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Some (Admittedly Unkind) Words for Henry Thrale

I mentioned recently that I’d been reading Lee Morgan’s biography of Henry Thrale. I’ve finished it, and collected some material on beer history–what little there was in the book. For the life story of a man whose wealth was gotten in the making of beer, the subject comes up much less than you might imagine… but then, as I mentioned last time, Thrale was always more interested in fox-hunting and clever conversation with upper-class people than the business that gave him such a wealthy lifestyle.

Morgan’s text is a funny sort of book: it has lots of things that make it worth reading, including details on London brewers in the 1770s. However, Morgan’s constant attempts to make Thrale out to be Mr. Awesome kind of seem desperate. One is left with the feeling that Morgan really, really wishes Thrale was this cool, calm, nice, excellent guy, when he’s really much more of a very mixed bag. At times, it feels like Morgan has to dismiss what everyone had to say about the man–his wife, his friends, his family–just to paint him in a relatively positive light.

Which isn’t to say Morgan is unremittingly positive about Thrale: for one thing, Thrale’s recklessness and “unreasoning competitiveness” with finance (113) is something Morgan acknowledges clearly, though he doesn’t seem to know enough about brewing to understand the foolishness underlying that recklessness. But the main problem is just that Morgan’s surprisingly reticent to take seriously the criticisms of those who knew him best. Morgan is happy to take the praises of Mrs. Thrale at face value, but many of her criticisms of her husband get dismissed after vague inquiry or poorly-supported contradiction… and given that Morgan didn’t do his homework sufficiently to realize that, for example, Thrale’s chemist advisor Humphrey Jackson was actually a massive, famous quack, I’m disinclined to take seriously his assessment of Mrs. Thrale’s judgment.

(He also, at one point, calls Samuel Johnson a “poor man” in the context of being denied nursemaid service by Mrs. Thrale, who happened to be many months pregnant at the time. Er…)

Anyway, the rest of this post is a sampling of bits that might be of interest to (if not altogether new to) beer history buffs, along with some commentary.

Gustave Doré’s sketch of workers at the Barclay Perkins Brewery, a century after Thrale’s disastrous year of folly that nearly bankrupted the outfit.

First: vats. I’ve mentioned before how Humphrey Parson had, in the 1730s, constructed the biggest vat in the world for aging porter in. Prior to the 1730s, there would be no need for such a vat, since beer aged not at the brewery, but at the publican’s. With the development of porter, which was aged at the brewery and released to the publican ready to serve, came a need for vats in which to age beer. And of course, given that the available vessels at the time were wooden, a vat with the right conditions would actually be much safer for aging beer than would be barrels.

But as Morgan points out, the growing vat sizes had less to do with the technology than with vanity. Note, the footnotes are mine:

Some years before Thrale’s death, the London brewers sought to compete with each other to see who could build the largest vat to age beer in. One1 had a vessel holding 1,000 barrels. This worried Thrale, who complained to [Dr. Samuel] Johnson, repeating from Plutarch a quote of Themistocles: “‘The trophies of Militiades hinder my sleeping'”… Johnson tried to calm him, pointing out the uselessness of such an accomplishment to Thrale or the business. Thrale may have been pacified at the time. Dr. Thomas Campbell, who had visited the [unnamed] brewery in the spring of 1775, recorded in his Diary his astonishment at its immensity. “One large house contains, and cannot contain more, only four store vessels, each of which contains fifteen hundred barrels; and in one of which one hundred persons have dined with ease.2 There are besides in other houses, thirty-six of the same construction, but half the contents”… The expenditures required for such ostentatious and possibly unnecessary equipmentundeoubtedly troubled Perkins as much as they did Johnson and Mrs. Thrale; but while Thrale recognized and even appreciated Perkins as a competent and trustworthy hired hand, his distate for the man as a managerial colleague bordered on revulsion and paranoia. The cause of his strong antagonism may well have been Thrale’s loss of face and consequently respect in the face of his complete inability to cope with the 1772 near-catastrophe at the brewery. By adopting a haughty and overbearing manner, Thrale sought to bully Perkins and the other clerks into accepting him again as the man in charge. (113)

“A painted engraving of Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street London in 1792. It is also titled “A View from the East-End of the Brewery Chiswell Street, The famous Whitbread Brewery. A carthorse is being backed into a dray”. The painter is listed as G.Garrard of No. 43 Little Britain and the engraver as W.Ward Warren Place, Kentish Town.” Click image for source.

The “loss of face” Morgan is referring to is, of course, when Thrale nearly bankrupted the brewery by purposefully making a massive amount of beer with bad hops to let his quack buddy experiment on it, along with other moronic investments, including the height of folly–trying to make beer without malt or hops. Perkins almost quit, but was talked out of it by Mrs. Thrale and Johnson… and Thrale mostly treated badly (to say the least) afterward. And Thrale’s “inability to cope” is literally him becoming so useless in running the brewery that his wife and Dr. Johnson had to run the brewery while he moped in a melancholic state because he’d almost tanked (ahem) his own brewery in the dumbest way possible.

Ralph Thrale, Henry Thrale’s father, was more interested in the brewing side of things that his son, from what I gather. Click the link for the image source.

So, basically, Thrale was the typical incompetent CEO who hated most the employee who was smarter than him, and saw him screwing up and didn’t kiss his ass, and who, being indispensable to the company, wished to become a partner. Quite literally: during (yet another) a fit of melancholy following the death of his son Harry–the only kid of several whose death seemed to bother himin the slightest–Thrale’s relationship with Perkins was even worse:

Thrale’s morbidity expressed itself in something like paranoia where Perkins was concerned. Thrale knew that he had los Perkins’ respect after the trouble of 1772, and he resented the authority in the business which Perkins had arrogated to himself3 as well as his undisguised desire to become a partner. Mrs. Thrale herself, who fully appreciate Perkins’ indispensability, nonetheless also resented this latter dream of his. Thrale hated the man so much he wanted to fire him, primarily because, according to Mrs. Thrale, Perkins was forever tactlessly pointing out his faults to him. Thrale wanted to replace him with a “yes-man,” a move which Mrs. Thrale [correctly] thought would be the end of the brewery and their family…. Indeed, it well might have been; but Johnson and she were able to dissuade him from such a rash and potentially disastrous action. (171-172)

Hester Thrale.

Mrs. Thrale’s resentment of Perkins’ wish to become a partner is almost surely classism as much as anything: she was, after all, so classist as to harp on even how low-born Thrale was… even though she’d married him as much for his money as because of her parents’ approval and encouragement of the union. (Though high-born, Mrs. Thrale’s family–the Salusburys–was not particularly rich at the time of the marriage.)

What’s interesting about all of this is that, as Peter Mathias points out, brewers were the vanguard of modern industrialized business and production. They were among the first to use steam engines for accelerated mass production. They were the first to mass produce a product ready for consumption. They were the first to scale up production to anything like a modern commercial scale.

The Boulton & Watt Steam Engine installed at the Whitbread brewery in 1785, and the oldest rotative steam engine in existence today. Click the image for more information.

And, in the person of Thrale, it seems Georgian brewers were also pioneers in the domain of stupid CEO-dom. Thrale is almost the prototype for the moron CEO whose incompetence is only apparent to him when his smartest employee points it out; the smartest employee points out potholes when the CEO is driving straight toward them (for the sake of the business), and is rewarded with resentment… and quite naturally begins to feel a difficult-to-disguise disgust for the idiocy of the CEO. Hell, I’ve experienced it myself.

Those of us who know a little about brewing history know that Perkins triumphs in the end, not by becoming a partner, but by taking over when Thrale dies, and because of the lack of a male heir and the dominant sexist attitudes of the time–combined with Mrs. Thrale’s class bigotry, which led to a desire to be rid of her connection to a lowly brewery (see below)–led to the Anchor Brewery being sold off soon after Thrale’s passing. Perkins and his partner Barclay buy it, take over (eventually as Barclay Perkins, though they leased the Thrale name for quite some time first), and fairly relentlessly kick ass. (Here’s an account of just how well Barclay Perkins was doing in 1839, courtesy of Ron Pattison.)

“The Great Vats of Barclay Perkins.” Not everyone was scared off from big vats, apparently.

One is temped to think Perkins did well because he actually cared, something that one senses Thrale didn’t, at least from a few anecdotes Morgan relates. After some “sensations” Morgan relates from travel anecdotes, there’s this:

Another “sensation,” a dubious one this time, met their eyes before they left the mansion for the Tower [of London]–the sight of a burning ship in the Thames. It was bound for Boston and contained a consignment of Thrale’s beer. Thrale, true to his nature, exhibited no emotion at the sight of his cargo on fire. (Indeed, excitability on his part could not help the situation. If, as has been alleged, Thrale was a government contractor, it was almost surely no loss to him: the beer had more than likely been sold already to the Government and was bound for the British trooops in America. Thrale is alleged to have sold to the Government before: the preceding September it supposedly contracted him for “5,000 butts of strong beer”…. Had he been exporting beer on a cargo ship for payment on delivery, he would have insured it.) But the flaming vessel ignited young Harry’s talent for a joke on almost any occasion. He bounded into the brewery offices to get off a witticism. “I see your Porter is good Mr. Perkins; for it burns special well”… (119-120)

Here, two things:

  1. Even brewers today would, I think, tend to be discouraged or frustrated by the sight of their product being wasted, lost, or destroyed after it has been bought and paid for; Morgan wants Thrale’s lack of a reaction to be tied up with money (that is, a purely economic-rooted disinterest); but most brewers would, I think, at least find the sight of their beer burning a sad, unfortunate sight… even if they’d already been paid for it.
  2. Note which pronoun Harry Thrale uses to describe the burning porter: he addresses Perkins, saying, “your porter…” This, it seems to me, suggests the real reason Thrale didn’t react emotionally at all: because it wasn’t his porter anyway: it was was Perkins’, and everyone in the family knew it.4
One wonders what Thrale’s reaction would have been if his brewery had caught fire, as the Yeungling plant in Tampa did at some point.  I suspect he’d have blamed Perkins…

Here’s another typical dumbass-CEO trait: Thrale didn’t learn his lesson. I’ve mentioned how he was still throwing money at Jackson’s quack schemes well into 1773, a year after he’d nearly bankrupted his brewery. But even by 1777 he hadn’t learned his damned lesson:

Idyllic interludes… could not eradicate the growing uneasiness that Johnson and Hester felt regarding Thrale’s dangerous and short-sighted policies at the brewery. In their letters, they both expressed concern about this reckless streak growing in Thrale. Writing to Mrs. Thrale on September 18, 1777, Johnson voiced the hope that by the end of the next year, Thrale would have realized his dream of brewing 100,000 barrels in order to outperform Calvert and Whitbread. Maybe with that goal achieved, Johnson suggests, Thrale’s mad ambition will have run its course. How to maintain this high preeminence in the business without falling will require the utmost caution…. Mrs. Thrale draws exactly the same conclusion. The present heady prosperity is preventing Thrale from considering the future and cushioning himself against possible economic mishaps. He has obviously gotten the reins of management back in his own hands: he his not confiding his plans to Johnson or Mrs. Thrale and certainly not to Perkins; they learn about them after they are faits accomplis. Indeed, a postscript to Mrs. Thrale’s letter of September 20 to Johnson contains the observation that Thrale “is grown so grand now he is quite touchy if one speaks to him”…. His huge profits and his regaining of complete control at the brewery must have combined to revive Thrale’s self-confidence, sense of worth, and aloof authoritativeness.5 Casting off the collegiality of the last five years which he had perforce adopted toward his wife, Perkins, and Johnson in the conduct of the business had made him appear peevish and touchy to his wife. This was not his characteristic attitude: naturalness, unaffectedness, and equanimity of temper came closer to his true personality. Any assumption of grandeur or unapproachability would have been a necessary psychological stage for him to go through in regaining face.

Morgan, here, is generous with Thrale to the point of disregarding what everyone around him was saying: Oh, it was just a stage, he insists, suggesting the peevishness observed by Mrs. Thrale was “seeming” rather than actual… after all, Thrale is the hero of this book. Note, by the way, that at this point Thrale was investing not only brewery money into expansion, but also cutting down trees (which he’d promised he wouldn’t cut down) to fund the expansion.

And not only that: once again Thrale was suckered into competing over meaningless measures of success: who has the biggest penis aging tank, rather than the quality of the beer, or the best reputation, or the best skill to weather changing prices of ingredients, or some other relevant measure of success. It is, however, worth noting that Thrale wasn’t the only brewer to fall prey to such silly measures of success: lots of brewers did.

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Samuel Johnson, a literary figure & a close friend of the Thrales.

The other part of the book directly relevant to brewing history has to do with Thrale’s death and estate: it turns out I was wrong when I suggested (in the post linked above) that it was Samuel Johnson’s fault the Thrale brewery was sold: apparently, Johnson’s comment–so often quoted out of context–was more along the lines of his justifying the sale of the Anchor Brewery after the fact. Nobody ever seems to note that when they quote him, though.

Beforehand, Johnson was in fact the only one among the executors of Thrale’s will who had any notion that the brewery could be kept in the family. It turns out, at least the way Morgan tells it, that it was Mrs. Thrale who wanted to be rid of it: she wrote, upon the sale of the brewery, about how relieved she felt in having her sullying connection with a commercial interest finally concluded. (To the tune of, “I’m gonna wash that brew’ry right outta my hair!”) Morgan makes a big deal of this, but it surely isn’t as far from Thrale’s attitude as Morgan would like it to be: Thrale didn’t feel all that sullied by his connection to the brewery, but neither did he seem to be all that passionate about brewing, either: for him, it seems more to have been the family cash-cow than any sort of endeavour: it seems likely he would have been just as happy inheriting any other source of of income.

That said, Thrale was not ungenerous to Perkins in his will, leaving him a decent annuity; Mrs. Thrale, in addition, was generous enough to lend Perkins the money needed to purchase his share of the brewery, when he and three partners (including two Barclays) took over a little while later. Morgan seems to feel this is a sign of decency and generosity on Thrale’s part, and perhaps it is; or perhaps, like the hyper-expensive dignity of Thrale’s funeral, the late Georgians were just very fastidious about how they would be remembered among their contemporaries. (A stingy will would ruin the reputation of one so rich, especially if the stinginess were toward the man responsible for the success of the rich man’s enterprise, and indeed his very wealth in the first place: whatever role was played by Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, they were not so familiar with brewing as was Mr. Perkins, after all…)

Still, in the end Morgan notes that Thrale is mostly of interest for having befriended Dr. Samuel Johnson, and I agree… sort of. Actually, I suspect that Thrale would make the great subject of a far different book: one illustrating how the moronic, ignorant, nouveau-riche dolt of a CEO has been with us since the beginnings of modern industrialized business in Georgian England.

Any interested publishers, feel free to contact me with an offer.

But that, obviously, isn’t the book Morgan wanted to write… and maybe I’m being unfair because Morgan’s apparent desire to see Thrale as “flawed” rather than ridiculous annoyed me so much.

Meanwhile, for those who are interested in hearing Mrs. Thrale’s side of things, there are ample resources available: Hester Thrale has been praised for being one of the more interesting female writers of the period, after all. I haven’t gotten around to any of those books yet myself, but for those who are interested, see this page at Ladies of Langollen for some links and mention of the books you’ll want to track down. Seeing that sheer volume of material on Mrs. Thrale, one supposes Morgan felt a bit sorry for Henry Thrale and wished his side of things to be told… but the problem with Thrale, besides his lack of business acumen (which, to be fair, isn’t that uncommon among those born to wealth) and common sense is that he aspired to good conversation but was himself often withdrawn and quiet; he was a successful business owner but the success was primarily the achievement of others; he was a good buddy of Samuel Johnson, but wasn’t as interesting as Johnson; he owned the brewery, but couldn’t really run it himself. It was vaguely interesting to read about how he (literally) ate himself to death at the very end of his life, but ultimately, the most anyone can say is that he was a good party-host, and a terrible businessman. This may come down to the fact that he was living in an age when mental health care wasn’t properly available, despite the fact he probably needed some at a couple of points in his life. (As did Johnson, one is certain, though he, at least, got some from Mrs. Thrale.)

But in any case, to be fair, one might not like Mrs. Thrale much, either, if one were to see her through others’ eyes. But Morgan’s criticisms seem to ring a little hollow, since they’re almost always tied to her criticisms of Henry Thrale… and Hester Thrale’s criticisms of Henry Thrale mostly seem somewhat fair. (Especially given the fact that it wasn’t a love-match; that is to say, especially sympathizing with her in terms of the kind of power in the relationship that he inevitably enjoyed, when you compare it to who mostly dealt with the stuff that kept their family going.)

I’ll probably read more about Hester Thrale eventually, but not till I either have an iPad (so I can download her own writing and read it easily) or have access to books about her through a library.

  1. Whom? I wish he’d include details like that, but I’m guessing it’s Whitbread…

  2. This method of showing off the size of a brewing vat–by holding a banquet within it–is mentioned in Mathias, as I’ve noted before. Surely this ridiculous trend in building bigger and bigger aging tanks reached its apotheosis in the Great Beer Flood of 1814, after which things got scaled back to more manageable sizes… for a while, anyway. Though, Martyn Cornell notes, it was actually the smallest vat that burst on that day: see his post for the skinny on how it actually went down.

  3. … while helping keep the brewery functional while Thrale moped over the failure of his get-rich-quick and make-bear-from-nothing schemes, note…

  4. But, then, Thrale didn’t react much when most of his children died, either… and while most fathers of the time would seem callous by our modern standards, Thrale was seen as callous even by the standards of that time.

  5. In other words, his self-important arrogance and intractability, and his disregard for the advice of those who actually knew better than he how to run the business: Mrs. Thrale, Johnson, and above all Perkins, had all worked together to keep the brewery going, and built it into the success that Thrale then claimed for himself.

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