During the 18th and 19th centuries more than a dozen firms were making vinegar in Norwich and there are many references to ‘vinegar yards‘ in the city leases. The Norwich Vinegar Works and Gin Distillery of Messrs. Hills & Underwood situated in Prince of Wales Road/Recorder Road were the largest of the kind in East Anglia. They were established in 1762 but their original location is uncertain although it is thought the business was started in 1762 by Francis Gostling, a merchant of Duke‘s Palace Yard. A 1782 directory shows him as Distiller, Rectifier, Brandy and Vinegar Merchant, St. Faith‘s Lane. In 1802 he is listed as having a Vinegar Yard in St. Faith‘s Lane.
In 1817 Squire & Hills, Liquor Merchants, of Queen Street, took over the business, and this firm later became known as Hills & Underwood. In a brochure produced at the end of the nineteenth century they mention a foundation in 1762 when a small manufactory for vinegar was built on a site next to what was later to become the Prince of Wales Road and that the business increased until it covered a wide area. It may be that vinegar companies were operating in several areas and that, with amalgamations, they came together as this large company in Prince of Wales Road
The spirit of mid-Victorian expansion loomed large and a new factory was built in 1865 covering 125,000 square feet, with river frontage. The property included offices, fermenting rooms, vat stores, gin stills, spirit stores, boilers and warehouse facilities and, in common with the breweries, Hills & Underwood had their own cooperage. They were very proud of the fact that an ancient stone bridge belonging to the Greyfriars‘ Friary was on their site, and referred to it in many of their advertisements.
The early manufacturing processes are well documented. Making vinegar was very similar to making beer, despite the absence of hops. The fine Norfolk malts were ground to a meal and placed in mash tuns. Here the meal was mixed with hot water and heated to boiling point - producing a wort. The wort was then cooled and placed in fermenting vats, yeast was added and alcohol was produced. This had to be converted to acetic acid; achieved by exposing the liquid to air. At one time this was carried out by vats in open-air vinegar yards but later processes were invented whereby the liquid was slowly trickled over birch twigs, the long exposure to air meaning that acidification could be achieved in 48 hours instead of the lengthy period of three months taken by the open-air method.
Subsequently the vinegar had to be ‘cleaned‘ and ‘clarified‘, the resultant fresh malt vinegar being a pale primrose colour. Most customers preferred a darker colour, so caramel was added. This did not alter the taste but merely changed the appearance.
The size and number of the vats reminded visitors of those in the great breweries. They ranged in capacity from 11,500 to 27,000 gallons and were stretched in long lines almost touching the roof of the large storage building.
British Cordials, Liqueurs and the ‘Celebrated Old Tom Gin‘ were also manufactured. Thousands of casks were exported annually.
In 1911 the firm was incorporated with that of Sir Robert Burnett & Company Limited and the works were closed down. The last of the buildings was demolished in the 1960s.
The vinegar made by Hills & Underwood was used for a number of purposes according to their advertising including:
FOR CYCLISTS. Cyclists often complain of their lamps smoking and want a remedy. Dip the wick in vinegar for a few hours and allow it to dry. It will never smoke after this.
CRESS VINEGAR. Dry and pound half an ounce of cress seed. Pour upon it a quart of vinegar and let it steep for ten days, shaking it up every day. This is very strongly flavoured with cress, and with salads and cold meats is a great favourite with many.
SALAD DRESSING. Half a pint of best vinegar, 2 ozs. olive oil, yolks of three eggs,3 grains of cayenne pepper, 20zs. brown sugar, 1 ozs. mustard, 1 oz. salt, 3 ozs. clotted cream.
VINEGAR FOR HICCOUGH, &C. For hiccough it is the best of all known remedies. A teaspoonful will immediately allay the most violent attack of hiccough. With infusion of sage it forms a most excellent gargle in all cases of sore or relaxed throat.
Revised by Nick Williams February 2008