Foxearth Brew is an account of a mystery, and its solution. It is a remarkable work that can be enjoyed for several reasons. Richard Morris, an investigative journalist by profession, sets about the task of recounting the history of one of East Anglia's most famous brewers in an easy style that keeps the interest of the reader alive. He also ends up producing an intriguing record of a journalist who delves into the recent history of the parish where he lived, and discovered, to his surprise a story that had all of the impact and human interest of tabloid journalism. Even a subject apparently unpromising as Victorian industrial enterprise turns out to be full of human emotion. History is not intrinsically dull at all, unless we go out of our way to contrive it to be so; and this book shows how exciting a historical quest can be, particularly when it involves a cast of Victorian worthies who intrigued, schemed, lost their tempers, were occasionally violent and deceitful, showed tungsten determination and startling libidos. It is apparent from the book that they were also able, well informed and surprisingly well-travelled, and when extraordinary demands were made on them, they showed courage, nobility and selflessness. Foxearth Brew brings to life these astonishing characters.
One can sense the surprise as Richard Morris researched the book: what was a vicar doing closing down the local brewhouse, apparently to stamp out vice in the parish, only to become the covert investor in a brewery? What was the nature of the close relationship between the vicar and the young, handsome son of a brewer? What was behind the accusations of rape against the vicar, and the counter-accusations of the running of a brothel? Why did the vicar and his brother purchase almost every house in the village? What triggered the poisonous quarrel between the wealthy farmer and the priest? Richard must have rubbed his eyes in disbelief over the extraordinary dispute over the gravestone that led to the midnight exhumation of a body, and accusations of sacrilege and body stealing. Imagine his surprise when coming across the account of a prosecution of an arrogant and pompous local farmer for 'indecency in church'? Did the rector really 'purchase' his second wife? Richard needed to get behind these stories to work out what was really going on behind the sober respectability of the Victorian age so he could then bring life into these long-dead people. And how well he succeeds in the book, for he describes passions, and a clash of cultures, so intense that an industrial enterprise was born, which went on to become a household name for three generations.
Foxearth is an extraordinary village. It was once as poor and as decayed as many a north-Essex village. Then, for just over a century, it became the busy headquarters of a pioneering brewery that rapidly achieved national celebrity. Now it has lapsed once more into its rural quiet, but its brief prosperity marks it out as different, in the same way that the wool trade marked Lavenham and Glemsford, and the weavers stamped their mark on Sudbury. Its prosperous solid houses glow with the deep umber of the local brick, and fine stone walls line the roads, showing a far richer architecture than the villages around.
The story of how this transformation happened is startling. It veers from the comical, through the tragic, to the noble and then finally descends to the pathetic. Most of all, it illustrates the energy, ingenuity and perseverance of the family that ran the business for three generations. It is a fascinating story that grows more incredible the closer one looks at it.
Foxearth was a poor bleak spot when the dynamic John Foster arrived to take over the post of rector.
The only employers were farmers, most of them hereditary landowners who paid low wages and were used to getting their way. John Foster and his brother were from a northern professional and mercantile family; wealthy, shrewd and passionate. John Foster was a follower of Cardinal Newman, a high churchman who set about rebuilding the church so that the interior became ablaze with iconography, and illuminated texts, and infused with incense. Not content with this, he and his brother bought land, and ended up owning and redeveloping most of the village. The rectory was rebuilt in magnificent style. He funded the school from his own munificent pocket.
There was soon a clash between the farming ascendancy and the new firebrands. The papers soon buzzed with talk of Sacrilege, grave-robbing, indecency and rape. The rector emerged victorious, but his theological career never recovered. Instead, he and his brother swore that the village would no longer be dependent on a handful of farmers for employment, and invested instead in industry.
Rev. Foster had become closely involved with an able and dedicated family, the Wards. George had started a brewing business. He was hard-working and determined man with an intelligent wife. They and their son David were keen churchgoers who were steeped in the protestant cultural ethos, but had sympathies with Fosters' high-church leanings. Foster provided the capital, and the Ward family provided the expertise. David, in particular, became like a son to the rector. After his brothers' death John Foster threw his energies into helping the Wards expand the brewery and arrange the necessary capital to expand the business.
The Ward family were remarkable for their resourcefulness and intelligence. When the first war came, the next generation turned into heroes. Both Bernard and his brother, Harold, were daredevil fighter pilots, Bernard achieving and MC and bar before his death in action. Harold was invalided out.
David and Harold became the driving force of the brewery's expansion. It soon towered over the cottages of Foxearth. It became a national concern, with tied houses all over East Anglia. It pioneered new brewing techniques and was one of the first breweries to adopt bottling.
Sadly, the fizz went out of the brew after the Second World War, and by the sixties, the brewery was unable to compete with the huge conglomerates that dominated the industry and used their monopoly to force fizzy brews almost unrecognizable as proper beer on a sullen public. Unfortunately, Wards brewery was destroyed in the bitter take-over wars, before the public found the power to force the remaining breweries to produce proper beer once again. Had it survived a few years longer, like Adnams, to experience better times from a more discerning public taste, Foxearth might still be a hive of industry.
All this and much more is described in a book that goes behind the newspaper stories and documents to pick away at the real truth of what was going on. On finishing the book, one is left wondering if every successful Victorian enterprise contained sagas with the same power to hold the attention. If so, then there will be a great deal of fascination in ferreting them all out.The complete book