Keith Flett considers Black Lives Matter, slavery, the history of the ‘Beerage’ and beer in 2020
Following the police killing of George Floyd the Black Lives Matter movement has exploded across the globe. It is nothing to do with beer, but that doesn’t mean that beer isn’t involved.
Take an immediate example. Lots of individuals and large companies have shown support for BLM. Some large companies have half-decent policies on racism, but a lot of statements from this area of corporate capitalism are more about reputational promotion.
I looked at a few Twitter accounts of some of the better-known craft brewers. A handful had said something. Quite a few had not. Perhaps if they knew about the strong associations of the history brewing in the UK between both slavery and abolitionism they might have spoken up.
On beer social media there was strong support for BLM but very little reference to the links between brewing and the history of slavery, and hardly any ideas about what it might and indeed should mean for the future of brewing and drinking beer.
The subject was discussed by two veteran beer writers however – Martyn Cornell and Roger Protz. Both drew attention to aspects of the brewing industry and slavery that have been in the public domain for a long time, but not previously thought worthy of further discussion in the present day.
The ‘Beerage’, a term used to describe brewery owners who sat in Parliament, is usually seen as being part of the Tory Party. This is because the Liberals were in the main the party of temperance and often strongly anti-drink. Yet matters were more complex than that, because not just politics but religion was also important here.
Cornell draws on the Dictionary of National Biography entry for the Greene family, a central part of what is still Greene King, albeit owned by a Hong Kong Property Company. He looks at the difference between the Greene’s religious beliefs and their business practices.
Perhaps the key paragraph in the DNB entry for the Greene Family is this one:
Benjamin Greene had thrown himself with enormous vigour into representing the interests of the West Indian slave proprietors at a critical juncture of their affairs. To effect this he acquired the Bury and Suffolk Herald in 1828. For six years he ran this ultra-Tory provincial newspaper during the heady period surrounding the Reform Act and the abolition of slavery amid mounting controversy, involving himself in no fewer than three libel cases. Utter reaction to these key pieces of legislation was a strange position for a one-time prominent Dissenter to occupy and the third case heaped such obloquy upon him that he left Bury in 1836 to found a sugar importing and shipowning firm at 11 Mincing Lane, London. He died at Russell Square on 26 November 1860, was buried in Highgate cemetery, and left an estate sworn under £80,000.
Cornell’s piece and perhaps other publicity got Greene King to act in mid-June. They acknowledged that the brewery had been involved in the slave trade. The BBC reported:
Nick Mackenzie, Greene King's chief executive officer, said:
It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s. While that is a part of our history, we are now focused on the present and the future. (We will)…….make a substantial investment to benefit the BAME community and support our race diversity in the business.
Its own website now states after changes were made:
Benjamin Greene handed over the Greene’s Brewery to his son Edward in 1836. After founding the brewery, Benjamin went on to own cane sugar plantations in the West Indies where he was a slave owner. Even in the 1800s, his views on slavery were extremely unpopular and in the brewery’s home of Bury St Edmunds he wrote columns in his own newspaper that were critical of those campaigning for the abolition of slavery.
Given that all the details have been in the public domain for a very long time it is surely appropriate to ask what took them so long? Perhaps it was only concern about possible protests and reputational damage from people avoiding their beers that got them to do something.
A bit of a better bitter from the Beerage
Other leading parts of the Beerage, notably Whitbreads and Truman, Hanbury and Buxton had a rather better record.
Samuel Whitbread was an MP for Bedford from 1768 to 1790. His DNB entry notes that he spoke mainly on brewing matters but also was a supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. That of course is not the same as the abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies but that didn’t become a central issue until after Whitbread’s death.
The history of Hanbury, Buxton and Truman take the matter further. Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) became an MP and worked with William Wilberforce to end the institution of slavery in the British colonies. He was for doing so gradually and no doubt criticism can be made, but there was certainly not any benefit being gained from slavery.
This history is important, and worth knowing and reflecting on. It begs the question of what is to be done now?
A statement by the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, Nik Antona on 10th June set a welcome benchmark. It makes it clear that the experience of drinking beer should be an inclusive one and urges attention to beer and pub names that hold objectionable associations with the past as a first step.
Calling for action beyond fine words is important here. The statement attracted some criticism including comment by some racists but also a good deal of support. Even in making it, CAMRA revealed the scale of the challenge in addressing racism and racist attitudes in beer.
One concrete example of action is that of a Wetherspoon’s pub name in Wrexham - the Elihu Yale. Yale’s connection with Yale University is well known and had lived in North Wales from 1699 until his death in 1721. He made his money from the slave trade with the East India Company. In response to a local campaign to change the name, Wetherspoon’s have agreed to review the matter.
Another US initiative by Weathered Souls brewing is to ask breweries to produce a stout based on a common recipe:
We took a stout recipe and decided to call on our peers in the brewing industry to collaborate in unison for equality and inclusion amongst people of colour. All proceeds from the purchase of these releases will be donated to local funds that support police brutality reform and legal defences.
Most of the breweries participating are US based but there are some in the UK including Brewdog, Cloudwater and Crafty Devil.
The Black Lives Matter movement continues to spark protest and change worldwide. When it comes to beer and brewing I’d suggest three things:
1. Understand the history of the links between slavery and brewing, and which present-day companies bear some responsibility for reparation.
2. Breweries and pub companies should embrace the positions of Black Lives Matters, particularly in terms of equality of employment and encouraging an inclusive culture in their pubs.
3. Actions speak louder than words. CAMRA’s focus on pub and beer names and associations is a good start.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.