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Blandford: 235 years of Messrs Hall and Woodhouse

The Hall & Woodhouse name has been known in Dorset for more than 130 years and its origins go back even further. Tony Burton-Page tells the story of a Dorset institution.

This cover illustration for a 1902 price list proudly boasts the company’s brand new brewery

It may come as a surprise (although not, perhaps, for beer-drinkers) to be told that Dorset has been famous for its beer for a very long time. As long ago as 1730, Thomas Cox, travel writer and vicar of Bromfield in Essex, wrote thus in The Compleat History of Dorsetshire, the sixth volume of his Magna Britannia: ‘Since by the French wars the coming of French wine is prohibited, the people here have learned to brew the finest malt liquors in the kingdom, so delicately clean and well tasted that the best judges not only prefer it to the ales most in vogue, as Hull, Derby, Burton, &c, because ’tis not so heady, but look upon it to be little inferior to the common wines, and better than the sophisticated which is usually sold.’ Dorset has maintained this reputation for beer since the days of the Rev. Cox, and one of the breweries which has helped to do so is Hall & Woodhouse, a firm which is proud to date its origins as far back as 1777 – and the father of the eponymous Hall had his own brewery even
before then.

The very image of Victorian industry; the Blandford Hall and Woodhouse brewery is shown with townsfolk and workers' families in front

For the majority of its 235 years, Hall & Woodhouse has been synonymous with Blandford, but its beginnings were in the nearby villages of Dewlish and Ansty. William Hall is known to have managed a brewery in Dewlish until 1782, and his son Charles, born in 1751, branched off on his own in 1777 with a brewery in Ansty, a few miles to the north. Rural breweries were one of life’s necessities in those days. Tea was not the staple drink for the thirsty English that it has since become, partly because at that time it was so expensive that the tea-caddy was locked away by the lady of the house; and water from wells and rivers was likely to be contaminated, so the only safe drinks affordable by the majority of the population were ale and beer. Charles Hall supplied his local community with these essentials for fifty years; he was also an astute enough businessman to be able to secure a Government contract to supply Ansty beer to the soldiers billetted at Weymouth in readiness for the expected invasion by Napoleon. He was succeeded by his son Robert, born in 1786 and brought up to help in the family business and learn its skills. After his father’s death in 1827, Robert ran the brewery on his own for another twenty years.

It is at this point that the first Woodhouse name enters the story. George Edward Illingworth Woodhouse was born and educated in London in the early 19th century, but he and his family moved to the west country in 1838. Edward (he used his second name so as not be confused with his father, also called George) lodged in Stoke Wake and worked at Ansty brewery with Robert Hall. He was then only seventeen years old, but there was a wanderlust deep in his heart: after working there for three years the itchiness of his feet got the better of him and he set sail for America with an uncle. The kind-hearted and understanding Robert Hall, who had grown fond of the young man, released him for a year’s sabbatical; but before the year was up Edward had had enough of it and decided to make his future in his own country. He returned to Ansty, this time living in quarters near the brewery itself.

The brewery is a familiar part of a rural scene which has changed remarkably little over the last century

The childless Robert Hall also had a soft spot for his niece, Hannah Dodge, who kept house for him in Ansty. Inevitably, Edward and Hannah got to know each other and, almost as inevitably, fell in love, eventually marrying in 1847. As a wedding present, Robert (sixty years old and with an eye to the future) made Edward a partner in the brewery, and thus Hall & Woodhouse was born.

Robert and Edward worked together for the next twelve years, until Robert died in 1859. He left his share in Ansty to Edward and Hannah. His younger brother Charles had died just before him and Charles’s son had no interest in brewing, so it turned out, somewhat ironically, that Robert was the only Hall ever to take an active part in the firm. Edward and Hannah Woodhouse took over Broad Close, the Hall home, and it remained the family residence until 1915, when it became the Fox Inn after a fire destroyed the original Fox.

Over their 28 years of married life, Hannah and Edward had eight children, thereby ensuring a Woodhouse succession. They had learnt from Robert Hall’s situation; and on Edward’s premature death at the age of 54 in 1875, his sons George Edward and Alfred took over the brewery as partners. It was in this year that the Badger image was adopted as the company trademark, making it one of the oldest registered marks on record. Edward Woodhouse had greatly expanded the business, buying many more public houses and small local breweries, and he had moved with the times, bringing in steam power as a motive force. In 1882 his sons continued this growth by buying Hector’s brewery in Blandford St Mary.

Victorian splendour: the headquarters of Hall & Woodhouse in Blandford St Mary, built in 1899. The brewery looms behind.

Ansty was still the main base, but the Blandford site was improved and extended. A third brother, Frank, joined the other two as partners. The business continued to grow so much that a new brewery had to be built in the closing years of the 19th century. It was almost complete when a huge fire, caused by a faulty flue, reduced the old Hector’s brewery to ashes. Fortunately, the fire was spotted quickly by Frank from his home, the Old Ford House, and thanks to his prompt action the company’s books and papers were saved. People flocked over the bridge from the town to help put out the flames – perhaps mindful of the destruction wrought by Blandford’s Great Fire of 1731 – with a plentiful supply of water from the nearby River Stour. No humans or animals were hurt and carts, wagons and casks (the latter a surprisingly large item on brewers’ balance sheets in those days) were dragged out of the fire’s reach.

Despite this setback, brewing was only halted for two months, so close was the new building to completion. The first new brew was on 16 October 1900, and from now on the heart of the business was at Blandford, although the property at Ansty remained with the firm for many years. The old brewery can still be seen there, now used as the village hall.

The Crown in Blandford was purchased from the Portman estate in 1931 and has become Hall & Woodhouse’s flagship hotel

The 20th century saw more expansion; breweries and properties were acquired, including the Marnhull and Fontmell breweries: by 1929 they had 135 public houses. In 1931 they purchased the Crown in Blandford, now the firm’s flagship hotel. The Woodhouse family continued to run the company, with Frank remaining Chairman until his death in 1952 and George Edward’s sons Harold and Rex becoming directors, along with cousins Charles and Ralph. The tradition continues: the current generation of Woodhouses running the firm is the fifth.

In 1936 Hall & Woodhouse became the first brewery to put their best bitter into a can, an innovation with consequences which could not have been imagined: the canning of all types of drink (including the soft drinks business) expanded so much that at one point more than 100 million cans a year were filled and sold from the Blandford site. In 1963 the Gillingham-based brewery Matthews & Co was acquired, along with 61 tied houses; the Horsham-based brewers King & Barnes were acquired in 2002. Today Hall & Woodhouse has over 220 pubs, from Newton Ferrers (furthest west) to Willingdon (furthest east) and Tring (furthest north). Panda Pops soft drinks was sold to Nicholls in 2005, but Hall & Woodhouse remains responsible for the Rio brand of tropical soft drinks. As for bottled beer, the Badger logo, first used in 1875, can be seen all over England.

The old brewery building is now more than 110 years old, so it is hardly surprising that a brand new one was needed – the original Steel’s masher and copper boiler were in use until February this year. Work has now been completed on a £5 million project which will be ceremonially opened on 8 June this year, a date known to the firm as Founders’ Day, for on that day in 1898 it became a limited company. Although the old copper and mash tuns will be sent into retirement, the beers will still be brewed with water from the brewery’s own wells, as they have been since 1900.

A brewing vessel is lowered into position in the new brewhouse, which opens on 8 June 2012

The Hall & Woodhouse brewery is the largest employer in the town and one of largest private companies in the south-west of England. It has been a part of Blandford life for well over a hundred years and looks set to remain so well into the future.

 

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