Scumbags & Con Men of Georgian English Brewing, #1: Humphrey Jackson

The other day, I posted about folk magic in modern England, but aside from that, I’m also plowing through the piteous biography of Georgian London’s most hapless brewer. The biography, Dr. Johnson’s “Own Dear Master”: The Life of Henry Thrale by Lee Morgan was one I would probably have passed on, had it not been remaindered and on sale for only a few dollars, but it has proven entertaining so far, in part because Morgan seems eager to paint Thrale sympathetically.

It’s not hard to understand why: Thrale was, at one time, head of the biggest brewery in England; he married up, he was extremely close to Samuel Johnson (yes, the Dr. Johnson), his wife Hester Lynch Thrale (née Salusbury, later to become Hester Lynch Piozzi) is a very famous diarist of the time, and Thrale was not only a popular figure on the social scene, but also someone who wasn’t shy about his lower-class background. (Indeed, some of the details seem to be wrong on his Wikipedia page–such as his birthplace–for the reason that early life details are obscure for him as they are for anyone of lower birth.)

Sounds like a great guy, right?

I'd rather include a picture of John Perkins, but there don't seem to be any online. Barclay, yes. Thrale, yes. Mrs. Thrale, yes. Samuel Johnson, of course. But no John Perkins. Ah, woe!
Henry Thrale… not as cool or serious about beer as he looks here, unfortunately.

Not so much.

It all ends in tears, see, and Morgan really has his work cut out for him, though, in trying to paint Thrale sympathetically… especially for a reader who cares about brewing or beer.

0761810307.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Thrale is precisely the sort of figure most people today love to snicker at: born to wealth built up by his father Ralph Thrale–who made a quantum leap in social class by effectively running a brewery–Thrale was rich first, and a brewer second (or third, or, well… you get the idea): he was more interested in fox-hunting that the intimate details of running his family’s brewing empire, in other words, and as a result he didn’t bother to educate himself properly about the basics of brewing.

As a result, he was suckered into a number of frankly stupid schemes. Peter Mathias writes–with what seems to be disparaging amusement–of how Thrale was convinced to try make beer without malt or hops. (File under, “If it were possible, we’d have done that already, pal.”) He was also suckered into other projects: producing liquid malt extract (the syrupy malt goo stuff that some homebrewers use to make beer), and investing in a horrendously expensive project to harden timber. (The wood had to be boiled in enormous vats–far from London, of course–and more enormous vats were needed to mix the chemicals, and in the end the treated wood ended up rotting worse than it otherwise would have. Damn. You’d think they’d try it on a smaller batch of wood or something, first.) To this, Morgan also adds another strange project: purposefully using “bad hops” to brew an experimental beer in 1772.

(He also, Morgan argues, simply got carried away with the idea of expansion and speculation, trying to build more and expand his brewery more quickly than his funds could sustain. But the experiments, and the year’s batch being ruined by bad hops, were a great horror show.)

Note that 1772 was the year the Thrale brewery nearly got bankrupted. The dumb investments failed, though Thraele–already depressed and despondent to the point where Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, his wife, had to take over the brewery–still clung to the hope that one of these bad investments might pay off eventually. Finally, Thrale paid heavily for his foolishness: from the little I know (I’m not there yet in Morgan’s book) Thrale’s wife borrows the money to keep the brewery going, and she, Thrale, and Johnson rebuild it, turning it into an effective business. (Morgan hasn’t yet said anything about the role of Perkins in this rebuilding, though he may yet do so.)

But Henry Thrale also suffers long-term depression, and eventually ends up apoplectic: that is, he has a stroke and suffers paralytic after-effects. It is followed by a series of strokes, between which he languishes at Bath and other places like that, until the ineffective treatments offered in such places inevitably fail to improve his situation and he dies.

It’s all quite dreadful, and sympathy seems to be the angle Morgan plans on using to spin the story positively for the figure upon which he has chosen to focus: Thrale’s bright youth falls victim to a serious of major life “traumas” that ruin and embitter him as a person, ultimately destroying him. (Chapter titles actually include the phrases, “The First Trauma” and “The Second Trauma”! The first is the bankruptcy of the Anchor Brewery, and the second is the death of Thrale’s son Harry.)

The story after Thrale’s death is quite well-known, of course, and I’d swear I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, though I can’t find the post right now, so I’ll tell it again: Samuel Johnson convinces Hester Thrale that, since there is no male heir, they must sell the brewery (as the trade was, Johnson insisted, unfit for daughters, who do better as landowners). Argh, yes, but the good news is that the brewery is sold to… Barclay and Perkins (the latter being the head clerk who saved the brewery during the Gordon Riots). The result? The famous Barclay Perkins firm.

(I know, I know, shut up about Barclay Perkins! A timely link, as a friend of mine just met up with Mr. Pattison to taste some aged beers up in the Pacific Northwest, the lucky bastard!)

For those who don’t know, Perkins had worked as a clerk for Thrale for years by the time he took over, and had been so horrified–both by Thrale’s obviously ruinous and stupid experiments, and by the abuse that he got working under Thrale–that he threatened to quit. Seriously, anyone who knew anything thought Jackson was bad news… because he was bad news.

So, in other words, Thrale is kind of the typical CEO who has Big Ideas about Cutting Edge Stuff but doesn’t know the basics, and who isn’t interested in being told about Facts but only about Possibilities. (And ignores or abuses the advisors who could have told him that they’re Impossibilities.)

In other words Thrale was kind of the Eddie Lampert of the Georgian London brewing scene. (For those who don’t remember, he was the Ayn Rand devotee who tanked Sears.) Hell, maybe he was even the Eddie Lampert of Georgian London, though I suspect there were a number of contenders for that title.

Okay, maybe I’m being unfair: I have, for example, made beer with old hops, to see what it would taste like. However, I made a few gallons, not hundreds–much less a major portion of my year’s commercial supply–and I didn’t expect much of it. But, remmeber, Thrale made these mistakes in the 1770s. The cutting edge of science was… bloodletting and folk magic were both still common treatments for disease at the time. People still felt that going to a cunning woman was an effective way to retrieve lost or stolen objects, or to know the future. Economic crises got blamed on diabolic forces. By our standards, this was in some ways still the dark ages, so perhaps it’s not so crazy that Thrale could be convinced that, say, beer could be made without the ingredients it’d always been made with; perhaps it’s not completely nuts that he was talked into investing in a wood-hardening scheme in the hope that the navy would pay out big for a successful result.

So it’s  then again, none of the other brewers in London were making such mistakes. They did make mistakes, but in my readings on brewers of the time, I haven’t run across records of anything as ridiculous as Thrale’s folly. Even Thrale’s head clerk, Perkins, was even aghast at the experiments with bad hops, and with trying to make beer without malt or hops. Not that clerks didn’t know about brewing: they had to–but even the friggin’ head clerk knew it was a stupid idea. (He didn’t speak up because the person pitching the experiments was a good buddy of Henry Thrale’s, and the latter refused to hear an ill word against the former.)

A wonderful drawing of Hester Lynch Thrale and Samuel Johnson, as drawn by Ralph Steadman--it's really telling that these two endure so long in cultural memory that they're being drawn even in our own era! Click to see more of Mr. Steadman's wonderful art!
A wonderful drawing of Hester Lynch Thrale and Samuel Johnson, as drawn by Ralph Steadman–it’s really telling that these two endure so long in cultural memory that they’re being drawn even in our own era. Click the image to go and see more of Mr. Steadman’s wonderful art!

And who was this good buddy of Thrale’s, the fella who played Ayn Rand to his Eddie Lampert?

It was a chemist named Humphrey Jackson, lauded by some as “a pioneering chemist”. To brewers, though, he was just nothing but plain damned trouble.

What’s funny is that, when you start searching for information on him, even more hijinks show up, for example in a paper titled “Inventors, Patents, and Inventive Activities in the English Brewing Industry, 1634-1850” by Alessandro Nuvolari and James Sumner. (There’s an older working paper version available here. I haven’t read the whole paper yet, mind: their thesis seems, so far,to be that there was innovation, but a lack of patents because patenting was seen as scammy; the latter is true, but the reluctance to patent surely was more to do with the hope of maintaining trade secrets, wasn’t it? Even today brewers often keep a few secrets, especially those durned Belgians.)

In any case, the paper details who Jackson published a book offering the secrets of how to, say, make perfectly clear beer easily, or, ahem, no-fuss summer brewing. The hitch? The most important details of the book were left out, and you had to attend a lecture that would include the information necessary to fill in the blanks. (Of course, the lecture would only occur if enough copies of the book sold.) As the paper explains, even the scam was a rip-off: earlier in the 18th century, London’s Company of Distillers had published a guide to distilling… except the pamphlet has arcane symbols included for crucial details, and you needed a copy of the key to figure out what it all meant. (It was soon pirated, with the key revealed, “For the Publik Good.”)

Oh, and an added bonus:

Humphrey Jackson, discussed above as a promoter of brewing systems under conditions of secrecy, provides an earlier example: he first came to the attention of the brewing community when he obtained, in 1760, a patent on the  production of isinglass… This material, prepared from sturgeon and other fish, was used in a variety  of industries, but its chief use was in fining (removing cloudiness from) London porter. By one report, leading brewers combined to gift Jackson “a considerable sum of money” towards the perfection of his process.


  • First of all, I’m pretty sure Isinglass was used in all brewing, not just porter, though the growing market for porter did drive up demand for isinglass.
  • Second, the reason Jackson’s attempt to make isinglass was such a big deal was because, as I’ve mentioned, all supplies at the time were reliant on trade with the Dutch (who in turn got it exclusively from Russian traders).
  • Thirdly, Jackson was patenting essentially the same procedure used by the Russians: he had nothing to particularly perfect, because he was copying the Russian method, not reinventing it or reverse-engineering it. Then again, at least he wasn’t the guy who tried to make isinglass out of pickled sturgeon!

Anyway, the funny thing about Jackson’s representation in the Nuvolari and Sumner paper is that you could read it and walk away with the impression that Jackson was a serious inventor, albeit a shrewd businessman, and that Thrale had simply overextended himself:

The activities of such outsiders inevitably attracted the suspicions of some within the trade, to whom a reliance on patenting might suggest impracticality or imposture. Humphrey Jackson’s involvement with Henry Thrale ended in disaster: Thrale over-committed himself financially to the timber-hardening scheme, and the brewhouse staff blamed Jackson when, in 1772, one of the wooden storage vessels burst apart and the remainder of the year’s production was found to be sour, leaving the firm on the brink of collapse. Instructors and innovators with a brewery background had an obvious interest in excluding the outsiders: Jackson was also attacked by John Richardson, who produced an anonymous pamphlet assailing his “secret system” as dangerous quackery.

They also mention other “outsiders” attacked by brewers for similar shenanigans, and maybe those people were serious and skilled inventors: but the above is all over inside-out wrong, because of all the details they leave out:

  • Thrale’s “over-commitment” to the timber-hardening scheme nearly ruined Anchor brewery because it didn’t work: it almost ruined Thrale’s brewery because it was a highly expensive, untested, quack scheme that ended up producing the opposite of the intended effect, rendering wood more prone, not less prone, to rotting.
  • The brewhouse staff (who, you know, actually knew about brewing, unlike Thrale, who knew about fox-hunting and socializing with the likes of Dr. Johnson: we’re talking, for example, about John Perkins) blamed the soured beer in 1772 on Jackson because, as Hester Thrale notes in Thraliana (ie. her journal), it was Jackson’s stupid advice to Thrale to use bad hops on purpose! Morgan cites Mrs. Thrale as having written about this, as well as the infamous attempt to make beer without its essential ingredients:

Jackson had persuaded Thrale to buy the bad hops in the first place, possibly so that he might test his chemical brewing theories on them. Thrale depicts Jackson as a con man and a quack, who “by mixing two cold liquors which produced heat perhaps, or two colorless liquors which produced brilliancy,” had duped Thrale into thinking that beer could be made without malt and hops. (Morgan 60)

  • Finally, John Richardson wasn’t attacking Jackson because he was an outsider. He was attacking Jackson because his methods were dangerous quackery. And indeed, Jackson’s ideas had helped bring the biggest brewery in London to the brink of financial collapse.

As for the remainder of the paper, there seem to me to be pretty clear reasons for why brewers would begin the 18th century being wary of patents, and end it being very much more patent-happy. But unless you know about how brewing worked, and how it was industrialized during that time, it’s not likely you’ll be able to puzzle it out. Mathias, though, is a start.

Hester Lynch Thrale, Henry Thrale's wife.
Hester Lynch Thrale, Henry Thrale’s wife, author of Thraliana, and eventually to become Hester Lynch Piozzi once Henry Thrale died of the apoplexy.

As for me, I’m of course continuing on with the Morgan, but continue to be amused by the author’s desire to paint the man in such a positive light. “Trauma” isn’t a word we often use when someone bangs himself (and his family, and his many employees) in the face with a hammer, and discovers it hurts. Still, lots of details and interesting stuff here, so…

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