‘You had to set the place on fire to get the sack!’ – Documentary looks at life in London’s breweries

By Matthew Trinder
November 11 2019, 15.25

The memories of workers from three of west London’s legendary breweries are to be shown in a documentary screening in Wandsworth this week.

‘Brewing Stories’ features recollections from draymen, master brewers, stable hands, packers and others who worked at the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, the Ram in Wandsworth and the Stag in Mortlake.

Matthew Rosenberg, project co-ordinator with educational charity digital:works, which provides training and creative assistance to community arts projects, said: “We focus on exploring London’s industrial heritage, and we felt this project was very interesting, very important and very doable as we managed to contact a number of ex-workers on social media who were keen to contribute.”

The Ram, in operation since 1533 and home to Young’s since the 19th century, closed in 2006 with the Stag, run by Watney’s, following in 2015.

Fuller’s Griffin brewery is still open, but it’s brewing division was sold to Japanese beer and soft drink company Asahi earlier this year.

Mr Rosenberg said: “The brewing industry in general was good and avoided much of the strike action which paralysed other industries in the 1970s.”

Secure work was another stabilising factor. “It was said at Young’s that you had to set the place on fire to get the sack!” he added.

Life at the breweries was of course not perfect. Bottler Denise Annon emphasises in the documentary how women, who largely worked in that department or accounts, had to fight for equal pay.

“They [management] said ‘If you can put a case together, to say that you women work the same as the men, then we’ll consider it’,” she said in the film.

After proving their worth, the female bottlers were awarded equal pay.

The atmosphere started to change in the 1980s when a focus on maximising profits coincided with a loss of affordable homes, particularly council housing, which saw workers disperse and the traditional social bonds that held them together disappear. 

“If you live five or ten minutes from your place of work, you can stay and socialise after work, but if you have an hour’s commute you can’t,” Mr Rosenberg said.

Despite this, Derek Prentice, who worked for both Young’s and Fuller’s, told the documentary: “I loved every day of it…I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world, and I would never have left if it hadn’t have closed.”

Digital:works trained volunteers in research techniques and oral history interviewing skills to realise the project with the support of Fuller’s brewery as well as Chiswick Archives, Wandsworth Heritage Service and Richmond Local Studies Centre, which all allowed volunteers access to the original documents they hold such as photographs and building plans.

A spokesperson for the Richmond centre confirmed they were happy to play a part adding: “Projects like these are valuable because they record experiences that would normally be left out of the historical record.”

Unite the Union and the Lottery Heritage Fund also provided financial support.

Stuart McLeod, area director London & south at the Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players we’re pleased to support this project which has provided opportunities for volunteers and young people and captured the voices and histories of an important part of London’s heritage.”

Brewing Stories will be shown at Wandsworth Town Library at 6:30pm on November 14.

Related Articles