Until the middle of the nineteenth century most water was unsafe to drink. Our public supplies of clean water today are the result of numerous outbreaks of cholera and typhoid that prompted the Victorians to invest in water supply infrastructure.
Most people, even children, drank beer, a safe alternative to water. Large houses such as Heaton had long brewed their own beer to provide drink for the household; not just for the family but also for the many servants who lived in the house. Some houses had a separate brew house, but most had the beer brewed within the house. Since there are no records of a separate brewhouse at Heaton we must assume the beer was brewed in the west wing. (shown below)
Three strengths of beer were normally produced. The first mash resulted in a strong ale that was usually bottled and put away for special occasions. After the first brew had been drawn off the mash, extra malt would be added and a second brew made, the result being a medium strength ale. Finally the mash would be used for a third time, this time with no extra malt, and this would produce what was called table beer or small beer, a much weaker brew for everyday use, by adults and children alike.
Brewing was often done in the winter months, between November and March, and a master brewer would be brought in for the occasion to oversee the work. A letter dated to September 1810 is request for the services of a brewer employed by David Claughton of Haydock Lodge; ‘Sir, My Lord Wilton’s tenant Thomas Widdows of Kenyon called upon me some days ago to ask my permission for the Brewer at Haydock Lodge to go to Heaton to brew for his Lordship….. I have only to beg you will inform me how soon the Brewer will be wanted and for what length of time..’
It would seem that Lord Wilton preferred his own Heaton beer to that in London. As an MP he spent much of his time living in London. In 1775 he wrote to his agent at Heaton, William Rogers, ‘…. I have heard nothing to the two barrels of beer that were sent to town before I left home, as they were consigned to Mr. Whittaker at Liverpool. Pray write to him to know whether he heard anything of them and by what ship he forwarded them to London…’
A letter dated January 1777 is a reply sent to Heaton about a request to purchase ale casks from Thomas Whittaker of Liverpool.
‘Sir, I am favoured with your of the 3rd Inst and observe Sir Thomas is in want of 8 or 10 ale casks of large size for the purpose of holding ale. Staves and casks have for the year or two past been so very scarce and dear that all the old pipes and hogsheads have been bought up for the use of the shipping and I do not think they would suit your purpose, being very slender and indifferently made; so they would not last long in a Gentleman’s cellar, besides the risk you run of having the drink spoiled by them. If Sir Thomas would choose to have casks that will endure I would recommend it to him to buy a quantity of the best oak pipes and staves and get them made up by a cooper at his own House. The staves before they are worked ought to be boiled for a considerable time, and afterwards dried upon a kiln. When the casks are made they should be repeatedly filled with boiling water and that continue for some time till the sap be entirely taken out. By this means the ale cannot possibly be affected. Before the casks are used they should be well painted on the outside and under the hoops before they are driven on. And by continuing to do this as often as the casks are empty, you will find the wood will endure as long as the hoops. If Sir Thomas be not in immediate want I would advise him to defer laying in a stock of casks a year or two, as staves have never been dearer than at present.’
Sir Thomas, of course, was Lord Wilton’s title before he receive a peerage. The statement referring to the shortage of casks and the steep rise in prices of barrel staves, and much existing stock having been ‘bought up for the shipping’, along with the date 1777, would point to the effect of war and an expansion of the navy, the war with the American colonies having begun the year before; with the French support for the Americans meaning that Britain was now also at war with France.