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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Brewing in Norwich

Brewing in Norwich

The brewing industry was one of the most important and lucrative industries in Norwich's past, with its success stretching over hundreds of years. It is said that Norwich once had a public house for every day of the year (although it is possible that there were many more than this, for in 1845 it is claimed there were over 500 such buildings in the City) - clearly emphasising the significance of the industry. As with many such trades, brewing developed from small scale production in the Middle Ages to massive, organised and mechanised production by the 20th century.

The Victuallers

Brewing was carried out in Norwich as far back as the Middle Ages, often by people in their own homes, for their own consumption, or by local inn keepers for their customers. These people were known as victuallers. 

Even at this early time there was a significant level of consumer protection, with the bailiffs of the City observing quantities, measures and quality. Those who were approved could advertise their success by showing the 'stamp' given to them if they were deemed acceptable to trade. 

However, by the 18th century more systematic breweries began to emerge on a larger scale. Patents were taken out for inventions that related to the brewing process. The number of breweries was increasing at an incredible rate; in 1783 there were 9 breweries in Norwich, this had increased to 27 by 1836. Brewing was moved from individual victuallers in the home, to family run, professional organisations on specifically built brewery sites.


The new breweries that were emerging began to specialise and take control of the industry. The increase in the number of new breweries began to level off by the mid 19th century - in 1858 there were 12 breweries recorded, and by 1875 only 7. The reduction in the number of breweries is largely due to monopolisation of the market, with the more successful breweries taking over other, smaller businesses (see below). 

During the 18th century much of the work involved with the brewing industry was carried out by hand, which was hard work and very time consuming. The introduction of the steam engine was crucial for the development of the industry. By the 19th century the industry had expanded to become more modernised and efficient. 

Taxation and raw material costs

However, the industry faced a number of problems despite making such dramatic improvements. During the early 19th taxation rose, particularly on raw materials - the duty on hops, strong beer and malt was raised, forcing the price of beer to increase too. For example, the London price of porter (charged to publicans) was 55% higher in 1804-16 than in 1799 - prices in Norwich would have risen similarly too.

Such economic difficulties forced the victuallers and smaller (less well established) breweries out of business - they could not afford the rising material costs facing the industry in Norwich, neither could they compete with the larger brewing firms that had emerged.

This 'crisis' was of course beneficial to the more established brewing businesses who were able to take over the businesses that had collapsed. Demand continued to grow for ale (and 'beer' which, introduced in the 15th century, was made from hops and had a slightly bitter taste), guaranteed by a growing population.

The 'beer houses'

Problems in the industry continued throughout the 19th century, and the future of the trade was far from certain. The cost of ale and beer was rising dramatically, and it was feared that demand would fall if people could not afford the final product. In 1830 an act was raised (and passed) in Parliament that took some steps forward to address the issue in the industry. It abolished the duty on beer and, crucially, ended the restrictive licensing system, thus allowing anyone to open a 'beer house' on payment of a licence fee. Beer prices were thus reduced as a result. Within 2 years, over 33,000 beer houses (public houses) had opened across the country - this posed a massive threat to the 'tied-house' system that operated in Norwich.

The tied-house system was greatly favoured by the larger breweries in the City. As the brewing industry developed, brewing firms realised that monopoly of the market could be achieved if they were to take control of public houses (as well as the smaller brewing firms). Thus, public houses were 'tied' to them, and were contracted to sell only the beer or ale that they produced, and not that of any competing firms, giving them a constant trade. Such a system also allowed brewing firms to market specific beers, particularly new strengths and types they had developed.

Such a system forced breweries to spend significant amounts of money on the acquisition of public houses to be used in this way, as well as finding and installing tenants to run them on behalf of the brewery. The system became very successful for the main brewing firms in Norwich. Other pubs could be added to a brewery's 'collection' through the take over of smaller breweries, and the associated houses.


By the middle of the 19th century expansion of the major brewers in Norwich had reached such a height that not only did they provide for the local market, but they also began supplying on a larger scale. This was greatly developed in 1845 when Norwich was connected to London by rail, and thus, some of the City's brewing firms had success in capturing some of the capital's market.

Norwich stood out from the rest of the country here, proven by relevant excise records. In the Norwich collection district (Norwich and northern and eastern parts of Norfolk), 'common' brewers (large scale brewing firms such as Bullard's or Morgan's) made up nearly 90% of all the beer brewed between April 1822 and April 1823 (and the first nine months of 1830), compared to just over 50% for common brewers in English and Welsh counties as a whole (excluding London).

Between 1850 and 1880 the demand for beer steadily increased in Norwich. There was a general rise in living standards, creating a position conducive to growth and successful trading on the part of the brewers. Problems were not completely resolved however, and, during the 1880s and 1890s issues again emerged. Changes in government policy over the taxation of beer, emergence of other leisure pursuits for the working classes (causing demand to fall), further restrictions on licensing and higher taxation all played a negative role in the brewing industry's development, in Norwich as much as elsewhere.

It was thus important to improve production levels and methods and improve the quality of beer. The larger and more successful breweries took on the technological challenge of adding to what they traditionally produced, including pale ales, bottled beers and mineral water. The conditions of public houses were also improved (see Youngs, Crawshay & Youngs) and the licensing environment became tougher, forcing breweries (or private tenants, i.e. free houses) to conform to strict regulations in order to have a licence given or renewed.

Political involvement

Towards the end of the 19th century many of the leaders in the brewing industry became heavily involved in city life - several being appointed mayor or sheriff. This was important as it gave some respectability to an industry tainted by negative feeling, particularly by religious groups who thought that public houses were un-Christian.

Norwich initially responded to the challenges set before it with exceptional strength. During the early decades of the 20th century, the main breweries expanded to take further control of the regional market. This was helped by the introduction of motorised vehicles, allowing the breweries to reach a far wider area than had previously been possible.

The big four

Despite the growth of the industry in the city, the monopolisation of the trade by a few of the main brewers had a detrimental effect on some of the smaller companies. It is perhaps thus no surprise that by the 1920s there were only four major breweries left in Norwich (Bullard's, Youngs, Crawshay & Youngs, Steward & Patteson and Morgan's). They continued to grow, at the expense of smaller, less successful businesses, which subsequently became fewer and fewer. These larger companies expanded their sites or moved to new buildings/sites/premises.

The continuous take over eventually forced the demise of brewing in Norwich, as the long-standing and traditional firms were taken over on a more national scale. Between 1958 and 1961 the businesses of Morgan's and Youngs, Crawshay & Youngs were taken over by Bullard's (Morgan's was actually taken over by Bullard's and Steward & Patteson jointly - most importantly, both brewers wanted control of the public houses tied to the business and reportedly cut a pack of cards to decide who should have first choice before sharing them out). During the 1970s brewing in Norwich became further concentrated, being under the control of just one company - Watney Mann. This company was eventually taken over by a national company, Grand Metropolitan. Beer is no longer brewed in Norwich.

References and further reading:

  • Terry Gourvish, Norfolk Beers from English Barley: A History of Steward & Patteson 1793-1963' (1987)
  • Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, information sheet 'Brewing', original text by Michael Day, 1983, revised 2001.
  • Kenneth Chapman, The Breweries of Norwich, 1986
  •  David Jones, A guide to the Bridewell Museum of Norwich Trades & Industries, Norfolk Museums Service, 1986
  • Derek Manning, Morgan's Brewery, The Journal of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society, vol. IV, no 5, 1990
  •  Kenneth Penn, Results of an Archaeological Evaluation at the former Brewery Site, King Street, Norwich, Norfolk Archaeological Unit, Report number 342
  •  Youngs, Crawshay and Youngs, A coronation souvenir brochure of the Crown Brewery, King St, Norwich, 1937
  •  Norfolk Museums Service information leaflet on the industry
  • Richard Bristow website,