Greenwich has an ancient tradition of brewing dating back at least to the building of Bella Court, the first royal residence at Greenwich by Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, the brother of Henry V in about 1426. Duke Humphrey’s house was subsequently engulfed by the riverside range of the Palace of Placentia, the birthplace of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. These royal residences would, of necessity, have had breweries attached to them to provide ale and beer , as the water would have been undrinkable. There is, therefore, a Greenwich tradition of brewing dating back to the time of Agincourt.
However, it is probable that the history of brewing at Greenwich is even older than that. In 964, the Saxon King Edgar granted the Manor of Lewisham, which included Greenwich, to the Abbey of Saint Peter in Ghent, and they retained the land for four and a half centuries. It is well documented that medieval monasteries were important brewing centres, with brewhouses providing beer for the monks themselves and for travellers, so it is reasonable to assume that the abbey at Greenwich (on the Old Royal Naval College site) brewed its own beer from Saxon times. Certainly, in 1366, we have a written record of the Prior returning to Ghent, around Christmas time, with a pipe of salted beef, eight bacons and three barrels of beer.
An interesting point here is that the monks were Flemish, and that hops and hopped beer, as opposed to the Saxon unhopped ale, only came to England from the Low Countries after approximately 1400. We know that the Flemish monks at Greenwich were brewing well before that date, so it may be that Greenwich is one of the first places in England - if not the first - where hopped beer was brewed. However that may be, a document of Henry VII in 1492 contained a grant of safe conduct to a “bere brewer of Greenwich named Peter Van Ek”, and he therefore becomes the first named brewer in Greenwich history. If his name is anything to go on, Van Ek was Dutch or Flemish, so Greenwich might have been an early specialist beer brewing centre under the continuing influence of the Low Countries.
This distinction between hopped beer and unhopped ale continued for centuries, with ale and beer being regarded as two different drinks. Henry VIII’s ale brewer at Eltham Palace near Greenwich was instructed in January 1530, not to use hops when brewing ale. At another of Henry’s palaces, Hampton Court, in 1539, the ale brewers were instructed to “put neither Hoppes nor Brimstone (sulphur) in their ale in the pipes [casks holding a massive 960 pints], soe that it may be found good, wholesome and perfect stuff and worth the King’s money.” Beer brewers, however, were free to hop as they pleased.
As well as an ale brewer, Henry VIII had a royal beer brewer, John Pope, who, in 1542, received permission to have as many as 12 “persons born out of the King’s Dominions” (probably specialist beer brewers from the Low Countries) working in his household “for the said feat of beer-brewing”, even though under Tudor law English subjects could not employ more than four foreigners. Clearly John Pope’s beer brewing was considered important work.
The royal Palace of Placentia at Greenwich was a huge household, and we can be sure that enormous quantities of both ale and beer were consumed. Elizabeth I is known to have been an enthusiastic beer drinker. However, after Elizabeth died, Greenwich was less patronised by the Stuarts, and the Palace of Placentia was left to gradually become derelict. It was subsequently plundered by Cromwell’s troops and even the materials from which the Palace itself was built were looted, leaving it a ruin. Grandeur returned to Greenwich during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with the laying-out of the Park and the building of the Queen’s House, the Royal Greenwich Hospital and the Observatory.
Greenwich, however, had by now become a prosperous town in its own right with a fishing port, a market, shipyards in next-door Deptford and wealthy merchants. It was also an important staging post on the route to Dover with plenty of inns and taverns, some of which brewed their own beer, and various local breweries. In the 1703 “A Guide to Gentlemen and Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquors”, it states that “Thames water taken up above Greenwich, at low water when it is free from the brackishness of the sea……makes very strong drink.”
The buildings now known as the Old Royal Naval College were previously home to the Greenwich Hospital which was founded in 1694 and continued in its function as a retirement home for old and injured Royal Naval sailors until 1869. It was during this period, specifically from 1718 to 1866, that brewing took place on what is now Meantime’s Old Brewery site. The bar at The Old Brewery and the cellars below are part of the early 1830’s rebuilding of the Hospital Brewery. The café-restaurant is in part of the Pepys Building, named after the famous 17th Century diarist who worked for the Admiralty, and who re-located to Greenwich to escape the Plague in 1665.
At first the Hospital bought beer for the pensioners from a local brewer, but the quality was frequently unsatisfactory. On at least one occasion, in 1708, the beer was so bad as to be undrinkable; the Pensioners were therefore forced to drink water, and had to be paid compensation. The Hospital directors realised that it would be cheaper to brew their own beer in-house, so a brewery was built on this site, with brewing commencing in 1718. The master brewer was paid 60 shillings per year.
Dr. John Bold’s definitive book on the Greenwich Hospital buildings has this to say -
“The first report of faulty beer at the Hospital, which resulted in compensation payments to the pensioners who were forced to drink water, has been made in 1708, but it was not until 1716 that the directors gave their considered attention to a recurring problem…… They decided in 1717 that it would be preferable to brew their own beer on site at an annual cost of £763, with an initial outlay of £800 on the building of a brewhouse on the west side of the site…. The situation was reviewed in 1738, when the brewhouse was found to be old, decayed and too small. A new one was approved, to be built ‘with all possible frugality’ at a cost of £600 with a further £430 for utensils, on the basis that by brewing its own beer, the Hospital saved £800 per year. This was substantially erected in 1739-40, and was ready for use by 1742, when a brewer was appointed at a reduced rate of £40 per year……. Two pipes, 1 ½ inches in diameter, were laid from the brewhouse to the north-east corner of Queen Mary, one for beer to serve the two dining halls, the other for water. The pipes were diverted to serve the Infirmary as well in 1768.
In 1829 Joseph Kay reported that the brewhouse, bakehouse and stables, to the west of the main Hospital buildings, had become expensive to maintain. As part of the continuing improvements, he succeeded in securing the agreement of the Commissioners to their complete rebuilding, to his design…….The brewery, a single-storey structure with a basement, of which a remnant survives, was described as ‘recently erected’ in 1834. The Hospital had been brewing on or near this location since the early eighteenth century. The new building, which had to be extensively repaired in 1843 following a fire, ceased to be used as a brewery before the Hospital closed.”
From “Greenwich: An Architectural history of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen’s House” by John Bold
The pensioners’ daily ration of beer was two quarts (four pints) of what was probably not very strong beer - Captain Thomas Baillie, a Governor of the Hospital, refers to “sour small beer”. Also, there was a special ration on festive days of two quarts of “strong beer”, which implies that the ordinary ration was not strong. This special ration was, however, reduced to one quart by John Liddell, Senior Medical Officer, in 1846.
The recent discovery by beer historian Martyn Cornell of an invitation from the Governors to tender to supply malt for the Hospital Brewery, which specifies what malt was required, means that we now have a good idea of what the two types of beer brewed here were like. The small beer which the pensioners consumed as part of their everyday ration was made of ordinary pale malt and some amber malt. It was probably similar in colour to a modern Bitter. The strong beer was made from only “fine pale” malt, which probably gave it a deep golden colour.
Brewing continued until 1866, shortly before the closure of the Hospital, but the history of brewing in Greenwich continues, with the occasional gap, to the present day.