A History of The Eldridge Pope Brewery

Monday, September 10th, 2018

For over 100 years the imposing Eldridge Pope Brewery was one of the most important buildings in Dorchester, at the centre of the town’s economy and the involvement with the Pope family. This is the story of the Brewery throughout the 19th and 20th Century.

The History of Eldridge Pope Brewery & CO

The Origins of Eldridge Pope

The link between Dorchester and brewing can be traced as far back as the 18th Century. In 1760 traveller Emmanuel Bowen noted that Dorchester was famous for “brewing the best and finest beer in England, whereof great quantities have been of late years exported and consigned to London”.

The beginnings of the Eldridge Pope business empire starts in 1833, when Charles Eldridge and his wife, Sarah, took the lease of the Antelope Hotel in Cornhill, Dorchester, a well-established coaching inn competing with the Kings Arms and White Hart, both in High East Street. Both had been widowed, with Charles working as Wine Steward at Bridehead, the seat of the Williams family, who owned not only the Antelope, but tracts of land in the centre of town, including the Green Dragon, a tavern in Durngate Street, where Sarah’s family had lived and her first husband had been the Landlord. Following their marriage, the couple returned to Dorchester and the Green Dragon, where Charles was the Landlord, and Sarah, as was the custom in most taverns, brewed the beer. At the Antelope, Charles not only focused on ale, but also applied his considerable knowledge to develop sales of wine and spirits, the popularity of which were growing, in the wake of the removal of restrictions imposed during the Napoleonic Wars.

Two years later the lease was not renewed and the couple moved back to the Green Dragon, developing their beer and also wine and spirit business. Soon thereafter, the lease of the tavern was renewed by the Williams family, along with a small adjacent plot of land, upon which they built a small brewery.

Death of Charles Eldridge

Charles died in 1846, but Sarah, somewhat unusually for the times, continued to run the brewery, which marked the turning point in the development of the business. First, she placed a friend in charge of the wine and spirit business, whilst she set about obtaining a longer lease on the brewery and building up a network of pubs, first in Fordington, and also in Weymouth. Recognising the importance of the railway, she also invested in a new hotel, the Junction, serving passengers, using both the London & South Western Railway and also the Great Western, which had cut off the expansion westwards of the LSWR at Dorchester. But in 1850 tragedy struck, when Sarah’s 16-year-old son, Charles, died of lock-jaw, following an injury sustained in the brewery.

Once again, Sarah reacted decisively, by taking in a partner, one Alfred Mason, described as a “brewers clerk & traveller”, who took a third stake in the business and the firm “Eldridge Mason & Co” was born. The brewery, under the management of Mason, continued to expand until Sarah’s own death in 1856. Her share passed to her son-in-law, John Tizard, a solicitor in Weymouth. The enterprise continued to grow, with Tizard assuming responsibility for its finances and the expansion of the estate, a model, which would later be emulated by Alfred and Edwin Pope.

A plan drawn by Alfred Pope showcasing the brewery and villa
A plan dated January 1878, drawn for Alfred Pope, showing the brewery and villa sites to the north of the railway. The plan was not adopted in this form, but it does indicate Alfred’s understanding of the importance of the railway to the future of the company.

In 1870 Mason, having lost his own son, decided to retire and Alfred Pope, then a solicitor in practise in Dorchester, hearing of this, advised his father, John Allen, who in turn arranged for his son, Edwin, in partnership with one James Watney at the Lansdowne Brewery, Richmond, to acquire Mason’s share, whilst a further son, George, took over in the partnership of “Watney & Pope”.

A partnership between Edwin Pope and John Tizard was agreed and completed early in 1871. The deed, interestingly, contained a provision (perhaps introduced through Alfred’s legal foresight), giving Edwin the option to acquire Tizard’ two-thirds share, in the event of his death, which occurred suddenly two years later. So the firm became “Eldridge, Pope & Co”. On Tizard’s death, Edwin sought to exercise his option, which was challenged, as it appeared to conflict with the terms of Tizard’s will. However, following an action in the Court of Chancery, the validity of the option was upheld and the business was operated as a partnership between Alfred and Edwin, with the lawyer running the finances and the expansion of the estate, and his brother expanding the brewing business.

Building the Brewery

In 1874 Alfred, who was still in private practice, was retained by the Duchy of Cornwall to enclose and sell Fordington Fields on the outskirts of the Borough, which were regarded as surplus to requirements, following the arrival of the railway. Fordington is a huge parish surrounding the Old Town in an ark from Grays Bridge in the east, right round to Monkey’s Jump and the Weres on the A37 in the west. There were no takers for the 11 acres involved and so Alfred purchased them himself, establishing the Cornwall Estate on the western perimeter of town, comprising Town Houses for Dorchester professional classes.

Planning Expansion

Thus it was in 1879 he, together with Edwin, whom he had now joined on a full-time basis, were offered a further 20 acres of land by the Duchy between South Walks and the railway line serving Dorchester South. Most of the land was again developed as “Villa Residences” for the Town’s professional classes, but they reserved six acres immediately adjacent to the station and the railway lines, upon which to build a new brewery. By this time, the Green Dragon Brewery was cramped, with no capacity for expansion and the lease on it would be expiring shortly. The planned expansion on this site provided not just space, but, vitally, a means of distributing their beers easily and speedily along the railway to centres such as Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth.

W R Crickmay, who had mentored Thomas Hardy during the author’s early career as an architect and was also a contemporary of Alfred, was commissioned to design the new brewery. He created the majestic and exuberant red-brick design that would win the brewery many admirers over the next 100 years.

The brewery was built in 1880 and opened a year later in 1881 (with its own railway sidings). It immediately became the biggest employer in the town and, after 16 prosperous years, the Popes floated the business, forming a new limited company, known as “Eldridge Pope & Co Limited”.

Dorchester Brewery opening just after 1881
Dorchester Brewery shortly opening after 1881

20th Century History:

In the following years Alfred and Edwin were joined by their brother, George, who was in partnership in Poole Brewery, which was eventually closed, but assisted with the further expansion of the estate in Poole. At the time that the limited company was formed, they were also joined by two of Alfred’s oldest sons, Ralph, a qualified brewer, and soon after the millennium by Alec, who had, like his father, qualified as a solicitor. Later, Alfred’s son, Clement, another lawyer, also joined the company and, due to poor health, ran the brewery on a day-to-day basis during the difficult times of World War I, whilst his brothers were involved with hostilities. Perhaps Clement’s main legacy was spotting the need for branding and so acquired the rights to the use of the Huntsman trade mark in 1921, created by Joseph Clauston & Son. The mark was shared with Tetley’s, the Company using it in the south of England and Tetley’s in the Midlands and north.

Though this was undoubtedly a golden age of the Eldridge Pope Brewery, it was by no means plain sailing for the Pope family. The carnage of World War I left almost no family untouched and Alex Pope returned from the War badly wounded and would eventually die from his injuries in 1919. Further tragedy followed in 1922, when the Brewery was gutted by a huge fire, causing the destruction of the brewhouses. Major rebuilding work was required and the Brewery did not produced any beer again until 1925.

The Eldridge Poole Brewery since demolished
The Eldridge Poole Brewery since demolished

During this period the Company’s beer was brewed by Devenish in Weymouth, a gesture, which, ironically, it was able to repay during the Second World War, when that company’s brewery was severely damaged by bombing. The rebuilding work enabled the Brewery to be completely modernised, but during the work Edwin insisted that the contractors employ men displaced by the fire, who then returned on the re-opening to work there.

Death of Edwin and Alfred Pope

The late 1920s and early 1930s saw the deaths of Edwin and Alfred Pope, and a third generation of Popes taking up the vacated positions on the Company’s Board, Cecil Pope and his younger brother, Philip, joining the Company; once again, following mantra of Cecil the Brewer and Philip the Lawyer. Within in the Brewery much attention turned to the popularity of bottled beers and also the growing importance of motor transport for distribution replacing the rail transport.

The Estate also expanded; on the one hand, with the acquisition of breweries in towns like Sherborne, but also with the purchase of the Marnhull & Tisbury Brewery and the pubs in North Dorset and South Wiltshire including Salisbury. In parallel, the Company built many new pubs in the expanding County Borough of Bournemouth.

War Aftermath

A period of retrenchment and repair followed the War in 1945, with substantial slum clearance in centres like Portsmouth and Southampton, damaged by the Blitz. The Company’s wine business had expanded, with shops throughout its trading area, driven by Cecil, and then in the late 50s and early 60s with the arrival of the next generation of Christopher and Anthony, and in the late 60s with Jeremy, yet another Lawyer!

Once again, it was a period of expansion and development. The Company’s beers achieved great popularity and won many prizes. Beers, such as Thomas Hardy’s Ale, featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the strongest beer in Britain, along with IPA, Dorchester Bitter, Royal Oak and others. Christopher’s brainchild “Konig Lager”, one of the very first British-brewed lagers using traditional ale-brewing equipment, followed later by “Faust Lager”, the brainchild of another family member, Martin Cree. However, credit for many of these achievements should go to Denis Holiday, the Head Brewer.

The mayor of Dorchester, Miss Winifrede Marsden, filling the first cask of Coronation Brew.

The site and activities on it likewise expanded, as well as the Estate. The managed house element grew; various former off-licences were converted into pubs; the wine business moved away from direct sales to the public and towards supplying restaurants, hotels and even other brewers, and in 1984 it became the UK Wine Merchant of the Year; land was acquired by Jeremy from British Rail, comprising just over six acres, for the Brewery development, a transaction involving the rebuild of the South Station and much else besides; an acquisition critical to the Brewery Square project.

However, in 1989 the Government passed the Beer Orders, following a report from the Monopolies Commission, which found that a complex monopoly existed in favour of brewers who also owned tied houses. Although aimed primarily at the “Big Six” national brewers, each owning more than 2000 on-licensed premises and which compelled them either to dispose of their breweries or release from their ties one half of licensed premises, it set a deadline of November 1992 to achieve this, the impact on the Industry was to precipitate a seismic change in its structure, notwithstanding the fact that smaller brewers, such as Eldridge Pope, were not affected superficially, but in fact the reverse was the case for all brewers, regardless of size.

Restructure

In response to this changed landscape, the Company reorganised the enterprise in a number of ways, which effectively altered its traditional vertically integrated structure. It sold its free-trade beer business in a transaction involving a lager supply deal at competitive prices and also reorganised elements of its delivery operations. The wine and spirit business was established as an independent unit, whilst the Brewery itself was transferred into a joint venture company, in which the freehold of the site was held by the Company, which reduced its equity stake in the new enterprise to less than 15%, to comply with the Beer Orders. The new Thomas Hardy Brewery, operated by Peter Ward, former production director of Courage, produced all the EP brands, whether cask, keg or bottle ale; it also ran the wine -bottling business, serving EP Fine Wines; won contracts to produce and bottle alcopops, as well as producing ales for several other smaller companies that were giving up brewing themselves. In parallel, the main functions of the managed and tenanted elements of the State were also streamlined. These changes greatly increased activity and the employment security on the site. All these elements traded with others on an arm’s-length basis.

Eldridge Pope had re-registered as a plc, as a condition of its “A” non-voting shares being quoted on the Alternative Investment Market, the creation of which Jeremy had played a major role in setting up. He had pressed for private companies to be allowed to join the Market, suggesting that they could be regulated by the Stock Exchange’s Listing Agreement. This idea was rejected by the Exchange and so, in order to provide the A-shareholders with an effective market, the Company became a plc.

Ownership of the Brewery

An important consequence of this was the increasing pressure on the Company to enfranchise A-shares, thereby giving them parity in voting with the Pope Family-controlled “B”-shares. In July 1998 the Board acceded to these pressures and the two classes of share were merged and with the family, although still controlling a large percentage of the equity, losing the overall control of the Company itself; along with it, most of its traditional values about employees, the community and stability were sacrificed on the altar of short-termism and economic fashion. In reaction to this, Jeremy stepped down in early 1999 as Chief Executive and left the Company to pursue other interests. Thus, only Christopher remained as the sole Pope on the Board, as its Non-Executive Chairman.

The new Team then radically altered the direction of the Company, to focus on becoming a pub retailer. In 1999 Eldridge Pope Fine Wines was sold and Jeremy was appointed to chair the business, serving until 2001, when once again it was sold by the owners. A number of properties were sold and in March 2001 it announced it was putting the Brewery site, including its offices, up for sale. A number of competing bids were received and in July it was announced that the Company was in detailed negotiations for the sale with a developer.

Brewery Square

The successful bidder, Waterhouse, assembled plans for a mixed-use development of the site. As a consequence of a substantial rent increase, the Thomas Hardy Brewery vacated the site, and with most of the employment on site, and in 2004 the Company itself was sold to a company owned by Michael Cannon. There was therefore a period of some years until full planning permission was granted in 2007 and work on the first of three phases commenced. During the interregnum there was some limited employment on site, accompanied by demolition and clearance of a number of buildings on site.

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