Fordhams Ashwell Brewery

Poster showing the Brewery
The Brewery from the Church Tower
Fordhams Brewery

Related to well known brewers

Appropriately for relatives of the famous Flowers, the Fordham family certainly had roots.  They could trace their line back in North Hertfordshire to John Fordham of the village of Kelshall, who died in 1527.

It was another John Fordham, a member of the branch which around the mid 1700’s  moved to Melbourn in South Cambridgeshire, who was the first to be involved in brewing on a commercial scale.

In the late 1780’s he was in partnership with the man who was to become his brother-in-law, Richard Flower, in a brewery in Hertford.  John Fordham eventually left this partnership, later in 1806 to found, again with Richard Flower and John’s brother, Edward King Fordham, the Royston Bank of Fordham, Flower and Fordham.

Richard Flower’s eldest son, Edward Fordham Flower, started his brewery in Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1831.  Another of John Fordham’s nephews, Edward George Fordham, in 1836 founded another brewery dynasty in Ashwell. Ironically, Fordham’s Brewery in Ashwell ended it’s days bottling beer for Flowers of Stratford-upon-Avon, with Fordham’s pubs selling Flower’s beers.

Edward George Fordham was born in 1782. Eleven years later, in 1793, his family bought, from the 5th Duke of Devonshire, the Odsey Estate, which was situated in Cambridgeshire just over the Hertfordshire/Cambridgeshire county boundary, where the family settled down; Edward George Fordham living at Odsey Grange while his brother, George George Fordham, lived at Odsey House, the house built by the 2nd Duke of Devonshire in 1723.  In 1796 the family leased its first land in Ashwell since the 16th century, taking it from Samuel Whitbread, the London brewer. Again, ironically, when Fordham’s brewery, which by then had fallen into the hands of Flowers brewery, was finally closed it was taken into the hands of Whitbread’s brewery.  Thus, after a period of some 160 years, returning to where it had first begun. By 1810 Edward George Fordham was living at Ashwell Bury and there, on 11th June that year, his first son was born.  He was named after his great-uncle, the banker Edward King Fordham.

Farm Brewing

Undoubtedly, like many farmers, the Fordhams brewed beer for themselves and their workers at Ashwell Bury. Almost certainly they malted their own barley as well.  In 1885, four years before he died, Edward King Fordham wrote; “ In my own parish the occupier of every farm homestead once  had a malthouse where his own and other barley was malted.” When their farm brewery produced an excess of beer, farm brewers would sometimes sell what they could not drink to the local pub. In this way some farmers slowly became commercial brewers.  Maybe, with the experience of the earlier Hertford brewery behind them, that is what the Fordhams did.

So Many Fordhams

In 1830 the firm of Cockett & Nash, auctioneers, valuers and architects of Royston, was asked by a  Mr Edward Fordham or Mr E Fordham; it is not known which, to make sketches of a brewery in Cambridge. However, this was the time when members of the Fordham family were helping their cousin, Edward Fordham Flower, to start his brewery at Stratford-upon-Avon, so the sketches may have been connected with that.  There were at least six Mr Edward or Mr E Fordhams at the time.  Added to the confusion was the fact that their cousin was Mr Edward Fordham Flower. Perhaps the most likely of the Mr E Fordhams was Elias Pym Fordham, Edward Fordham Flowers’s first cousin. They had both recently returned from USA, where with Edward’s father, Richard Flower, they had been exploring the land possibilities around Illinois.  Elias Pym Fordham, from Sandon, was an engineer who had  trained with Robert Stephenson of ‘The Rocket’ fame.  There is a story told of Elias Pym Fordham’s father, also Elias Fordham.  Elias Fordham had originally founded a company in 1796 when he was described as a brewer, banker and wool-stapler. The story goes that one night Elias’s horse stumbled over a tipsy man who mumbled that “it was all along of Fordham’s fine ale”.  This troubled Elias so much that he gave over the brewery to his brother, George, in exchange for some land in the parish of Sandon.  Elias later became a Unitarian minister.

Elias Fordham – of Sandon, born 1854, had four brothers: John – of Royston, born 1748; firstly, a brewer in partnership with Richard Flower in Hertford and later a founder partner in the Royston bank, Fordham, Flower and Fordham.  Edward King  – of Royston, born 1750; founder partner in the bank.  George – of Sandon and Odsey, born 1752; Partner in the bank.  Rev. William – of Sandon, born 1756.  Their sister, Elizabeth, born 1764 married Richard Flower.  It was Edward King and George who together, in 1793, bought Odsey from the 5th Duke of Devonshire and who later went to law in the chancery court case Fordham v Fordham, which lasted 23 years between 1820 and 1843.

Purchase of Equipment

When Cockett & Nash, in September 1830, sold off goods and effects belonging to Miss Mellish of Hamel’s Park, Hertfordshire, some of her horse-brewing equipment, including a four-hogshead copper, a mash tun, two fir coolers (one lined with lead) and an oak working tub were sold to Mr Fordham for £31/6/-.

Contemporary trade directories seem to have ignored Ashwell, giving no clues to it’s commercial brewers.  But Ashwell writer William Bacon, in 1869, said that shortly after the 1830 Beer Act a Mr Porter had commenced brewing at the corner of Mill Street by Carters Pond.  Porter’s brewery lasted only a short time, “for want of attention and capital”, according to Bacon.  About 1832, he said,  Mr Porter’s plant, including a 50 gallon vat, was purchased by  Edward King Fordham and his brother, Oswald. At any rate, the Fordham’s brewery was running by 1836, for in that year James Pryor, a local builder, was asked to provide an estimate for building a public house in Melbourn for Edward Fordham Esquire. Also in 1836, according to W Branch Johnson’s ‘Hertfordshire Inns’, Edward George Fordham of Odsey Grange, brewer, took up a mortgage on a beer house in Ashwell.  The mortgage was for a beer debt run up by the landlord, and it was later foreclosed by Edward George’s son, Edward King Fordham.

Edward King Fordham, brewer of Ashwell is recorded in Pigot’s directory of 1838.  The following year in 1839, Edward King Fordham’s rateable property in Ashwell included the Three Tuns Inn, a brewery office, a thatched cleansing room, a thatched tun room and a counting house.  A brewery receipt from 1839, preserved in the Bushel and Strike, Ashwell, is signed E.Fordham.

Much later , when Edward King Fordham died in 1889, the writer of his obituary in the Herts Express said that it was Oswald Fordham who began brewing in 1839 and that later Oswald went into partnership with his elder brother. 1839 may have been the year when the brothers took over the running of the brewery from their father, Edward George Fordham, who would then have been  57. Country Life, in May 1947 had yet another version  – that the brewery was started by Edward King  and Oswald in 1837.  Country Life also recorded that the Ashwell parsonage, in 1647, had its own brewhouse and malthouse.

Whatever the truth, Edward King and Oswald were soon involved in running the brewery for, according to Crockett and Nash’s records, Oswald was buying brewing equipment at a sale in Royston in 1842.  The 1845 Post Office directory records ‘Fordham and Oswald’ as brewers at Ashwell – presumably a clerical error. The 1846 directory lists in Ashwell, E.K..and O. Fordham, brewers, maltsters,  spirit merchants and farmers.

Railway brings opportunities

By the 1851 census eleven men in Ashwell gave their occupation as ‘brewer’s labourers’, although this probably included some who worked at Christy’s and Sale’s breweries.  In the same year the railway came near to Ashwell – it is said that Ashwell would not accept the railway, so it went 2 miles south to Odsey, another Fordham estate.  B.J.Davey, in his book on 19th century Ashwell, wrote that the brewers “made no attempt to use the railway to expand their operations”. Quite the opposite seems to be the true of the Fordhams, however.  They eventually owned a chain of ‘Railway Inns’ and ‘Station Hotels’ close to stations at Odsey, Royston, Baldock, Hitchin, Stevenage, Knebworth, and Buntingford   in Hertfordshire and Sharnbrook in Bedfordshire and at Haringay,  where they also had a bottling  plant and Hornsey in London.

In 1856 Edward King and Oswald were paying local builder Thomas Pickering for work at the brewery.  Four years later, in 1860, Crockett and Nash announced that Fordhams, “who have just erected a new brewery on a larger scale”, were selling off some brewing plant.  This included two coppers, 34 and 23 barrel capacity respectively, a refrigerator,    an iron mash tun, a   mashing machine, five working squares (fermenters), and three 9 barrel pontos (round fermenting vessels used in the Burton Union system),which made a total of £306/11/6d.

On 21 July 1863 Oswald died.  He was replaced in the Brewery partnership by his and Edward King’s cousin, Herbert Fordham of Odsey.  Herbert born in 1826, son of George George Fordham of Odsey House, was also their brother-in-law, having married their younger sister, Constantia. He was a coal merchant – he obtained a near monopoly for supplying coal to the new railway companies operating  north of London and an owner of coprolite mining rights which were just beginning to be exploited around Ashwell and the surrounding areas – including the Wimpole Estate, for the making of artificial fertilisers which he processed at his Odsey mill, opposite the railway station. He looked after the brewing side of things while Edward King looked after the farming, barley buying and malting.

Edward King Fordham was known to the villagers as ‘King Fordham’, as a reflection of his character – it was said he was ruthless and harsh, and of his power.  In 1855 he married Anna Snow, who via her mother, brought further large holdings of land in the village to the Fordham family. Edward King eventually owned more than 1,000 acres in the village.  It was he who set in motion the enclosure of  the  village land, completed in 1863 of which he ended up with the best part, in the north.  He proceeded to empark  40 acres of this where he built a house for himself called Elbrook House. He had been a JP since the age of 25, and a member of the Board of Guardians in Ashwell since its formation.

He was high Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1884.

He was the biggest landowner the village had seen for a long time, but again according to B.J.Davey, the villagers respected and even liked him.  His business abilities cannot be doubted – of the few Hertfordshire breweries to pass the magic figure of 100 tied houses, only Fordhams and McMullens  were 19th century foundations, all the rest started much earlier.

Edward King Fordham died  in March 1889, aged 79. His share in the brewery went to his second son, Wolverley Attwood Fordham, who was born in 1859.  His land holdings were left to his eldest son, Edward Snow Fordham, who was a successful barrister and stipendiary magistrate in London.  Two years later, in 1891, Herbert Fordham died at Odsey Park, aged 65.  He left a fortune worth more than £50,000 and his part of the brewery was split between his sons Herbert George (later Sir George Fordham) of Odsey Park and Ernest Oswald of Odsey House. The coal business was left to another son, Sydney Herbert of Cheyneys Lodge.

Wolverley Fordham takes charge

Wolverley Fordham, who lived at Ashwell Bury, was a noted polo player and big game hunter.  One writer described him as “A great breaker of hunting horses and polo ponies”.  He was big game shooting north of Transvaal when the Matabele war broke out in 1896.  He immediately offered his services  – and his shooting ability – to the Rhodesian Government, who gave him a commission in the forces organised to put down the natives.

His cousin (Sir) George,  who firstly lived at Odsey Grange before, upon his father’s death, moving to Odsey Park, achieved fame in considerably less strenuous pursuits. He was Chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council for 15 years and was knighted in 1908.  His great interest was collecting maps and he wrote several books on the subject. He has been described as the founder of modern British carto-bibliography. He was high Sherriff of Cambridgeshire in 1918.

Fire hit the brewery in 1893, starting in the maltings alongside and destroyed 1,000 quarters of malt and 1,500 quarters of barley. The flames spread to a large straw stack nearby and then to the brewery premises.  Fortunately “the horses and livestock were removed just in time to save all”, the Brewers Journal recorded.

The Brewers Journal also recorded that among the guests at the Fordham company outing to Hastings in 1893 was one G.Ruddle. This was George Ruddle who in 1896 became the manager of Henry Parry’s brewery in Langham, Rutland, which bottled some of Fordham’s beer.   Ruddle was married to Herbert Fordham’s youngest daughter Nora, and in 1911 he bought the Langham brewery, renamed Ruddles, which in its day was one of the best-known breweries in the country, amongst beer connoisseurs.

The Ashwell brewery in the 1890’s was producing a fairly typical range of beers, eight in all, including XXX mild and AK light bitter ale at 1/- a gallon, XXV old ale and PA bitter ale 1/4d a gallon and 00 imperial ale at 1/8d a gallon.

Invented Pale Ale

In the book Two Ears of Barley, Ted Chapman, son of the landlord of the King William IV, a Fordham’s pub in the village of Barley near Royston, is quoted as saying that Fordhams were the first to brew India Pale Ale-IPA. Ted claimed that one of the family with the East India Company saw the need for a beer which would stand up to the journey, and to the Eastern heat itself.  He added that it sold at “2d a pint. Unfortunately, IPA was known before the Ashwell brewery started. Although the Fordham- Flower brewery in Hertford may have been in the East India trade, there is no evidence for it.

By 1897 the brewery was also offering bottled beers – light bitter ale, pale ale, XXXX gold medal stout and XX stout.  Farmers could buy ‘brewers grain’ from the brewery  in the mornings, at 4d a bushel, for animal feed and one villager recalled that anyone who turned up at the brewery in the mornings with a bowl and a ha’penny could buy the fresh foaming yeast for breadmaking.

In April of 1897 the partnership became a limited company, EK.& H Fordham Ltd,  with share capital of £100.000. The brewery and property were valued at £146,000, with another £8,000 each for the Finsbury Park Station Hotel and the Haringey Railway Hotel.   There  were  103 freehold  tied   houses,

15 copyhold,  6 on long leases and 7 on short leases, making 131 in all.  Average profits for the brewery were reckoned,  prospective shareholders were told, at £9,000 a year.

Just over twelve months later, in 1898, Fordhams took over the Hyde Hall brewery near Sandon. This was owned by the Clinton Baker family.  Fordhams  leased it for the extra brewing capacity it provided but in 1899 the Hyde Hall brewery was closed, and the fermenting plant at Ashwell was increased by 400 barrels,  to compensate.

The Farm and Water Pollution

The Ashwell brewery still had a working farm alongside – something which soon proved to be a decided liability.  In 1900 Fordham’s beers were suffering badly from infections, and the London brewing chemist Lawrance Briant was called in to advise.  He told the company that the main problem was the farm buildings on the other side of the brewery yard.  What with hay and chaff cuttings, stables, cow sheds and so forth,  the farm was a most serious source of infection.

The infant river Rhee which ran down from Ashwell Springs past the brewery, operating the water wheel as it did so, received sewage on the way.  “It was practically the drain of several houses,  Briant continues in his report. Naturally this was another source of infection.  He concluded that Ashwell Brewery was “quite exceptionally open to aerial infections” and the company’s beers were exceptionally liable to ‘fretfulness and ropeyness’.  Briant’s recommendation was to completely clear away the farm buildings, but if that were not possible, he said, they should throw away their open cooler and install a closed one, throw away their old mash tun,  keep up a high hopping rate and check their yeasts regularly.

The advice seems not to have been taken, for in 1902 Briant’s firm made another visit to Ashwell and told Fordham’s head brewer bluntly, “Undoubtedly your best bitter beer is not at present a high class product. It is not a true bitter beer, but tastes mawkish, rank and without character” He added, “The beer tastes more like a heavily hopped mild than bitter, as it did not attenuate well”.  The trouble was with the brewery’s numbers three and four fermenting vessels.  They did not have attemperators or apparatus for skimming the yeast but were cleansed in slate vessels beneath.  Once again the brewery were advised to get rid of the old open cooler and install an enclosed one.

By 1902 Fordhams controlled a total of 54 pubs in Hertfordshire, making them the ninth highest in the county.  In Ashwell itself they owned seven out of the thirteen pubs, including the strangely named Australian Cow.  However the oddest name of all was that of another Fordham house at Meldreth in Cambridgeshire, The Deaf and Dumb Flea.

Like many brewers the company eventually turned from horses to mechanical means of transport, and by the end of the GreatWar they were using steam drays.  The company’s minute book for November 1919 records that three employees “be dismissed forthwith for being drunk while in charge of the three-ton Foden in Henlow and doing damage to private property”. A replacement driver was appointed at a wage of £3/5/- a week, plus 6/- a week beer allowance.

Wolverley Fordham died in 1921,aged 62.  By this time his second cousin, Herbert Fordham’s second son, Ernest Oswald Fordham of Odsey House, was chairman of the company, although Wolverley’s widow continued to be a substantial shareholder.  Sir George Fordham died in 1929, aged 75, and his son William Herbert, born 1883, a consultant oil engineer, came back to join the business.

The brewery was visited by the Town and Country News in 1932. In a report which was re-printed in the Royston Crow, Milton McKinley enthused about the “delightful country surroundings” which the works were set in. The lesson of 30 years ago had evidently been learned, for McKinley said the yeast tanks were all of aluminium, the fermenting vessels of copper and “every care is taken to prevent bacteria coming into contact with the yeast”.

The report stated that Fordhams used crystal rock spring water, tapped at source, conveyed to the brewery in pipes “and never seeing daylight until it is beer”. The bottling plant turned out two million bottles a year, and barley for the company’s two maltings – one in Green   Lane built in 1914, came largely from local farmers.

A fleet of nine lorries, including two Fodens, made the deliveries, and the brewery employed 50 more people, many of whom lived in company owned cottages in the village.  The chairman was still Ernest Oswald Fordham. His fellow directors were his brother Sydney Herbert, born 1869 and nephew William Herbert Fordham.

Ernest Oswald, a JP from 1893 and a member of Cambridgeshire County Council from 1896, was chairman of the Hertfordshire Brewers Society from 1930 to 1935.  The company secretary and chief brewer, at the time of the report was Mr W.H.Bass, who even then had held that position for 28 years. The manager was Ernest Kingsley, who had started with Fordhams when he was 14 and retired after 64 years service, aged 78.

McKinley wrote that the directors of Fordhams “have received many offers to link up with the larger brewery concerns, but they have regarded it as a greater importance to maintain the old connections and the old traditions, even though this might mean a smaller profit”.

The Royston Crow picture of the Fordhams directors showed them all to be old men, but there was still young blood in the family. By 1939, Anthony Hill, aged 25, the favourite nephew of Mrs Wolverley Fordham, was a member of the board. Clearly Mrs Fordham expected Anthony to inherit her shares, and carry the brewery on.

The second world war meant that  Fordhams,  like all other brewers, had to suffer shortages and zoning of supply areas. It also meant that Anthony Hill, a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, was called away to fight for his country.  He won the DSO and the DSC and bar as a pilot officer, and was promoted to acting squadron leader, but in November 1942, while on a reconnaissance mission was shot down and killed.

After the war Anthony Hill’s brother-in-law, Dan Gurney Sheppard, was brought onto the Fordham’s board.  However, important shareholders were by now more interested in selling up than seeing the brewery continue.  There were discussions with several neighbouring breweries, including Simpsons of Baldock and Wells and Winch of Biggleswade.   Whitbreads, who had taken over a brewery in nearby Stotfold in 1949, even came to have a look.   In the end it was the expansionist  J.W.Green of Luton who made the bid.  It came in September 1952, not quite three years after Greens had taken over Phillip’s brewery in Royston.  The bid was announced on 4 September, and by the 13 September shareholders representing 76% of the holdings in Fordhams had accepted the offer.  When the local papers came out on 2 October it was all over.  Fordham’s 91 surviving pubs were in Green’s hands.  There were, at this time, 35 Fordhams tied houses  in Hertfordshire, 25 in Cambridgeshire, 15 in Bedfordshire, 12 in Essex, 2 in Norfolk and 2 in London.

The brewery still had 40 workers, making it far the largest employer in the village.  The manager was Ernest Kindersley’s son, Derek, who had followed his long serving father into the company.  Unlike most of Hertfordshire’s taken over breweries, Fordhams did not close immediately.  Instead it operated as a bottling plant, bottling Guinness,  Worthington and Bass for Greens. When the Luton company merged with Flowers of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1954, the Ashwell brewery carried on bottling for Flowers.  Even when Flowers were taken over by Whitbreads in 1962 bottling continued.  William Herbert Fordham, then in his 80s, was still in charge.  The last family link with the brewery.

In 1965 the Ashwell brewery was finally closed for good, even up to then it was still employing 35 to 40 people. The brewery buildings were demolished in 1973 and the site became a small housing estate.

Only the maltings by the River Rhee, and the malting in Green Lane, both of which were converted into flats, survive.  The demolition of the brewery buildings, in retrospect, was a disaster for Ashwell.  If they had been saved and converted into say some form of concert hall or theatre, they would have been a real bonus for the village, a village much renowned for its high quality of music.  It was fact, at the time, that the whole brewery site plus about six cottages, could have been purchased for something like £35,000, but such were things at that time, that nobody in the village, or indeed elsewhere, had that amount of money to spare.  More or less at the same time, Ellbrook House was sold freehold for £12,000.

Just finally, an Ashwell farmer, Mr Angel, a village personality at the time; he died in the early 1960s, who sat at the very back of the church on Sundays, always immaculate in a grey suit and with a fine white beard, always maintained that the ‘disgraceful Fordhams’ obtained their water for beer making from the river Rhee, alongside the brewery, free of charge and then sold it, the same water, back to the village at a profit!

Comments about this page

  • Hello Roger, The Leicester Inn or to give it its earlier full title ‘The Leicester and Bedford Railway Inn’ was situated at 89, Nightingale Road, Hitchin. Last time I looked Fordhams was still on the front but it is now residential and called Orchard Court. From the 1960s it was called The Nightingale until it closed in 2015.

    By Peter Greener (31/01/2023)
  • Hi, just missed out on a negative of Fordhams Pub ” The Leicester Railway” on Ebay. Does anyone know where this pub was ?

    By Roger Pastuch (26/01/2023)
  • Hi Martyn, thanks for the information. We will correct it now

    By Peter Greener (23/07/2022)
  • It’s Martyn Cornell, not Martin

    By Martyn Cornell (23/07/2022)
  • Hello Ian,

    thanks for your comment. From the date and association I think the author means Robert Stephenson so I will delete the Louis from the text.

    By Peter Greener (09/04/2022)
  • You mention Robert Louis Stephenson of “The Rocket” fame. Robert Louis Stephenson was the well known author. The Robert Stephenson of “Rocket” fame was a completely different person. He was the son of George Stephenson and seems to have had no middle name.

    By Ian Bowskill (09/04/2022)

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