Brick Lane's Forgotten Brewery

By Des de Moor Last edited 8 months ago
Brick Lane's Forgotten Brewery

Discerning London pubgoers will know the tiny Pride of Spitalfields in Heneage Street just off Brick Lane, now a rare classic of its kind. But how many have spotted the tantalising legend 'Brewer’s House' on the building next door, and wondered whether beer was once made as well as sold here?

In fact, the pub was once the brewery tap for the adjoining Turner & Sons brewery, a small operation which survived in business right up until the end of the 19th century. The brewery thrived almost literally in the shadow of Truman's, one of London's biggest and best-known brewers, a few steps away along Brick Lane.

Truman's' history is well-documented, and its physical legacy clearly evident. But little has been written about Turner's, and most longstanding pub regulars are unaware their local was once a brewery tap. Nonetheless, old maps reveal the layout of the buildings has hardly changed in almost two centuries, with the pub, brewhouse and house arranged three sides of a brewery yard.

Christ Church Spitalfields parish was once home to numerous breweries, including several on Brick Lane. The street was a country footpath in the mid-17th century when the Black Eagle brewery that became Truman's was founded. Development on the east side of the lane didn't begin until 1799, with most streets including Heneage Street completed by 1813.

The street name, incidentally, refers to the marriage of Heneage Finch, daughter of the Earl of Winchelsea, to Sir George Osborn in 1778 — one of the headline celebrity marriages of the day. Nearby Chicksand Street is named after Osborn's family seat, Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire.

It's likely that the brewery originated soon after the street was built up. When the Brewer's House was sold a few years back, the publicity claimed it was built in 1820 for the head brewer at the White Lion Brewery. This seems unlikely, as the White Lion was some distance away, in Folgate Street on the other side of Commercial Street, then known as White Lion Street, though perhaps the businesses were once linked.

Although the pub façade is early 20th century work, the building behind it also likely dates from the 1810s or 1820s. Originally it would have been a simple alehouse, selling only the products of the brewery.

Inside the Pride of Spitalfields. Photo by Matt Brown

By 1833, the Heneage Street site was known as John Turner & Son. John Turner has a familiar ring to London brewery historians, as someone of this name was once the head brewer at Ind & Smith in Romford. In 1845, he co-founded the partnership of Fuller, Smith & Turner, the basis of what's now London’s biggest brewery.

It's tempting to speculate whether the Romford Turner took a detour through Spitalfieds on his way to Chiswick, or if there were two London brewers coincidentally sharing a relatively common name. In any case, Turner's persisted as a separate brewing business for almost the rest of the century.

It changed ownership in 1890, taken over by Charles Best & Co, as a toehold in London for a well-known Chatham brewing family. Best soon went west: in 1891 it added a site in Brompton Road. By 1893 it had vacated Heneage Street and begun a further move to Larkhall Lane, Clapham, where brewing continued until the business was bought and closed by Mann's in 1924.

Meanwhile nos. 3-7 Heneage Street maintained a brewing connection for a while under the ownership of Ind Coope, successor to Ind & Smith. As well as taking on the former brewery tap, the Romford brewer briefly used the brewery buildings as a bottle store and distribution depot between 1898 and 1902.

Look carefully at the top of the bar back in the pub and you'll see its former name, the Romford Arms. Did it acquire this when Ind Coope took over in 1898? Or does its connection to Romford date back further, supporting the John Turner theory?

It's hard to tell, because until the 1950s, street directories only give the name of the landlord, not the pub. It was renamed the Pride of Spitalfields when it relaunched as a free house in 1985, soon becoming a revered venue among real ale aficionados. Its Essex-leaning past is now largely forgotten, except for the bar back and the signs on the toilets, which still use Ind Coope's distinctive 1960s house font.

The adjoining brewery site operated as a packing case factory known as Giles & Downton between 1903 and 1970 — though initially it was leased from Ind Coope, as the Romford brewery still appears as the owner in the rate assessments of 1910. Back then, the factory had a rateable value of £138 a year, while the pub was assessed at a mere £50.

The Brewer's House was rescued from dereliction in the 1990s by interior designer Jocasta Innes, and went on the market in 2014 for a cool £2.4m, a sum which doubtless would have astounded its original occupant. Its makeover into such a desirable property reflects the partial gentrification of an area that was once a hodgepodge of industry and poor housing occupied by successive waves of immigrant communities.

Today, the Pride of Spitalfields remains a very welcoming but decidedly old school boozer. Its two small rooms are decked out in traditional red plush style, with good value pub grub and a handful of better-known but immaculately kept cask ales. It's now something of an anomaly among the hipster hangouts and cheap Bangladeshi restaurants that line Brick Lane, so enjoy it while you can. And raise a glass to the memory of one of London’s lost and near-forgotten breweries while you're about it.

Thanks to the Bishopsgate Library and Tower Hamlets Local History Archive for their assistance in the research for this piece.

Last Updated 09 January 2017