Dr. Johnson’s Stout Waters a Distant Shore, Part II

This is a sequel to my Part I earlier today. To understand the history and state circa 1909 of beer exports from Barclay, Perkins & Co. would require, a) a detailed review of the company’s business and legal archive, and ii) a comprehensive understanding of the post-1900 economic environment of the U.K. beer industry. Neither is a simple endeavour.

But some thoughts. This business story in the New York Sun on May 30, 1915 indicates the troubles British brewers experienced even before the first steep beer tax increase by David Lloyd George in the Asquith government (1915).

Before the war the breweries were paying about half their profits to the Exchequer. Also, many breweries including Barclay Perkins had overpaid to expand their pub estates and had to write down asset values, by $5,000,000 (U.S.) for Barclay Perkins. The businesses (as public companies, Barclay Perkins was since 1896) were still profitable but had less value after the write-down.

With declining production during the war under food conservation measures, and price controls on the pint, the industry was between a rock and a hard place. Thoughts of exports to more productive markets had to be delayed or canceled. Revisiting Canada after 1918 was a no-go due to the patchwork of post-war prohibition laws in the country.

That said, despite the German U-boats some beer must have been exported in April 1915 when Barclay Perkins was advertising in a Victoria, B.C. newspaper, unless it was selling prewar stock perhaps.

In terms of the position up to the war, and most of the ads I referenced were between 1909 and 1911, clearly the company saw opportunities in Victoria and perhaps as I’ve said to trans-ship further west. The push makes sense to parry declining prospects after 1900 caused by new challenges. (The Daily Colonist lists some ads for Barclay Perkins products in 1916 and 1917, which seems late in the war for exports, but these are expressed as clearances, perhaps for old stock).

In The History of the Beer and Brewing Industry (2018), ed. by Ignazio Cabras and David M. Higgins, it is noted that U.K. beer production fell annually for 10 years from 1899 and by a total of 14%. Nearing the end point is about when Barclay Perkins seems to have started its push in B.C…

The reasons for the industry’s decline were diverse: falling working class incomes, the new suburbs that lessened access to Central London public houses, and prohibition attitudes which in turn were linked to the respectability issue pubs and drinking could no longer sidestep, as I discussed earlier.

An industry-wide turnaround did commence after 1910 (see Cabras and Higgins) but it would not have affected each brewer in the same way. In C.C. Owen’s 1987 journal article History of Brewing in Burton on Trent he states:

After 1900 opposition to the brewers grew even stronger, with talk of prohibition and a steady decline in beer-drinking. Falling demand and lack of retail outlets drove some of the smaller Burton firms out of business or forced them to amalgamate…

Albeit in relation to Burton, these words summarize a long-term trend in Britain a few years respite before WW I could not arrest. In this climate, an attempt to promote Barclay Perkins in a western Canadian seaport makes sense.

To be sure Barclay Perkins had repute in North America in the 1800s. It wasn’t coming in unannounced, so to speak. A newspaper article in the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel in 1869, so down the coast for our purposes, called Barclay Perkins one of the two or three dominant brewers “on both sides of the Atlantic”. It is not difficult to find examples of Barclay Perkins ads for its porter a.k.a. brown stout across the United States, and Canada could not have been very different.

Hence, limited as this purview is, I think it is fair to say that by 1909 the company felt impelled to open up a fresh market in Canada, with ancillary plans possibly as noted earlier.

Once the war began, this prospect was stopped in the water. A long slide continued, for social and economic reasons largely outside the company’s control that are well-documented in the literature. The end point was the 1955 merger of Barclay Perkins with Courage & Co., close by it Thameside, London.

For a continuation of the above, see Part III.