RUTHIN’S MINERAL WATER INDUSTRY
Arnold Hughes Additional images by courtesy of Sue Parry
Some of the bottle images from this page are from the interesting website: http://www.codds-n-odds.co.uk/ and I am grateful to Mr. Keith Morris for permission to reproduce them here.
Other images are by courtesy of Sue Parry.
For much of the nineteenth century and during the first half of the twentieth, Ruthin was renowned for its mineral water bottling industry. It all started in 1825, when Robert Ellis, previously a druggist on the Market Square, became the first person to begin extracting, aerating and bottling high-quality water from artesian beds beneath the town in Mwrog Street.
Ellis’ Table Water Company promoted its products with its familiar Prince of Wales feathers, ‘Cymru am Byth’ (‘Wales for Ever’) motto and Welsh mountain goat logo; an emblem which would be copied and be the cause of an unsuccessful legal battle with the rival Ruthin Soda Water Company (Cambrian), established in 1864 on Park Road. Whereas the Ellis’ goat stood on all four legs, the Cambrian goat reared up on its hind legs. It had a different Welsh motto, as well, ‘Gwlad Rydd a Mynydd I Mi’ (Free land and Mountain for Me’).
There was a third, smaller mineral water bottler in Ruthin, as well, the Hand Mineral Water Bottling Company in Well Street.
Ellis’s was the more successful of the two major companies, opening a brand-new bottling plant in 1856, employing nearly 60 people, just as its rival was set-up. Using the most modern equipment available, a skilled worker could fill up to 2,500 bottles a day. Employment in both works approached nearly a hundred by the late nineteenth century, in response to local, national and even international demand for aerated bottled mineral water and other drinks, such as potas, lithnia, ginger ale, seltzer water and champagne lemonade! Both companies enjoyed royal patronage following visits by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, while staying at Ruthin Castle. Perhaps this explains their success against rival companies in Caernarfon, Bangor, Llandudno and Wrexham.
Ownership of Ellis’ had passed to Robert’s two sons, Richard Gregson and Saxon Gregson, on his death and the profits from the enterprise enabled them to buy Plas Newydd in Mwrog Street and turn it into the second most grand residence in Ruthin (second only to Ruthin Castle itself), which even listed a butler in the 1851 census. From local accounts, the Ellis family were enlightened employers; socially prominent; and active in charitable causes. Robert Ellis was elected mayor in 1855, while Richard Gregson served in the same capacity on five occasions, and laid the foundation stone of the new Town Hall in 1863. Saxon Gregson was prominent in the Ruthin contingent of the Denbighshire Territorial Volunteers, serving as Major. The Anglican Ellis family were also strong supporters of the Conservative party.
The principal shareholder in the rival Cambrian company was the Gee family of Denbigh; politically miles apart from the Ellis family. They were at the centre of Liberal nonconformist and Welsh nationalist activities in the Vale of Clwyd. Thomas Gee, the patriarch, was both celebrated and condemned for his journalism - Baner ac Amserau Cymru, the leading Welsh-language publication in the area - and his political activities, including leadership of the Anti-Tithe League in the 1880s. Perhaps, because of these many other activities, and his advancing years, Gee was not a successful chairman of the Cambrian Works and, during his tenure, the company flagged. It picked up later, when his son replaced his octogenarian father in the early 1880s; even so, the company ran into terminal difficulties by 1906, when it went into receivership and was bought out by a Rhyl entrepreneur, John Cropper. In 1942-45, part of the Cambrian premises was used by the Lang Pen Company, based principally in the old Ruthin Gaol, to produce munitions.
Both companies benefited from a strong increase in demand for bottled mineral water during the nineteenth century; in part helped by the rise of the Temperance Movement, leading to a demand for non-alcoholic beverages. The development of railways and steam shipping, and the expansion of empire, further enabled both companies to find markets beyond their own localities. Later still, more efficient motor transport replaced horse-drawn carts for local deliveries.
Ellis’s, as well as the Cambrian, went into sharp decline in the decades after World War II and both were bought out by larger companies from north-west England. In their final years, they were nothing more than transport depots.
Ellis's artesian wellhead in Maes Ffynnon is now marked by a fine Acer.
The Cambrian Works
Ellis’s was acquired by Jewson and Brown of Manchester and a Preston company bought Cambrian. By 1969, the Ellis site had been cleared but not developed. By then, the Cambrian had premises on both sides of Park Road on the junction with Prior Street; and, as late as 1972, it sought permission to extract 100,000 gallons of water a day from its borehole; yet it had also closed down by 1975. A few decades longer and they would have cashed in on the new craze for bottled water.Instead, the premises of both companies were totally eradicated when sold for house-building and commercial use in the 1970s – Ellis’ became the Maes Ffynnon estate and the original Cambrian site turned into housing and Richard Williams, builders’ merchant, acquired the land on the other side of Park Road. Yet both well-heads, where the water was drawn, survive; there is a memorial tablet in Maes Ffynnon and, during the Millennium celebrations of 2000, samples of Cambrian’s artesian water, on Richard Williams’ premises, were made available for the public to taste.
See also: Tim Jones (Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, 1996). David Williams (Ruthin Local History Broadsheet, 1968).
This article appeared initially in Town and Around, published by the Ruthin and District Civic Association.