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Stratford-upon-Avon: A Brewing Town

There's little doubt of what Stratford is best known for, yet ask enthusiasts of real ale and you may get a different answer. Read about Stratford's history with breweries in the form of Flower and Sons.

‘Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale’  William Shakespeare – ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, Act 3, Scene 1

There’s little doubt of what Stratford is best known for, yet ask enthusiasts of real ale and you may get a different answer. The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive is blessed with the archive of Flower and Sons, brewers of Stratford-upon-Avon. For anyone interested in the history of brewing and in its role within Stratford’s more recent history, it’s a fascinating resource. Including as the records do detailed personnel records, it’s also of great potential interest to family historians. Brewing was, of course, hardly new in Stratford, as witness the number of maltsters recorded in the documents of Shakespeare’s time but the scale of Flower’s Brewery made it Warwickshire’s largest and by the end of the 19th century it had become Stratford’s biggest employer.

Flower's wages book
Flower's wages book

So how did all this begin? The business was founded by one Edward Flower from Hertfordshire. Edward was the son of Richard Flower, a well known brewer, banker and agriculturalist of the time. Benjamin Flower, one of his uncles, was a well known political writer who was imprisoned for his beliefs. Richard and his family emigrated to the United States (where he founded the settlement of Albion, Illinois). However Edward Flower became involved in the campaign to prohibit slavery there which led to threats being made against him and, fearing for his life, he fled home to England and began working in Stratford in the corn trade. His fears in the United States were not unfounded since apparently one of his cousins was indeed killed by the pro-slavery faction. Later Edward would go into partnership with James Cox as a timber merchant. This having been said, Edward still hoped to return to Illinois, which he considered his home rather than England. But romance then happened: he met and then in 1827, subsequently married, Selina Greaves of Barford, the eldest daughter of John Greaves of Leamington Spa. They were to have three sons. Edward had the dubious privilege of holding the office of overseer of the poor. The legacy resulting from Richard Flower’s passing in 1829 was invested in the building of a brewery in Stratford in 1831 . The brewery was built on land between the Birmingham and Clopton roads with a canal frontage for delivery and distribution. The first tied public house was taken over in 1836. The brewery was to prove rather successful: in 1833 sales were already £3423 (that’s £148,000 in today’s values) and by 1866 the company was turning over £100,000 (a whopping £4,300,000 in today’s terms). Expansion then came rapidly: in 1870 larger premises were opened on the Birmingham Road. Export trade was particularly brisk with IPA (for non beer drinkers that’s India Pale Ale) being a good seller.

By now Edward Flower had retired, though like so many people who retire this merely prompted increased involvement in other interests. Four times Edward was chosen as mayor of Stratford, on the last occasion in 1864, when he was to organise the tercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth. He seems to have been very hospitable to tourists and is on record as putting them up at his house, ‘The Hill’, which he built with his new found brewing wealth in 1855. A magistrate and unsuccessful though enthusiastic Liberal parliamentary candidate, Flower also had interests in the welfare and humane treatment of horses and in, er, road construction, producing a pamphlet with the snappy title of ‘The Stones of London, or Macadam v. Vestries’ in 1880.

Edward Flower died at his London home in 1883 aged 78. His widow Selina died just a year later. Their legacy to Stratford and to Shakespeare lives on, however. Edward and Selina’s oldest son, Charles Edward Flower, joined his father as a partner in the brewery in 1852, but is better remembered as the founder of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Their youngest son Edgar Flower became the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Members of the family continued to control the brewery until its takeover and subsequent closure by Whitbread in 1967. Then in the mid-1970’s, after the brand had been dormant for some years, there came about the Campaign for Real Ale (or CAMRA) and Whitbread presumably concluded that the name merited reviving and production of Flower’s Ale began again. The beer therefore lives on to this day and the hand pumps that serve it carry an image of Shakespeare. It is, one might fancy, a connection he would rather enjoy.

Many thanks to Liz Flower for her contributions to the above. 

This blog first appeared as an article in the Stratford Herald in March.

Images © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust