By Tim Holt
Brewery History, Issue 114 (Spring 2004)
Introduction: On Saturday, July 26th 1834 an unusual meeting took place in London at the Silver Cup public house. So many people attended that the heat became unbearable and hundreds spilled out onto the pavements eventually blocking the road. Before its close a rather extraordinary resolution was passed, all workers in the metropolis were urged to stop drinking beer produced by the Combe and Delafield brewery.
The origins of the boycott lie in a wage strike called by the Journeymen Coopers of London early in 1834. On the 1st February, after giving two week’s notice, the coopers laid down their tools. Unlike their fellow cask makers in the provinces, who were employed directly by the brewers and worked in-house, the vast majority of London coopers worked for independent manufacturers, the Master Coopers – those few that were in the pay of the breweries mainly carried out repair and cleaning work (Mathias 1959: 54). The Journeymen Coopers argued that the volume of work had grown over the previous ten years; specifically, both the size and the strength of the casks they made had increased. At first the employers refused the demand for more pay, stating that although wages had not literally increased, they had done so in real terms as the cost of living had decreased over the decade. However, after four weeks had passed it appears that the Master Coopers could see no end to the dispute and accordingly were persuaded to sanction a pay rise.
Then events took an unforeseen twist; the Government had become aware of the situation and decided to intervene. In a speech to the House of Commons in early March the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir James Graham, argued that an increase in wages would inevitably lead to an increase in the price of casks. This, in turn, would be very damaging to British shipping interests as they would be more open to cheaper, foreign competition (The Times, 4 March 1834). Graham also accused the Journeymen Coopers of intimidating their employers into not taking on more workers (or apprentices), so that production could not increase and prices fall. Furthermore, he had obtained signed statements from the principal coopers of five major London brewers – Barclay and Perkins, Truman, Hanbury and Buxtons, Whitbread and Co., Hoare and Co. and Taylor and Co. – asserting that no changes in the size or strength of casks had occurred (although another speaker alleged that the principal coopers had been compelled to sign the documents by their managers). To alleviate the effects of the strike the Admiralty supplied the Master Coopers with 50 butts and 200 hogsheads from His Majesty’s Victualling Office in Deptford at a cost of 1s 8d when the standard price was 2s 4d.