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Stratford-upon-Avon: A Brewing Town

There's little doubt about 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

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds 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 detailed personnel records, it’s also of great potential interest to family historians. 

Brewing was, of course, hardly new in Stratford, as we can see from the number of maltsters recorded in the documents of Shakespeare’s time. However, 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 who emigrated with his family to the United States (where he founded the settlement of Albion, Illinois). Whilst there, Edward Flower became involved in the campaign to prohibit slavery, which led to threats being made against him. Fearing for his life, Edward fled home to England and began working in Stratford in the corn trade. His fears 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. He still hoped to return to Illinois, which he considered his true home, until romance struck when he met and subsequently married Selina Greaves of Barford. 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 Flower and Sons 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 £3,423 (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 (India Pale Ale) being a good seller.

By this time, Edward Flower had retired, though like so many people who retire this merely prompted increased involvement in other interests. Edward was chosen as mayor of Stratford four times, 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, as well as in road construction. He produced 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, so 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