to the A38 and A50 trunk roads. It is situated in Staffordshire, but is very close to the border with Derbyshire.
St Modwen, a nun and saint, founded a religious community in the area in the 7th century; she is buried on Andresey Island in the River Trent. The parish church in the market place is dedicated to her, as is the Roman Catholic church of St Mary and St Modwen. The local branch of the sea cadets is also named after her, TS Modwena.
Wulfric Spot, a Saxon nobleman and a descendant of Alfred the Great, established an abbey in Burton, alongside the river, in around 1002. There was a settlement here long before this, as prehistoric artefacts have been found in the area. The abbey prospered and the monks brewed ale, using the later to become famous Burton water, which comes from deep underground artesian wells, and owes it's hardness to the limestone and gypsum deposits in the area. This was the first recorded sign of Burton’s forthcoming reliance on the brewing industry.
Burton is briefly mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, as the abbey owned land in 18 different manors across Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Villagers who held land belonging to the abbey worked one or two days a week on abbey estates in return for their land, of usually around 30 acres. The abbey was to fall prey to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, the last abbot, William Edys, having been in his position for only six years.
Only some of the abbey buildings remain today, these include the abbey's original entrance which is fitted into the wall of the Coopers Square shopping centre. Unfortunately, a local stonemason, not understanding Latin, made quite a mess of repairing the lettering when the shopping centre was built.
King John granted a charter to Burton in 1204 giving borough status. This allowed a weekly market and a fair to be held on the first Monday after Michaelmas. The fair started as a means for hiring servants, although it’s now operated as a funfair by Pat Collins Fairs, and is held in the Market Place and part of the High Street, Lichfield Street and New Street. The world famous fairground ride manufacturer, Orton and Spooner, was once based in the town.
Alabaster was quarried from nearby Tatenhill and Fauld, and the area was quite famous many centuries ago for the carving of religious objects. Sadly this declined.
William Wigston (or Wyggeston) of Leicester owned much of the land in the Horninglow area of Burton. He was born in 1467 and was a merchant in the French port of Calais, when it was controlled by the English. He founded a hospital in Burton, and the present Queen’s Hospital, formerly the local workhouse, was built on land which once formed part of the Wyggeston estate. Many place names in Horninglow are references to William, such as Calais Road and Dover Road.
Mary, Queen of Scots was supplied with ale from Burton during her imprisonment in nearby Tutbury Castle. It is said that she was kept aware of conspiracy plots by sympathisers' notes smuggled in with the beer.
An Act of Parliament of 1698 allowed the navigation of the River Trent up to Burton and this was the first direct means of transportation to other areas. Trent navigation connected Gainsborough with Hull and then Hull to the Baltic ports. By 1748 a considerable trade had been established in the Baltic and via St Petersburg. Both Tsar Peter the Great and Empress Catherine were said to have enjoyed the beverage. The opening of the Trent and Mersey canal in 1774-5 opened up an additional means of transportation with Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and beyond.
A river crossing was first built over the River Trent in the 12th century, and a ferry at Stapenhill began in the 13th century and continued until 1889 when the 'Ferry Bridge' was built by the local engineering company, Thornewill and Warham. Lord Burton, Michael Arthur Bass, the owner of Bass Brewery, paid for its construction.
He had taken over the running of the Bass Brewery from his father Michael Thomas and his grandfather William, who had set up the brewery in 1777. He was a good friend of King Edward VII who often visited the area, which led to him brewing the famous King’s Ale in 1907. Edward stayed at the Bass family home, Byrkley Lodge, which was located just outside Burton, and his mistress Alice Keppel sometimes accompanied him.
Benjamin Wilson opened Burton’s first commercially operated brewery in 1708. His daughter married a James Allsopp and it was their son Samuel Allsopp who put his name to the brewery.
Burton is also the home to rubber companies such as Pirelli, as well as to food producers. Marmite & Bovril, both by-products of the brewing industry, are still made in the town, whilst the production of Robirch pies and sausages and of Branston Pickle, named after a local village, has since been moved out of the area.
However, it was the brewing of beer which brought the most prosperity to the town, for which it became well known. At it's height, in the latter half of the 19th century, there were over 30 breweries in Burton with well over half the working population working in the brewing industry. In fact, one quarter of all beer sold in Britain, at the time, was produced here.
In the early 20th century, there was a slump in beer sales, partially due to the Liberal Government's anti-drinking policies, and this led to many breweries either closing or amalgamating, so that by 1928, only 8 breweries were operating in the town.
The Worthington Brewery, started by William Worthington in 1744, merged with Bass in 1926, and was later amalgamated with Mitchells and Butlers of Birmingham in 1961 and with Charrington’s of London in 1967.
Allsopps brewery merged with the adjacent brewery, Ind Coope, in 1934. There were many more take overs and mergers over the years with Tetley Walker joining them and being renamed 'Allied Breweries'. In turn they were taken over by Carlsberg, and it became known as Carlsberg Tetley.
Marston’s was an amalgamation of Marston, Thompson and Evershed among others and in recent years taken over by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, although it is still known by the Marston’s name.
Bass bought the Carlsberg Tetley brewery site in Burton in 1997, although the Monopolies Commission blocked a take over. The bigger brewery with the Bass name was sold to Interbrew of Belgium, however this was also blocked and Interbrew kept the Bass brand name and sold the Burton brewery site to Coors of the USA.
The brewing museum in Burton began life in 1977 as The Bass Museum, to celebrate the bicentenary of Bass. It was centred around the old Bass joiner’s shop and was opened by her HRH Princess Anne. It contains 200 years of Bass vehicles and artefacts, as well as the award-winning Bass shire horses. The story of the history of brewing in Burton is described throughout the museum, with a working model of the brewery railways as they were in 1921. When Bass sold the Burton brewery site to Coors, the museum became known as The Coors Visitor Centre. They announced in March of this year that the museum would close at the end of June and all artefacts, as well as the famous shire horses, would be either sold or divided between other Coors’ sites. This caused uproar in the local area and beyond, and plans to stop the move are afoot. A working party headed by local MP, Janet Dean, is trying to get charitable status for the museum. Coors has agreed not to move anything until at least the end of the year, although the shires have been put out to pasture in the local area. They have also pledged to donate the building to any successful business plan, together with a cheque for £200,000. A petition of 20,000 signatures was organised by the Burton Mail newspaper and this has been handed to the Culture Minister, Margaret Hodge, with a call to make the museum ‘The National Museum of Brewing’. She has called upon businesses and the local authority to pledge financial support for the upkeep of such a museum. Apparently there are talks ongoing, although details of which have yet to be announced.
Burton upon Trent – A History by Richard Stone
History of Burton upon Trent by Charles Hayward Underhill
Written from material supplied by Margaret in Burton
© Velma Dinkley 2008