It is fairly common knowledge that the undercroft at St Pancras Station, which now houses ticket offices, cafes and smart shops, was once used to store beer. It is, however, largely forgotten that St Pancras was once the hub of an industry which transported, matured, packaged and marketed beer in a completely different way to any that exists today.
The breweries brought the beer down from Burton upon Trent in vast quantities, and then sold it to specialist bottling companies who matured, bottled and retailed it.
The traditional route to market for the breweries of Burton had been via Hull to Russia and the Baltic, but this market had collapsed in the early 19th century. The opening of the rail link from Burton to London in 1839 opened up a new market with great potential – London.
The Burton brewers quickly realised that the new railway could be used to distribute their high-quality, distinctive beers. By 1846, 35% of Bass’ total sales were from its London stores, which were a massive undertaking in themselves. In 1867, these moved to the undercroft at St Pancras, which was deep and maintained a relatively stable temperature year-round, which made it highly suitable for storing beer. Bass’ store at St Pancras could hold 120,000 barrels (35.4 million pints), and employed 150 men.
W.H.Barlow, the engineer behind the design of the stores, used iron beams and pillars to maximise the utilisation of space. He said, “The length of a barrel of beer became the unit of measurement upon which all the arrangements of this floor were made.”
Bass were not alone in storing beer in the undercroft – the beer stores of Burton brewer Thomas Salt dominated the huge eastern façade of St Pancras. At this point, Salt was Burton’s fourth biggest brewer, producing 180,000 barrels (51.9 million pints) of IPA and dark Burton Ale per annum. Within a relatively short period Salt was selling most of its beers through the St Pancras stores, which included a sampling room, where potential wholesale customers could taste the beers before they bought them.
Salt’s stores were divided into two parts by railway lines and a rail turntable – a train full of beer arrived from Burton every day. The stores also housed stabling for fifteen dray horses and carts for local deliveries of draft beer. Deliveries to most of London were undertaken by contract hauliers. Salt’s Number 1 Store alone held 5.8 million pints of beer.
What seems strange to us today is that breweries such as Bass and Salt only sold cask beer themselves – they sold beer for bottling to specialist bottling firms, who matured it for 9 months (for local consumption) or a year (for export – much of it to India) and then “ripened” the beer in bottle for a further 3 months, before packing it in crates and selling it wholesale.
Salt’s beer was bottled by Moody & Co., whose premises were in the St Pancras undercroft, next to Salt’s stores. Salt sold casks of draft beer themselves for delivery all over London.
Bass’ beers were bottled by the two largest London bottling firms, Read & Co. and Fosters, both of whom had bottling works and warehousing nearby in St Pancras and the Marylebone Rd. Fosters were Bass’ biggest single customer, frequently giving them orders, in the late 1860’s, of up to £70,000 worth of beer – a colossal amount.
This system of distribution through third parties lasted only a relatively short time, being replaced by the tied-house system. Thomas Salt failed to acquire a large enough estate of pubs, and got into difficulties, being taken over by their old rivals Bass in 1927.
Next time you pass St Pancras station, consider that once it was among the most impressive beer-related buildings in the World.