The Morland Brewery
Until the seventeenth century, brewing was a domestic activity carried out in gentry houses for the inhabitants or in alehouses for consumption on the premises. But by the early eighteenth century, the Morland family were brewing industrially in West Ilsley. In 1796, a daughter of this family married John F Spenlove, who owned the Abbey Brewery based in and around the Long Gallery, part of the former Abingdon Abbey. About 1861, another family member took over the Eagle Brewery in Ock Street . By 1887, these were both part of Morland’s United Brewery. Morland’s adopted a policy of taking over other concerns over an increasingly wide area and centralising brewing operations in Ock Street. Their managing director from 1890 till his death in 1938 was Thomas Skurray, who continued this expansion and also made Morland’s a pioneer and innovator on the technical side of brewing.
In 1956, fearful of hostile takeovers, Morland’s allowed the much larger Whitbread company to take a minority shareholding. This was advantageous at first, giving them access to brands and technical expertise; but in 1992 Whitbread made agreements with Greene King of Bury St Edmunds which led to Greene King taking over Morland’s seven years later. The Ock Street Brewery was closed down and converted to residential accommodation, and although some of the Morland brands survive, they are no longer brewed in Abingdon.
In the Middle Ages, ale was normally brewed in small quantities for a household or for current consumption in an alehouse. In the sixteenth century, the introduction of hopped beers with improved keeping qualities made it possible to brew on a larger scale for supply to multiple outlets. Brewing companies appeared in the seventeenth century, initially in London but later also in other parts of the country.
In 1711, John Morland (1671-1726) a yeoman of Hodcott Farm, purchased a property in the village of West Ilsley between Abingdon and Newbury. The original deed is in the Berkshire Records Office and describes the Vendor as Benjamin Smith, a maltster. Soon after acquiring the maltings, John and his son Benjamin ventured into brewing and traces of their brewhouse can still be seen in the village, part of West Ilsley House.
The business was inherited by Benjamin Morland in 1727 and made over to his son William in 1761. The West Ilsley brewery prospered under the care of two further generations, and in 1854 it passed to Edward Henry Morland, a cousin, who set about expanding the business by purchasing the Eagle Brewery, Abingdon, from a William Belcher, who had been made bankrupt in 1861. The Eagle Brewery, situated in Ock Street, was the site on which the Company operated until its closure in 1999.
In 1796, Susannah Morland, daughter of William Morland, married John F Spenlove, owner of the Abbey Brewery, Abingdon. A marriage settlement of £5000 was spent on modernising the brewery, making it “the largest Porter Brewery in Abingdon.” It operated in the old Abbey precinct, using the Long Gallery and the Checker as well as other buildings now demolished, and acquired additional premises in the vicinity. The Abbey Brewery passed to Edward Henry Morland in 1866 on the death of Susannah’s spinster daughter, Mary. Although brewing ceased before the end of the nineteenth century, premises in the Vineyard were used as a malt extract production plant (Hordeum Products) until 1975. A malthouse attached to the brewery was demolished to provide the site for a medical practice which still bears the title Malthouse Surgery.
By 1887, the Abbey Brewery had merged with two other such businesses, the Eagle and the Ilsley Breweries under the name of United Breweries. Its trademark was a pyramid of three casks with the initials of the three breweries – Eagle, Abbey, Ilsley – printed on the head of each. The original Morland brewery in West Ilsley was closed in the same year and Abingdon became the centre of the family interests.
Since Edward Henry Morland had no son and heir, the business was conveyed at his death in 1888 to his nephew, Edward Morland. Edward was the son of George Bowes Morland, a prominent resident of Abingdon and head of a firm of solicitors in the town. In the same year, Saxby’s Brewery in Stert Street was purchased and was closed down shortly afterwards. The buildings were used for Abingdon’s first cinema and later housed the printing firm Abbey Press until the buildings were demolished in 1987 and developed into office premises.
In the following year, 1889, Field and Sons’ brewery in Shillingford was taken over, together with their premises in Wallingford and a collection of tied houses, and as with previous acquisitions, brewing ceased shortly afterwards.
The growth of the Company was now calling for a much higher degree of management expertise, and Thomas Skurray was invited to join the Morland business. This remarkable man had studied brewing on the continent and his knowledge, coupled with an astute business brain, enabled the company to achieve considerable growth over the next fifty years. He could well be described as one of the early entrepreneurs of the brewing industry, and was to serve a term as chairman of the Brewers’ Society. He had already developed the malt extract plant in the Vineyard premises, using technology that was years ahead of the competition. He would be instrumental in building a new maltings in 1904, a soft drinks factory in 1910, and a replacement brewhouse in 1912.
The advent of motorised transport between the wars meant that breweries could enlarge their areas of operation, and led to an acceleration of takeovers and mergers in the industry. Expansion of Morland trade continued with the acquisition of five further breweries commencing with the Wantage Brewery in 1920. In 1927 J Dymore-Brown and Sons and Ferguson’s, both of Reading, and Hewett and Co of Shirlock Row, near Reading, were all purchased and closed down, the trade being supplied from the main brewery in Abingdon. The premises of the former Dymore-Brown brewery in Reading were used as a distribution depot to service the South Berkshire area. The net result of all this commercial activity was that the company not only doubled the number of public houses that it owned and operated but it also effectively doubled the geographical area to which it delivered.
With the acquisition of the Ferguson Brewery, the Morland Company also took over their Wines and Spirits business which became a wholly owned subsidiary. Fergusons had a chain of wine shops throughout the area, and were also importers and bottlers of a wide variety of wines and spirits. The Wines and Spirits business was eventually wound up in the nineteen-seventies.
The Tower Steam Brewery, Ock Street, Abingdon, owned and operated by Messrs Belcher and Habgood, was purchased in 1928 together with a number of public houses in and around Abingdon. The brewery premises were used as garages and vehicle repair buildings by Morland’s until they were sold to the local authority for development in 1988. In 1928 also, Lewis Rock Well Brewery Wantage, (known locally as the Back Street Brewery!) joined Morland’s United Breweries.
At first, the various companies that had been purchased continued to trade under their original names, even though all the beer was produced in the brewhouse in Ock Street. Bottles of the same beer were sold bearing different labels according to the original owner of the pubs to which they were delivered. However, in 1944, Morland became a public company and all the other company names with the exception of Fergusons were withdrawn. At the same time, a new trademark was introduced. It showed a man in a red frock coat and tricorn hat, holding an artist’s palette in one hand and admiring a glass of beer held in the other hand. The spire of St. Helens Church also appeared in the background. The drawing is a depiction of the artist George Morland (1763-1804), a relative of the original Morland brewing family, who became famous for his landscape and rustic agricultural scenes.
By the mid-1950s, the Company had an estate consisting of approximately three hundred tied houses, all within a 40 mile radius of Abingdon. This trading area extended from Bicester in the north to Basingstoke in the south; in the east a line from Windsor up through Princes Risborough and westwards to Lechlade. There was also a considerable amount of ‘free trade’ in the form of hotels, free houses, shops and clubs of various types. The company supplied draught and bottled beers, soft drinks and wines and spirits, all delivered from Abingdon, either direct or via the distribution depot in Reading. An extensive new bottling plant began operation in Abingdon in 1962. In addition to beer, the Company operated a small mineral water factory, which produced a full range of carbonated soft drinks and fruit squashes. There was a reorganisation in 1970 which resulted in the closure of the depot in Reading and of the Ferguson Wines and Spirits operation.
In 1956 Whitbread & Company purchased a considerable number of shares in Morland’s, under a system which became known as the “Whitbread Umbrella”. This arrangement which, at its peak in the late 1960’s, embraced some 30 brewing companies, offered protection from other predatory brewing companies and in return, extended the Whitbread trading area by enabling them to offer their range of beers throughout all the Umbrella companies’ tied estates.
The Whitbread connection was to prove advantageous for many years. In 1960, Morland’s decided to build a new bottling factory on the Ock Street site to replace the two old plants in Abingdon and Reading. The Morland board was able to call upon the Engineering Department of Whitbreads for assistance in designing a new bottling facility which included modern packaging technology, beer processing, and warehousing using mechanical handling equipment. This was commissioned in November 1962.
Development continued. From the middle of the 1970’s, demand for traditional draught beers increased dramatically, due in no small part to the activities of CAMRA – the CAMpaign for Real Ale – which had been set up in the early 1970’s to try to reverse the trend towards keg beers. This led to considerable investment in production equipment within the brewhouse, with extra fermentation vessels and automated bulk malt handling, and also required the building of a large air-conditioned draught beer warehouse.
In 1979 the MG Car Company celebrated the 50th anniversary of its move from Edmund Road, Cowley to Abingdon. They asked Morlands to brew a special commemorative beer for the occasion, for which they would suggest the name, and they would also design the bottle label. The name chosen was “Old Speckled Hen”, which took its name from a strange car which was brought to Abingdon when the factory moved. It was called the “MG Featherweight Fabric Saloon” made from cellulosed fabric stretched over a wooden frame, and was black speckled with gold. It became the factory’s demonstration model and general runabout, and as it chugged around the factory people would say “There guz the Owd Speckl’d ‘un…”. The original label bore the MG marque linked to the Borough of Abingdon Coat of Arms, and was printed in the MG colours of cream and brown. The bottle dressing was finished with a green foil capsule to match the background colour of the Borough Arms. The beer, which was an amber colour, was brewed at a gravity of 1050° to denote the 50th anniversary. What had been produced as a one-off celebration brew proved so popular that it was repeated and indeed was sold in its bottled form throughout the Morland estate for the next 10 years.
The demand for lager also continued to grow. In the 1980s, the company built a lager brewing facility. Lager requires a lengthy period of cold storage (the name “lager” comes from the German “to store”) and for this purpose, large cylindrical tanks with cone-shaped bases were installed on a site adjacent to the brewhouse, each fitted with automatic refrigeration. An arrangement was made with the Kaltenberg Brewery in Bavaria for their Braumeister lager to be brewed under license in Abingdon. German hops were introduced and fresh supplies of Kaltenberg’s own strain of yeast were flown in from Munich every eight weeks. The new facility was officially opened in June 1988, and the lager soon gained popularity throughout the Morland distribution area. The venture, however, was to be short-lived.
In 1990, in order to fill a gap in its product range, the Company decided to test market Old Speckled Hen in draught form, since high gravity cask conditioned beers were very much in demand. The beer became an immediate success, partly as a result of some very clever advertising which capitalised on the unusual name, and within a matter of months was being distributed throughout the country. The bottled variety was also repackaged and a canned version introduced. The demand for this beer became so great that additional brewhouse capacity was required, with the result that the decision was taken to withdraw from lager production in order to make additional capacity available for brewing Old Speckled Hen.
The business was continuing to grow. Changes in the industry meant that public houses were coming on to the market in large numbers. During the 1990s more than two hundred were acquired from other brewers. Most of these were in areas adjoining the original Morland distribution territory which now extended to the south coast and eastwards into the Greater London area, with a further group in Kent. As a result, there had to be further reorganistion and expansion of the Abingdon facilities. The distribution department moved to the Ashville estate in west Abingdon, and a new brewhouse, fully automated and computer controlled, was opened on the Ock Street site in 1997. With this additional brewing capacity, the Company was able to seek additional markets overseas for Old Speckled Hen, and it did not take long for a flourishing export trade to develop. The Company bought out Ruddles Brewery of Langham, Oakham, Rutland, closing that brewery, and transferring the production of Ruddles County and their Best Bitter to Abingdon.
But the predator was about to become the prey, and the connection with Whitbread would prove Morland’s undoing. In 1992, Greene King, a rival brewing company with considerable trade in East Anglia, purchased a large portion of the Whitbread holding, together with an agreement that Whitbreads would sell them the balance of the shares they held if Greene King were able to buy sufficient Morland shares on the open market to give them a majority stake. This meant that Greene King only needed to obtain approximately 6% of Morland’s issued shares in order to take over the company. The bid prompted a great groundswell of support for Morland’s, both locally and, most importantly, amongst the City financial institutions, and after some three months of frantic lobbying and uncertainty, it failed. However, six years later, having re-grouped and consolidated their position, Greene King came back with a further offer and this time their bid proved successful and they took over the whole Morland business, including the beer brands. The great market success enjoyed by ‘Old Speckled Hen’ was an important part of the attraction. The brewery was closed down early in 1999 and converted to residential housing.
Thus ended 288 years of history of Morland and Company, and the end of an industry which had been a major contributor to the development and success of the town of Abingdon.
The article of which this is an abridgement had no explicit references. The basic information is from the author’s own knowledge as Head Brewer at Morland’s 1982-1994, and a variety of other sources.
Related links: Morland’s Malthouse of 1904 by Bruce Hedge
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.
© AAAHS and contributors 2015