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History of the Company

The earliest surviving reference to an organised group of brewers in the City of London was in 1292. However, it was not until 1438, when Henry VI granted the Brewers a royal charter, that they were incorporated as a Livery Company.

The Brewers’ Company is one of the oldest of the City guilds or livery companies and is ranked 14th in the order of precedence of the 110 City livery companies in existence today. Its origins probably date back to the end of the twelfth century when it was known as the Guild of Our Lady and St. Thomas Becket. The earliest written reference to the existence of brewers as a body can be found in the City Letter Books where it is recorded that in 1292 London Brewers lodged a complaint against the Sheriffs. In 1406 the mistery of free Brewers successfully petitioned the Mayor and Aldermen for the right to appoint Masters and Wardens to control the trade. Henry VI granted the Company the first of its charters in 1438.

In its early days the Company had complete regulatory control over brewing and brewers in the City of London. The industry was an important one in the Middle Ages as water in the City was not fit to drink. A Maid of Honour in the time of Henry VIII was allowed 8 gallons of ale a day and if she was really thirsty could have a further gallon. Beer at that time was about 1/1.5% ABV. Over the years, due to the increasing involvement of Government in the regulation of trade and the growth of the big brewing companies, the power of the Brewers’ Company declined and it now no longer fulfils a regulatory role, though it retains strong connections with the industry through its membership.

1438 Charter
The Brewers' Company's first charter dated 1438

Beyond brewing...

In addition to its role in regulating its trade, the Brewers’ Company, in common with other livery companies, concerned itself with charitable activities and working as a trustee of philanthropic endowments. The Dame Alice Owen’s Foundation was formed in 1613 to support a school in Islington. In her will, Dame Alice Owen entrusted ‘my friends’ the brewers to look after this Foundation, which the Company still does today. The Richard Platt Foundation, which supports the community of Aldenham and a number of Schools including Aldenham School, was founded in 1597 by Richard Platt, a former Master of the Brewers’ Company. Over the years the Company has been responsible for these and a number of other charitable foundations and this work is still a key aspect of what the Company does.

Company Timeline

1292
The earliest reference to a group of brewers
1438
Charter of incorporation
1556
Inspeximus charter
1579
The Company’s fourth charter
1596
Founding of Aldenham School
1613
Founding of Dame Alice Owen's School
1639
The Company’s sixth charter
1673
A new Hall
1752
Sir Crisp Gascoyne, Lord Mayor of London
1940
The destruction of Brewers’ Hall
1960
The opening of the third Brewers’ Hall

1292
The earliest reference to a group of brewers

In 1292, the 20th year of the reign of Edward I, the following entry appeared in the City Letter Book:

Edward, etc, to the Warden and Aldermen of the City of London, etc. Whereas it has been shown to us by certain brewers, citizens of London, that they had been prejudiced as to their franchise in relation to their trade by our Sheriffs of London, and by those appointed by us to hear plaints in London, and we have already enjoined you to inquire into the matter; but you nevertheless showing favour to the Sheriffs and the others, have delayed inquiry, and the brewers continue to suffer at the hands of the Sheriffs; we, wishing to provide a remedy, do command you to summons the Sheriffs aforesaid before you, and after hearing the complaints of the brewers to do therein according to justice, and allow them to enjoy such liberties and customes as they ought, and such as their predecessors used to enjoy.

This is the earliest written evidence for the existence of a body of brewers who had joined together to protect themselves and their trade. This body was to evolve through the centuries to become the Wardens and Commonalty of the Mistery of Brewers of the City of London, 14th in order of precedence of all the City’s Livery Companies.

There is no evidence for the date when this association of brewers first came into being, but, considering what is known of the foundation of the Livery Companies in London, it is probable that the Brewers were one of the earliest groups of traders to come together as an organised trade guild. A list of the guilds known to have been in existence in the 12th century indicates that these were formed first among members of the oldest and most important trades. The importance of ale in the diet of medieval English people and the fact that the art of brewing had been long established in England are sufficient to suggest that the brewers would have been likely to be numbered among these major traders.

1438
Charter of incorporation

Henry VI granted the first charter to the Mystery of Brewers of the city of London on 22 February 1528. Among other rights, it gave permission to elect four wardens every year to supervise, rule and govern; the power to control all liquor sold or made from malt in the City and suburbs; and to own property in perpetuity to support poor men and women from among Company members.

We know from accounts kept by the Clerk, William Porlond, that the expenses for getting this charter came to £141 2s. This equates to £90,000 today! Nonetheless, it is a fairly plain document and the gap at the beginning was left for a decorated initial H to be added later, which would have cost more, and was never done.

Charter - 1438 - Henry VI

1556
Inspeximus charter

This charter was granted by Philip and Mary in June 1556. It recites the previous charter, confirming and renewing its validity under new authority. You can see more decoration than on the first charter – pen and ink portraits in the initial P, and some decoration along the top.

Charter - 1556 - Philip and Mary

1579
The Company’s fourth charter

The Company’s fourth charter, and the second one granted by Elizabeth I, is a beautiful illuminated document consisting of three leaves of parchment, with an image of the Queen enthroned in the initial E. Granted in July 1579, it extended the Company’s jurisdiction to regulate the market for ale and beer within two miles of the City, thereby encompassing all the brewers in the thriving West End of the day, Southwark.

Charter - 1579 - Elizabeth I

1596
Founding of Aldenham School

Son of Hugh Platt of Aldenham, Hertfordshire, Richard Platt was apprenticed to a London brewer. He became the proprietor of the Old Swan Brewery in the parish of St James Garlickhythe in the City of London, and served as Master of the Brewers’ Company twice – in 1576 and 1581. In February 1596 he obtained letters patent from Elizabeth I to build “the Free Grammar School and Almshouses” at Aldenham. The foundation stone was laid in 1597 and two years later he endowed the two charities with land at Aldenham and St Pancras, and appointed the Brewers’ Company as governors.

The buildings have changed over the centuries but the school is on the same site in Aldenham, and now includes two prep schools with nurseries, forming the Aldenham Foundation. The Brewers’ Company is still closely involved.

Aldenham School crest

1613
Founding of Dame Alice Owen's School

The School was founded in 1613 for 30 boy scholars under the will of Dame Alice Owen (pictured), a wealthy widow who had outlived three husbands, one of whom had been a Brewer. In her will she entrusted governance of the school which she had recently established in Islington to ‘her friends’ the Master and Wardens of the Company of Brewers of London. The Company is still heavily involved today.

The reason for the foundation of the School has become something of an institutional legend: the story goes that Alice Owen (then Alice Wilkes) was walking in a field in Islington when an arrow fired by a nearby youth struck her bonnet, carrying it off her head but miraculously leaving Alice herself uninjured; realising what a lucky escape she had had, Alice swore on the spot that should she ever come into money she would use it to establish a charitable foundation to educate the young and help the needy.

Dame Alice Owen

1639
The Company’s sixth charter

Granted by Charles I in 1639, this is the charter under which the Company operates today. In addition to reciting all the operative details from previous charters, it extends the Company’s jurisdiction to regulate the market for ale and beer within four miles of the City.

Charter - 1639 - Charles I

1673
A new Hall

Along with so much of the City, the Brewers’ first Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A new Hall was built, funded by means of donations from members and by pawning most of the Company’s silver, sadly this was never redeemed. It was a fine example of Stuart architecture, and the wainscotting in the Court/Committee Room was given by Sir Samuel Starling, Master in 1661 and Lord Mayor in 1669.

Brewers' Hall - The second Hall

1752
Sir Crisp Gascoyne, Lord Mayor of London

Becoming Lord Mayor of London was an auspicious moment for Sir Gascoyne. He had set up business as brewer in Gravel Lane, Houndsditch and was admitted as a Freeman of the Brewers’ Company in 1741, becoming Master in 1746. On 9 November 1752, Gascoyne went in the City Barge to Westminster Hall to be sworn into office as Lord Mayor. He returned via Blackfriars Stairs and then went in Procession to the Guildhall where ‘an elegant Entertainment’ was followed by a Ball.

He was the first incumbent to take residence in the newly built Mansion House. As his wife had died several years before, his daughter Ann Fanshawe assumed the role of Lady Mayoress. At the Ball she wore a silk dress whose design contains images of hops and barley interwoven with flowers spilling from silver cornucopia, alternating with anchors and merchants’ packs in silver, on a background of white silk threaded with silver. 

Sir Crisp Gascoyne
© The Trustees of the British Museum

1940
The destruction of Brewers’ Hall

Built soon after the Great Fire of London, the Brewers’ second hall was, in turn, destroyed during an air raid on the night of 29 December 1940. It was the night London suffered its most devastating air raid, with 19 City churches and 31 livery halls, among many other buildings, destroyed.

The Court met on 9 January 1941. They “heard with regret of the destruction of Brewers Hall by fire due to enemy action on the night of Sunday December 29th, and thanked the Master for his kindness in providing the Company with an office at The Cannon Brewery [St John Street, Clerkenwell]. It was reported that the Beadle and his wife had put out all the incendiary bombs which fell on the Hall but were then driven out the by the fire in neighbouring premises, losing all their possessions and narrowly escaping with their lives.”

Brewers' Hall - Destruction in Blitz

1960
The opening of the third Brewers’ Hall

Permission to build a new Hall following the destruction of the second Hall during the Blitz in 1940 took many years to be granted. The City authorities were keen to purchase the freehold and draw up their own plans for comprehensive redevelopment of war-damaged areas. The idea was to incorporate Brewers’ Hall into a large office block.

Eventually, permission was granted in 1958 to build the present Hall, although the Company did have to surrender part of their freehold to the City. The architect Sir Hubert Worthington RA was chosen to design the new hall – a three-storey building, with a Portland stone exterior and the main suite of rooms on the first floor as they had been in the previous, Stuart, hall. It was opened in 1960.

Brewers Hall - The third Hall