Bentley’s Brewery

If you want to get an idea of what Woodlesford was like nearly 200 years ago you can do no better than turn on your tv and watch the period drama Cranford from the novel by Elizabeth Gaskill. On the surface it’s a Victorian soap opera about ladies who wear bonnets. But the underlying story is about the huge changes that were taking place during the industrial revolution bringing about the erosion of the centuries old power of the landed aristocratic families.

For the stately home of Lady Ludlow in Cranford you can easily substitute Swillington House, the seat of the Lowther family, or Oulton Hall, home to the Calverley family for generations. For Cranford’s main thoroughfare think of Church Street before it was paved and many of its original stone cottages were demolished.

Henry Bentley, founder of the brewery at Woodlesford, was perhaps like one of the more forward looking characters in Gaskill’s story, a dynamic individual who wanted to profit from the new inventions and processes being discovered almost daily. Beer was already in his blood and there was also a local connection which brought him to Woodlesford. His father, Timothy, had established a brewery at Lockwood near Huddersfield in 1794. They were descended from the same family as Richard Bentley, the famous theologian and Master of Trinity College, who was born and brought up in Oulton.

As his business expanded Timothy bought land close to Swillington Bridge in 1808 and built a maltings to process locally grown barley. It’s more than likely that the finished product was transported most of the way to Lockwood via Castleford and Wakefield in boats along the Aire and Calder Navigation. It had been set up to make the rivers navigable a century earlier.

Eshald House.

On the same site as the maltings was the 50 metres deep Eshald Well, which gave a supply of natural spring water, so its clear that Timothy already had it in mind to create a brewery based around it, with Henry in charge. In 1828 Henry married one of his cousins in Halifax and in the same year the Woodlesford brewery was opened for business.

At first the Bentleys lived in a house on the brewery site. Then, with their growing wealth, they built Eshald House which they moved into in about 1843. Meanwhile Henry’s brother Robert had gone off to Rotherham to set up another brewery.

By then trade on the Aire and Calder was booming with coal being carried to the woollen mills upstream at Leeds and finished goods being sent for export at Hull. Some of the boats passing through Woodlesford were already powered by steam engines built by Fenton, Murray and Wood in Holbeck. 

A barrel stopper.

It was the growth in trade and the population boom that went with it as thousands migrated from the countryside to the towns to work in the factories and mills that enabled Henry Bentley’s brewery to prosper. For centuries weak beer had been a staple of most people’s diets, largely because it was much safer to drink than unprocessed water from rivers or wells.

Another factor in his success was the 1830 Beer Act which allowed anybody to brew and sell beer from their own home if they applied for a modestly priced license. Previously the trade had been heavily taxed. Thousands of new “public” houses were opened and many of them, rather than brew their own beer, bought it from Bentley’s. In 1830 they sold over 3000 barrels to 140 customers in Leeds and Hunslet or along the recently built toll roads. Demand was such that at one point the beer was briefly rationed.

Locally it was delivered by horse and dray to pubs such as the Three Pears Inn or Jolly Knobbler, Hopewell House, the Boot and Shoe, the Needless Inn, and the Anchor Inn, all of which are no longer with us. Luckily quite a few survive and amongst them are the Midland Hotel, the Two Pointers, the Old and New Masons, the Three Horse Shoes and the Coach and Horses at Rothwell. Over time most of them were acquired from their owners to become “tied” houses belonging to the brewery.

Stoneware beer flagons.

Early records show that Bentley’s was very soon producing 5 different beers – 3 ales, a porter, and a “best stout porter.” They were brewed using a fermentation system of stone squares invented by Timothy Bentley. It gave the beer a unique taste and it’s believed he developed it after studying the work of the famous Yorkshire chemist, Joseph Priestley. The carbon dioxide dissolved in the beer also gave it a distinctive frothy head unlike “flat” southern beers which for generations have been sneered at by Yorkshire drinkers.

In the 1830s the beer sold for between 1/- and 1/6d a gallon in “old” money, and prices were even lower nearly a century later in the years before the First World War. (A shilling was worth 5p when “new” money was introduced in 1971).

Seven years after the brewery opened there were opportunities for further expansion when the canal company finished the Woodlesford Cut in 1835. It speeded up traffic as it joined up with the earlier Crier Cut towards Leeds and enabled boats to avoid the winding stretch of river between Woodlesford and Methley. Henry Bentley took advantage of this by buying a second-hand keel from a publican at Allerton Bywater which he used to ship about a fifth of his beer to a merchant at Hull.

A beer bottle crate.

At the same time the great railway developer George Stephenson was passing through surveying the route for the new North Midland Railway, part of a trunk route that would in 1840 link Leeds with York, Manchester, Liverpool, the Midlands and London. He chose to plan his railway slap bang through the middle of Henry Bentley’s property cutting off the brewery from the family house but, unlike some of those in the fictional Cranford who resisted the railway, Woodlesford’s leading citizen appears to have welcomed it with open arms. No doubt he was well compensated for the loss of land but the main benefit was the ability to use the new mode of transport to send his beer even further afield, mainly to Lancashire.

Watching all of this were Henry’s two sons – Timothy, born in 1831, and Henry Junior in 1832. It’s known Henry was sent away to attend the famous Rugby School but he must also have grown up learning the brewing business as he took over its management at the relatively young age of 16 when his father died, at the age of 45, in 1848. Henry Senior’s death certificate recorded that he’d been suffering from jaundice for 9 years and dropsy for 6 months, both of which are associated with diseases of the liver. Perhaps he’d been imbibing too much of his own beer!

In 1856 Henry Junior married Jane (Jeannie) Walker Hoyle from a well to do South Yorkshire family. The 1871 census shows them living at Eshald House with a son and two daughters and no less than eight servants including a butler and a footman. There was a piggery in the grounds of the house, a tradition which continued well into the 20th century after it was sold on to the owners of Water Haigh colliery.

The family were well respected locally and held an an annual flower show for the village. In May 1868 many of the blooms were put to good use when the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, arrived by train on his way to Temple Newsam. Large crowds turned out and local newspapers reported that Henry Bentley had his workmen erect “triumphal arches” of flowers which “gave a picturesque welcome to the illustrious visitor” as his carriage was driven past escorted by the Yorkshire Hussars.

Along with the Lowther family from Swillington House the Bentley’s helped fund All Saints Church which opened in 1870. Henry was a supporter of the Conservative Party and was nearly selected to be the MP for Huddersfield. For a time he was President of the Yorkshire Brewers Association.

By 1875 the brewery had expanded considerably. The main offices were close to the railway which had provided a private entrance under their line. It’s still there today with the footpath to the Maltings estate running through it.

The main brewing area, with its boiler house and tall chimney, was also at the top of the site which sloped down towards the canal and a lot of effort was saved by using gravity to move the beer along in the brewing process. There were over 200 workers at Woodlesford with others at distribution agencies across Yorkshire and as far as Newcastle to the north and Birmingham to the south. The brewery had its own gas works for lighting which supplied the railway station and customers in the village.

The next significant development came in 1880 when a limited liability company was formed. It’s not clear precisely why this happened but it may have had something to do with an economic depression as Britain lost its trade to European competitors. Shares were issued to raise capital and a board was appointed under the chairmanship of Joseph Charlesworth, the Rothwell colliery owner.

Both Timothy and Henry Bentley became shareholders and Henry continued as general manager. The brothers weren’t out of pocket either because in the end they walked away with over £200,000 (worth nearly £10 million today) after selling all their assets to the new concern.

A pub mirror.

The second Henry Bentley died suddenly at the age of 53 in 1886. He had been suffering from diabetes. By that time, and after the death of his wife, he’d handed over management of the brewery and moved to live in London and Norfolk. He was buried in the family vault at St.John’s church in Oulton, with the entire brewery workforce turning out to pay their last respects.

The Rothwell Times reported: “As the cortege left Eshald House the bells of Woodlesford church were chimed, and a muffled peal was rung. The coffin, covered with flowers and wreaths, was carried to the grave by a number of the deceased’s old workmen.”

After Henry gave up the general management it fell to Henry’s wife’s younger brother, Charles Frederick Hoyle, who had been connected to the brewery since he was 16 years old and who had risen to be Head Brewer. In 1892 he moved to be general manager at John Smith’s brewery at Tadcaster. He later returned to Bentley’s where he was managing director, a position he held until his sudden death on Boar Lane in Leeds in 1913. He was also well known as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army.

As a company quoted on the stock exchange Bentley’s appears to have gone from strength to strength. In 1892 several other breweries and their licensed premises were acquired, many of them in Bradford, and in 1893 the concern was reformed as Bentley’s Yorkshire Breweries, a name it kept until it was taken over by Whitbread in 1968.

A detailed picture of the brewery in the late 19th century is described in “The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland” published in 1889 by Alfred Barnard, a year in which Bentley’s output had risen to nearly 100,000 barrels. His visit started in the office building which included an order office and accommodation for 12 clerks. The accountants’ office and board room were on the first floor and a small lift was used for bringing up heavy ledgers from the strong room below.

The process of malting required a large floor area and No 4 maltings was the largest on the site, a 3 storey building, 200 feet long, bordering Aberford Road. A covered bridge linked it with the brewhouse which contained 3 large mash tuns where the malt was mixed with water. The resulting liquid, known as wort, then ran by gravity to the next building where there were 4 coppers. These were like very large kettles, where the liquid was boiled. After that the wort was cooled in a refrigeration system. Then it flowed into a large fermentation room which held 36 stone squares, each capable of containing 20 barrels of liquid. When it was ready the beer was drawn into casks which were stored in large cellars.

The site also had a blacksmith’s shop, a joinery powered by a stationary steam engine, a cooperage for making and repairing barrels, and stables. Little has been recorded of the lives of the ordinary workers but through Alfred Barnard we get a glimpse of one of them. He was Sergeant Henry James, a Chelsea Pensioner who lived in the gate house lodge. He worked as a timekeeper. Born at Goldcliff near Newport in Monmouthshire he had served with the 1st York and Lancaster regiment distinguishing himself at the battle of El Teb in the Sudan in 1884. At the time of Barnard’s visit he was about 40 years old and married to Ellen who came from Boston in Lincolnshire. Their baby daughter Beatrice had been born in Sheffield.

Barnard’s visit ended with a sampling of some of the various brews along with the head brewer, Harold Trinder. These included College ale, East India pale ale, Bentley’s version of a continental lager, and Old Timothy – “the ancient speciality of the firm, a luscious full-bodied and nourishing drink.”

William Henry Jewitt was foreman horse keeper at the brewery. He was born at Eastrington in the East Riding, the son of an agricultural labourer. Later he moved to Bradford where he worked as a general carrier before moving his family to Woodlesford during the 1890s. They lived at Claremont Terrace and Eshald Place. Two of his sons also worked at the brewery.

Throughout its existence Bentley’s appears to have been at the forefront of new ideas and techniques. Fast and efficient transport was important in the beer trade and in 1882 they bought a new Aveling and Porter steam traction engine for deliveries to Leeds, Bradford, Selby and Castleford. They acquired their first steam lorry in 1900 and others followed. They were pioneer users of a paraffin wagon and after the First World War had a large fleet of petrol lorries. New legislation in 1930 led to withdrawal of the steam powered vehicles.

They were also keen advertisers, taking space on the side of trams in Leeds as well as producing colourful pub mirrors and a host of small items ranging from beer mats to ash trays, jugs and bottle openers. Passengers passing through on main line express trains couldn’t fail to miss the large sign which proclaimed – “Woodlesford, the Home of BYB.”

Early one morning in June 1902 a serious fire destroyed a large part of the plant. A spark from a grinding machine set malting material ablaze and although staff made valiant attempts to put out the fire it spread rapidly. The nearest firemen were in Leeds but they were on the scene within 40 minutes and a crowd gathered to watch their efforts to contain the fire. It took them about 4 hours to put it out using water from the canal. The roof of a 3 storey building collapsed, 9,000 gallons of beer were lost and the brewery was out of production for 3 weeks. With insurance money an up-to-date system was introduced and the boiler house moved, its chimney being replaced by a large square water tower which dominated the skyline.

The brewery continued to prosper until the outbreak of war in 1914. Many of the men volunteered to fight against the Germans, a few never returning. Production was drastically reduced as raw materials became scarce and many horses were commandeered by the army to haul wagons in France.

After the Armistice in 1918 production gradually returned to normal until the industrial unrest of 1926 when the 6 month long the miners’ strike again disrupted production and many of the brewery staff were laid off.

In 1928 the brewery celebrated its centenary. An illustrated souvenir booklet was produced to record its past and trumpet its modern equipment. By that time electricity had replaced gas on the site and there was a winding engine for hauling loaded railway wagons along the sidings. The booklet also featured many of the hundreds of pubs and hotels owned or under BYB control, many of which are still in existence today. They ranged from those further afield such as the the Queen Hotel at Saltburn-By-The-Sea and the Black Horse at Skipton, an old “posting” house, through pubs like the Old Peacock opposite Elland Road football stadium, to those closer to home like the John O’Gaunt Hotel.

Of growing importance was the Wine and Spirit Department which, since 1877, had been based at the Corn Exchange in Leeds. In 1926 it was moved “lock, stock and barrel” back to Woodlesford, reportedly without a bottle being broken! These were the days before we bought our booze at Morrisons and Lidl. If you wanted wine or whisky you went to the pub or the off-licence shop and vast quantities of sherry, port and spirits were brought to the brewery via bonded warehouses in Leeds, where BYB held the largest stocks in northern England. It was transferred from casks into bottles, mainly by a workforce of local women. They were also responsible for bottling beer and stout and operated the “crowner” which put metal tops onto the bottles, before they were put in boxes and crates and delivered by the draymen. Many of the bottles were returnable and children would earn pocket money by finding them and taking them back to the “off” shops to be rewarded with a few old pennies.

Hundreds of brands passed through Woodlesford in huge quantities including Mackeson stout, sherries such as Dry Sac and Gonzales Byass, ports like Old Douro and Old Ruby, and any number of red and white wines. Whisky came directly to the brewery in covered railway vans from distilleries at places such Haig’s at Markinch in Scotland. It was shunted into the brewery sidings and had to be checked by a porter from the station before it could be unloaded. One morning during the Second World War one of them arrived to find a broken seal on one of the vans. He opened the door only to find it completely empty. All the contents had been stolen the previous night whilst the van was in sidings at Hunslet!

Colin Cowell joined the Wines and Spirits department in 1952 and spent the whole of his working life there. His first job was putting plastic tops on miniature bottles of rum, and he graduated to pushing in corks and packing orders. His boss Cyril Ambler had started in the 1920s and served in India during the war.

A key feature of brewery life was “The Allowance”, with workers being given free drink during their shifts, a tradition extended to visiting delivery drivers and to the gangers and signalmen on the railway who would nip in for their morning pint, or two.

Pub sign from the Brick hall Inn at Skipton.

In the days before the dreaded “breathalyser” many of the brewery’s own drivers joined in as well. They were also given free beer by landlords on their routes. John Naylor consumed so much one Christmas in the 1960s he barely made it home. There was a bit of a stink and he feared the sack but when the management realised he’d delivered to a record number of pubs and was a due a hefty bonus they backed off.

The brewery also kept the local police happy with a regular supply of whisky which they enjoyed at Christmas. During a royal visit one copper on point duty near the brewery was so full of his allowance he had to be helped to stay upright while the Queen went past!

On the other hand many workers were Methodist teetotallers. In the evenings and at weekends there was a lively social club on the site and a feature for many years was an annual sports day on a large field adjoining the brewery which was a major event in the village’s social life. Football and cricket teams played in local leagues and at one time even croquet was popular.

Many of the employees stayed loyal for many years. At a ceremony at the Queens’ Hotel in Pontefract in 1965 the chairman J. C. Scott, who himself had joined the board in 1938, presented gold watches to 9 men who’d all worked for BYB for 40 years or more.

Conditions for the brewery were not too good during the depression of the 1930s but as things were beginning to improve the Second World War was declared. Again many of the male workers joined the forces and were replaced by women. Production was curtailed as raw materials were in short supply.

After the war production slowly improved and on the surface the brewery seemed to be on an upward trend but big conglomerates were appearing on the scene. Both Whitbread and Bass Charrington had bought a significant amount of BYB shares. Because of this Whitbread’s were able to persuade Bentleys to sell their bottled beer in BYB public houses. In 1968, after sales and profits fell, Whitbread made a bid for the company and bought Bass Charrington’s stake of 24%, giving them effective control. The whole deal valued BYB at just over 5 million.

In April 1969 150 men walked out on strike for seven hours after three of their colleagues were sacked for not turning up for work on the previous Saturday. The union claimed the men were on a five day week and Saturday working was optional.

Each month BYB would send a crate of 12 bottles of water from the Eshald Well to London by rail for chemical analysis. In 1970 it was discovered that the water was not up to its usual pure standard and its use was discontinued.

In 1972 brewing ceased altogether and the premises became a storage, bottling and distribution depot only. Beer was imported in tankers and transferred to kegs. But sales were falling and on 5 September 1984 the axe finally fell and the brewery closed. Most of the remaining 122 staff chose not to be transferred to other Whitbread plants and took redundancy or pensions. They all posed for one final group photograph in the brewery yard and each was given a print of a painting by John Naylor, many of which still hang on the walls of Woodlesford residents to this day.

The buildings were eventually razed to the ground. The chimney of the boiler house, being the last, was demolished early one Sunday morning. So ended a tradition which had lasted the better part of 200 years. As generations of BYB drinkers would have said: “Cheers!”

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The brewery tower during demolition of the site.