How John Perkins Saved Thrale’s Anchor Brewery From the Gordon Riots

Long story short? Free (as in “free beer”) beer. And food. And a horse-drawn cart.

But you want the long version, right?

In a very recent post, I speculated on parallels between Georgian England and other societies that are in a comparable stage of internalizing modernity, industrialization, urbanization, and so on. I specifically suggested that what had sounded so odd to me about the handling of the Bin Duong rioters here in Vietnam–trying to appease them, and even give them a refreshing drink–might have a parallel in Georgian England.

Barclay Perkins, probably much later. The image is from a short piece on Southwark’ brewing and hop industry; click the image for more.

Well, whaddaya know. While reading a paper on the hop trade in Southwark (from this source, and which I’ll mention again in an upcoming post) I ran across a reference to John Perkins (then head clerk of the establishment) saving the Thrale-run Anchor Brewery (of Southwark) by doing the same thing. As Peter Mathias briefly describes:

At one point during the Gordon riots a mob attacked the brewery, but John Perkins placated them with porter until the troops arrived.

What? This calls for more investigation… which I’ve happily done for you.

More detail is available on page 221 of Lee Morgan’s Dr. Johnson’s Own Dear Master: The Life of Henry Thrale. Pardon the image, but I haven’t time to retype it all:

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 5.47.27 PM

And what, pray tell, were the Gordon Riots about? Basically, a law was proposed to reduce official discrimination against Catholics. Essentially, Parliament had agreed that the government and England in general should discriminate less against Catholics.

Enraged because, hey, they were for maintaining discrimination, anti-Catholics started with peaceful protests but soon  graduated to mob violence, ransacking business, busting criminals out of prison, attacking anyone they thought was Catholic or pro-Catholic. Thrale, apparently, was seen (correctly) as a Catholic sympathizer, which explains the attack on his brewery.

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!
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! So here’s Henry Thrale, who once tried to make beer without malt or hops… and almost lost the brewery as a result. He obviously inherited the brewery, and I have the impression he mostly retained it because his wife Hester was well-connected and smart.

What’s not mentioned in the above, and is even more odd, is that the Lord whose name was given to the riots, George Gordon (not to be confused with Lord Byron), would convert to Judaism within a decade, and live as an Orthodox Jew for the rest of his life.

Lord George Gordon, post-conversion.

Gordon died in Newgate Prison–the same prison from which the mob during the Gordon Riots had freed the inmates, and left a smoking ruin.

Well, not completely a smoking ruin. There was enough wall left for some graffiti, as Wikipedia tells us the following:

Painted on the wall of Newgate prison was the proclamation that the inmates had been freed by the authority of “His Majesty, King Mob”. The term “King Mob” ever after denoted an unruly and fearsome proletariat.

I suppose the fact this is news to me simply means I haven’t read my Dickens; the author presented a fictionalized account of the Gordon Riots–with Lord George Gordon as a major character, apparently!–in his (relatively unpopular) historical novel Barnaby Rudge.

As the caption on the Thrale image above notes, I couldn’t find any images of John Perkins, which seems a shame. I even looked at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, and if anyone would have Perkins’ image up, I imagine it would be Ron Pattison.

Oh, as an added bonus: from a genealogy website, some info on how Perkins died, and how many kids he had:

John Perkins. Born 1730. Died 1812 having been struck down by a man on horseback at the Brighton races. He married first ? Polhill who died childless in 1769. Second to Amelia Moseley Bevan widow of Timothy Paul Bevan and from a wealthy family (which helped in buying the brewery). They had 5 sons and one daughter…

For those who’re intrigued, there’s information on Perkins’ descendants, too: their names, their spouses and offspring, occasionally professions or military service, all very lightly sketched. Though one descendant born in the 1850 ended up having a racing career, it is Perkins’ first son, of the same name, who is easily the most interesting, as he:

  • eloped with the family governess, a Miss Caroline Cook,1
  • became a doctor in Edinburgh,
  • practiced medicine in Brussels,
  • and died fighting for Simón Bolívar in South America

The whole family is discussed at the same page.

UPDATE (18 Sept, 2014): More information has become available about Dr. John Perkins, Jr. and his dramatic life. See here.

1. Why is it whenever you have just read a book on a subject, that subject suddenly starts cropping up everywhere?

5 thoughts on “How John Perkins Saved Thrale’s Anchor Brewery From the Gordon Riots

  1. Henry has to pay large taxes and was hit by a war that caused the number of barrels to dwindle

    “We shall brew but Sixty Thousand Barrels of Beer this Year! pretty Times indeed; and Mr Smelt saying he wishes we had more Taxes, & the King more power: I wish the King would put an End to this destructive War I’m sure; the Year before last we brew’d 96,000 Barrels—last Year only 76,000, & this Winter we shall scarece turn 60,000. So horribly is the Consumption lessened by the War.”

    1. My kneejerk response is to note that rich guys always complain about high taxes, and to think that it seems unlikely those taxes were levied against Thrale alone: weren’t they imposed on all the great breweries of London at the time?

      My primary source for the idea that Thrale was a bad businessman is definitely Lee Morgan’s pretty detailed, heavily researched, and—I thought—relatively sympathetic biography of the man, Dr Johnson’s “Own Dear Master”: The Life of Henry Thrale by Lee Morgan (University Press of America: Lanham, MD, 1998). Whatever (moderate) sympathy I sensed in Morgan’s account (when I read it years ago, mind you) doesn’t prevent the author from painting a relatively unflattering portrait of Henry Thrale’s business acumen.

      It’s not just the bad investments he made on several occasions, but also a general poor common sense for business. For example, on page 113, Morgan talks about “reckless expansionism” and “unreasoning competitiveness” hobbling the profits of his brewery, “considering how frighteningly near to financial the brewery came … at a time when it might have been expected to be most profitable”; of these characteristics, Morgan notes: “[s]o pronounced were these traits in him, they were viewed by his wife and Dr. Johnson as obsessions, which they lamented to each other in their correspondence and pleaded with Thrale himself to curtail.”

      That’s just some of what’s in the book, a little bit from a single page alone. Hell, on the same page, Morgan also discusses how Thrale panicked over other London Breweries basically getting into what amounted to a pissing contest about whose brewery had the biggest vats for aging beer in: Thrale was horrified not to keep up with the Joneses, and it was Samuel Johnson who had to calm him down by pointing out big vats aren’t the be-all and end-all of the business (and have no real effect on the financial success of a brewery, but were really just a ridiculously expensive way of showing off).

      Likewise, in the very same paragraph (going over to page 114) Morgan describes how much Thrale despised and bullied Perkins, and how his disrespect for Perkins probably played a role in the brewery’s “near-disaster” of 1772. (I don’t remember what this nea-disaster was—it’s been a while since I read the book, as I say—but it does speak poorly of Thrale’s character as a businessman that he bullied and hated the guy who basically kept his brewery going, and later successfully expanded it to one of the most successful breweries in the nation.

      What I’m saying is that I’m only going by the one book—which has its risks—but that one book goes to great lengths to substantiate a number of professional character flaws in the man. Morgan’s account shows he’s not insensible to Thrale’s better qualities—that he was a sparkling conversationalist, and probably fun at parties, and so on—but Morgan presents a lot of things that suggest Henry Thrale was not very good at actually running a brewery, and, to some degree, less interested in it than in other things.

      I’d be curious about whether you’ve read the Morgan account and commented extensively on it somewhere, though, since it’d be easier to parse your criticisms there instead of some awkward back-and-forth in the comments of a years-old blog post about a book I only half-remember reading.

      And if you are a Thrale, I should note that I mean no offense to you or your family, by the way. I do realize the risks of relying on a single account. But I will also say that I tend to trust a heavily documented (if in part unflattering) account of an historical figure more than the family history shared by that person’s descendants, for obvious reasons. (It also seems to me unlikely that there’d be some personal animus against a man centuries-dead that would cause Morgan to be unfair… and it’s not the sort of book that seems designed to profit off sensationalism, to say the least.)

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