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 main source of wealth for its most prominent family, the Popes. This is the story of the brewery and how it came to be such a defining feature of the county town throughout the 20th century.
The link between Dorchester and brewing can be seen 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 came in 1831, when Charles Eldridge became landlord of the Antelope Hotel in Dorchester's High Street. Six years later Charles and his wife Sarah bought the small Green Dragon Brewery, and worked hard to expand the business until Charles's death in 1846.
Sarah continued to run the brewery after her husband's death, forming a partnership with another brewer named Samuel Mason and trading under the name 'Eldridge, Mason & Co'. When Sarah died in 1856, her share of the business passed to her son-in-law, a lawyer named John Tizard, who ran the company with Mason for another 14 years.
Mason retired in 1870 (rumour had it that his son had been killed in a tragic accident at the brewery), and sold his stake to Edwin Pope, who renamed the company 'Eldridge, Pope, and Co'. Edwin's solicitor brother Alfred handled the purchase, and wrote into the purchase agreement an option for Edwin to buy the remainder of the business upon the death of John Tizard (apparently without the knowledge of Tizard himself, who believed the stake would stay in his family).
Tizard died only a year later, and the Popes wasted no time in exercising their right to take full control of the business. The brothers had proved themselves to be shrewd businessmen, and with the brewery firmly in their hands, they set about fulfilling their grand ambitions for the company.
In 1879, they purchased four acres of land alongside the railway line as a site for a huge new brewery. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's south coast railway had arrived in Dorchester 30 years earlier, and the Popes saw clearly the benefit of being able to easily distribute their beer around the country.
W.R. Crickmay, who had mentored Thomas Hardy during the author's early career as an architect, 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'.
In the following years new generations of the Pope family took up senior positions in the company, including Alfred's sons Rolph, George, Alex and Clement, who joined the board of directors alongside Alfred and Edwin and helped ensure Eldridge Pope's continued growth.
Crucial to the company's success was its ability to exploit the image of Dorset as a place of rugged masculinity and traditional values. This can be seen in the company's Huntsman trademark, which was created by Clement Pope in 1921.
Though this was undoubtedly the golden age of the Eldridge Pope Brewery, it was by no means plain sailing for the Pope family. The carnage of World War One 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 several buildings. Major rebuilding work was required, and the brewery did not produce any beer again until 1925.
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. The subsequent decades were a period of stability, with few significant changes but for the replacement of the brewery's copper stills with modern stainless steel ones.
Cecil Pope (grandson of Alfred Pope) suggested the creation of a new ale to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardy in 1978. At 13%, Thomas Hardy's Ale was featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the UK's strongest commercially brewed beer. It was a big success and continued to be produced right up until 1999.
By this time, the company was facing serious financial difficulties, and after a series of catastrophic business decisions, the brewery was forced to close in 2003. The loss of the brewery was keenly felt in Dorchester, which had lived in the shade of its towering chimney stack for over 100 years.
The site lay unused and abandoned until it came to the attention of Andrew Wadsworth of London-based property developers Waterhouse. He envisioned a hugely ambitious project to transform the old brewery into a prestigious development of shops, entertainment venues and luxury apartments under the name Brewery Square.
Having played such an important role in Dorchester's history, great pains were taken in the planning phase to ensure a sympathetic approach to the brewery's buildings. The focal point of the site would remain the brewhouse, which would be converted into a hotel with W.R. Crickmay's iconic 19th century brick facade remaining intact.
Full planning permission for Brewery Square was finally granted in 2007, and work on the first of three phases of building work commenced. The first phase has since been completed, and the second phase, incorporating a cinema, flats and restaurants, will be completed in early 2013.