Today you might know ginger beer as a carbonated drink that is flavoured primarily with ginger and then sweetened with sugar (or now often with artificial sweeteners) but did you know that originally it was an alcoholic beverage fermented from ginger spice, yeast and sugar.
Brewed ginger beer originated in Yorkshire in the mid-18th century and became popular throughout Britain, with soldiers exporting the taste to the United States, Ireland, South Africa and Canada. It reached its peak of popularity in the early 20th century as a largely carbonated drink.
Back then there were many manufacturers and distributors throughout England and it may interest you to know that we had such a manufacturer could be found here in the village of Spooner Row, at a shop located at the bottom of Queen’s Street. The firm of Corston’s owes its origin to one Harriet Corston, who had set up a cottage industry brewing ginger beer at Spooner Row sometime between 1879 and 1883. It was then that Harriet began making “Olde Style Brewed Ginger Beer” in a warehouse next to her shop.
She made the ginger beer from sugar, crushed ginger, sliced lemons, and egg white. There was none of today’s preservatives, or additives, and not an E number in sight. The initial mix was fermented with yeast for about 12 hours, and then passed through a swansdown filter bag into an open earthenware pot. When it was ready to be bottled the ‘bottler’ dipped a half pint jug into the pot, and poured the liquid into stone bottles. These were corked, tied with string, and stacked in a corner to mature before being sold.
Of course, the stone bottles, now collector’s items, were returned for reuse. To ensure that the bottles were clean, they were placed in the copper, covered with water, and brought nearly to the boil. Getting them onto the draining board needed skill, a short iron poker, pointed at one end, was inserted into the mouth of each bottle, to lift it out. This thriving cottage industry was a typical example of those found in rural areas in the late 19th century, with local women providing the labour force.
By 1890 her son Jonathan had taken over the brewing side, leaving Harriet to manage the shop. A few years later he moved the operation to Waterloo House in Bunwell Street where he was also to trade as a family grocer, draper and general warehouse man. Trade went well and in 1898 Jonathon Corston bought an Aerated Water business from George Tattam of Attleborough. His purchase included all of the machinery, amongst which was a steam engine, and a Ginger Beer machine. There were also 6 syrup pans with strap; filters; a ginger beer press; and lead pipes and fittings. I don’t know the EEC would make of that!. To complete the equipment were 300 dozen bottles, essence and labels. Also included was a cart and harness but no mention of a horse. This and more cost the grand total of £45. Mr Tattam agreed not to start a similar business within a 12 mile radius.
It is Jonathan Corston that is first listed in Kelly’s Directory as Grocer and Draper at the Post Office in Bunwell Street in 1892. By 1900 he was also listed as a Mineral Water Manufacturer and continued thus until the 1908 edition.
Regular deliveries of pop were made to Attleborough, Banham, Mulbarton and other nearby villages, using, of course, the horse and cart. Jonathon, a modern day tycoon, continued to expand his business. In 1902 he acquired the business of Parker & Son, which included their premises on Browick Road, Wymondham. Parkers had been established as a grocers and drapers based at Browick Road in Wymondham, going back as far as 1809. Jonathan changed the name to J Corstons & Co and merged the beer and lemonade parts of the business into a single location, choosing to erect a new factory at Wymondham and equipping it with state of the art machinery. Keeping the manager Mr.J. Cross as a partner, and changing the name to ‘J.Corston & Co.’ he moved the Bunwell operation to the new factory at Browick Road. The range of pop widened, the popularity of it and the ginger beer continued to grow, so new machinery was installed and deliveries were extended as far as the horse drawn vehicles would allow.
The business flourished up until Jonathan died in January 1919, soon after the Great War and it was taken over by his son Wesley Corston. Ginger Beer and other fizzy drinks continued to be popular, the factory was extended, more machinery installed. With the need for deliveries further afield, and the pace of the modern world, the horse drawn vehicles was replaced. First deliveries were by van, and then by lorry. Deliveries were made to Norwich daily (fresh pop obviously being the best), and more than half of Norfolk was covered in total. The firm ceased to produce soft drinks in 1977. His only child, a daughter trained to be a doctor, expressing no interest in continuing to run the family business. So after 3 generations, Corston & Co. was sold to Palmer & Harvey who subsequently resold the premises for use as a milk depot. There is thus no trace of ginger beer in Spooner Row or Wymondham anymore. After more than 60 years in the soft drink trade Wesley Corston retired, aged 92, in 1980.
Mr W Corston and his wife were regular attendees at the Methodist Chapel on Chapel Road up until his death in 1979, aged 92. Wesley appears to have had an interesting life in that the National Archive Centre at Kew holds a record of a Wesley Corston of the same date of birth registered as an “airman” between 1918 and 1928.
A reminder of Corstons today can be found in the glass bottles that bear their name. Those bottles manufactured for Bunwell (circa 1893 – 1902) bear the name “J. CORSTON BUNWELL”, with many having an internal stopper. Later bottles bear the name of “J. CORSTON WYMONDHAM”. The ginger beer would be held in stoneware. There is also reference made to soda water siphons printed with the name of the Bunwell Company. The metal topped soda siphons were made by British Syphon Co Ltd of London and branded back to the retailer by way of its name etched onto the main glass body and its name engraved into the metal collar. Later designs used both black and then white plastic for the valve body.
And if you ever wondered how they filled an internal stopper bottle, well it is filled upside down! The Codd-neck bottle, invented by Hiram Codd in 1872, had a marble and rubber washer enclosed within the neck. As it was filled upside down the marble stopper was kept in place by the pressure of the gas in the bottle when turned right side up.
Many thanks to Peter Day of Bunwell for the Bunwell side of this story, whilst thanks to Alison Peters for the original research.