The Hand Inn and Robert Roberts, Ruthin's Last Brewer
Gareth Evans Additional images by courtesy of Sue Parry and Phil Jones
Probably the most successful Ruthin businessman of his generation. Robert Roberts worked in Ruthin just before the First World War and is now little known. This is also the history of a small local inn, built in Stuart times. It became the largest brewery in Ruthin and probably also the last.
In the late 1680s, on Well Street in Ruthin, the Myddeltons built an inn which eventually became The Hand. Stone was obtained from local quarries or from the walls of Ruthin Castle and timber from the forests around the town. Slates would be carried into Ruthin from Bwlch yr Oernant. The house cost £318.
On the death of tenant, John Wynne, surgeon, in 1720 the Hand was of two storeys with a cellar and garrets in the loft. The upper floor had two chambers. There were barrels, glass bottles and 43 gallons of drink in his cellar and a beer house with brewing equipment. This stone Hand has disappeared. Taken down to the ground floor it was rebuilt in brick in 1870 on top of the Stuart cellars. The stone building lasted under two hundred years.
Surviving glazed tilework advertising Roberts's early ales at the Corporation Arms
The Georgian and Early Victorian Hand
In 1750 the majority of inns etc produced their own beer. Most publicans did not brew their own beer at least after 1850 and were replaced by common brewers.
In 1809 the Hand belonged to the Youde family, a clerical family who had been assembling an estate in and around Ruthin during the eighteenth century. Their principal residence was Plas Madoc outside Ruabon. The Youdes sold it to William Evans in 1809 and he left it to his brothers and sister. The Hand was leased to Thomas Jones, described as a publican, shopkeeper and maltster in 1825 and he ran a public house, a brewery and a shop. Thomas Jones was still there ten years later and his widow, Mary Jones held the Hand until 1848 leaving £2600 in assets to her three young children. This would have been enough to buy the Hand eight times over.
In 1841 the Hand had a kitchen, hall and parlour on the ground floor with three bedrooms above. Each of the ground floor rooms was heated and had tables and chairs to welcome and feed guests. The brewery had a store room for hops, a maltroom, a malt mill and granary. It had a limited range of equipment and had a water cart, a reminder that Ruthin was without water mains.
In 1851 Edward Hughes employed 4 servants, including a maltster; this was a small brewery. In 1861 the property is described as The Hand Public House and Grocers Shop.
The Late Victorian Hand
By the 1870s the sole tax on beer fell on malt, the publican brewer was not able to reach the rate of extraction from malt achieved by common brewers, and maintain a quality product. Furthermore publican brewers could not produce the range of beers all Victorian common brewers attempted to produce – pale, mild and strong ales. There was a massive rise in demand from the rapidly growing working class before 1870 and it was in this benign commercial environment that The Hand prospered.
Above:The expansion of the Hand onto Wynnstay Road 1888. 9th November 1888 Deed of Exchange William Lloyd and John Foulkes. (DRO DD/DM/1854 uncatalogued Robert Roberts collection),
Left: The new Hand buildings on a Roberts advertisement
William Edwards bought the Hand in 1867 when it was already a well established brewery and the property was described as a public house, shop, malt house stable and a garden. He paid £350. William Edwards both owned and occupied the Hand running the brewery.
William Edwards mortgaged the property to pay for the present buildings on site. These were being built in 1870 and were regarded as two buildings. Neither of the earliest maps of Ruthin from 1826 and 1854 show any build-up of outhouses behind the Hand. By the 1874 OS map, a long line of outhouses stretched to the rear of the Hand and included two substantial buildings so Edwards probably created new brewery facilities for himself.
The Hand was purchased by Foulkes and Co for £950 (in 1882); they created a new rear access onto Wynnstay Road in 1888, probably making the movement of raw materials in and beer out much easier and renovated the brewery.
There was a malt kiln to turn barley into malt, steam boilers for heating and The Hand in 1882 could brew only one beer at a time using one malt mill, one mash tub for boiling the water and malt grist mix (called wort), one copper for boiling with hops with a capacity of 36 barrels (allowing 35 gallons each, so 1260 gallons).
The Brewery was always referred to as the Hand Brewery and the public house often as the Vaults.
An 1892 plan shows the Vaults joined to the Hand Brewery frontage building on its lower side.
Left: The Hand Vaults and Robert Roberts dwelling house in 1892. 2nd May 1892 (DRO DD/DM/1854 uncatalogued Robert Roberts collection).
Right: Trimmer was Robert Robert's predecessor at The Hand
In Britain beer consumption peaked in the 1870s and demand then stagnated, but the conditions in Ruthin seem to have allowed enterprising brewers to invest and grow their businesses.
The Hand and its brewery were acquired by Benjamin Trimmer, an experienced brewer, in 1888 who modernised and extended the brewery. He wanted to create a large town brewery. He wanted to draw water from the Ruthin Castle supply which came from a spring at Galchog, a couple of miles west of Ruthin, which ‘was peculiarly adapted to brewing purposes, and that the (Ruthin Water) company's water was not fit for it’. He needed the Council’s consent to lay pipes under the streets to connect the brewery to the Castle supply and he brought down on his head the wrath of the water company and his application was eventually refused.
Trimmer brewed mild and bitter ales and advertised that his speciality was ‘Golden Hop Bitter’ a light family ale. Trimmer died unexpectedly in April 1890 and his brewery was auctioned when it consisted of the brewery, the Vaults and a water manufactury. There were malt kilns, stables and outbuildings but the sale documents are silent on Trimmer’s improvements.
The next owner was Robert Roberts, the owner of the Corporation Arms on Castle Street. He would take Benjamin Trimmer’s business and transform it into a large operation owning several public houses It was marketed as The Hand Brewery; it also traded as The Hand Brewery and Mineral Water Manufactory, which was Trimmers old company.
Robert Roberts was born in Llanfwrog probably at Nant, Bodyngharad where his father was a butcher in 1851. He served at the Castle Hotel for 5 years. By 1871, the family had moved to Mwrog Street, but Robert had left home and was living in Wrexham where he was an assistant to a spirit merchant. He was beginning to learn the trade at which he would excel. He was appointed by Mr William Edwards as manager of thre Hand Brewery and in 1875 became licensee of Corporation Arms. He married Martha Jones of Llwynderw, Llanelidan in 1875.
Roberts developed his brewing skills at the Corporation Arms brewery, which he bought in 1879 when he was 27. He had received a thorough grounding in his chosen trade, which he was to put to good effect By 1884 he was a regular advertiser in the local press. His advertisement remained virtually the same until he ceased trading at the Hand. He initially sold four types of beer – probably all milds - mainly by the barrel in 35, 18, and 9 gallon casks. Roberts was obviously supplying regular bulk orders.
Ffynnon Galchog, Llanfwrog
Following his purchase of the Hand in 1890, Robert Roberts transferred his brewing interests to the Hand where there was more room for expansion and the Corporation Brewery disappears from the press. The brewery at the Corporation Arms is visible on the 1874 OS map as a large building at the west end of the property, but has gone by the 1912 map.
Like Trimmer, he too wished to use Galchog water. There is a surviving memory in the town, that Roberts carried water by cart from the Galchog spring to the Hand in order to brew his beer. If so the most celebrated of Ruthin’s ales was brewed with Galchog water. This is not surprising as Ruthin water came straight off the Silurian rocks above Bathafarn and would be very soft and unsuitable for brewing. At Galchog there is a narrow limestone outcrop, which provides calcium in the water and promote clarity, flavour and stability in the finished beer. Trimmer knew what he was talking about and his successor followed his path, but avoided battles with either the water company or the Borough Council by carrying the water himself.
As the Hand Brewery matured under his ownership the number of mild beers brewed was reduced and a bitter and pale ale were added. Roberts’s flagship brand, ‘Cwrw Hand’ or ‘Hand Ale’ had a longstanding reputation in the area. He produced seasonal beers including his ‘very best ‘October Brews’’ and stronger ales for Winter consumption.
His ales became popular and allowed him to expand his business, improving his equipment and adding new buildings.
By the OS maps of 1912 there has been a significant expansion of the brewery with new buildings across its western boundary and two large buildings on the access to Wynnstay Road. The brewery space had increased by about a third. Additionally, Roberts had bought the adjacent property below the Hand and the brewery had expanded into its rear and gained an extended frontage on Wynnstay Road.
DRO: OS Map 1912. The Hand Brewery is the public house and the adjoining narrow building below it
He was a large employer: The Water Manufactory at the Hand alone employed at least six people.
Left: Workers at the Hand around 1900 when it brewed for a chain of public houses with coopers and barrels and a brick boiler. In the background is the Town Hall, in front of which is the garaging for drays. (private collection).
Benjamin Trimmer had run a common brewery dependent on sales from the mainly independent public houses in the area. Roberts had a different business model and ploughed much of the brewery profit into buying public houses. To the original Corporation and Hand (Vaults) he added the Feathers, and the Black Horse on St Peter’s Square, both acquired in 1896-7. He probably owned the Boars Head as well and had a close connection with the Farmers Arms on Mwrog Street and the Royal Oak.
By 1901 he owned five of the 25 Ruthin public houses, the largest owner of tied houses in the town, and had close influence over two others and interests in public houses beyond the town. The Drovers, Rhewl and possibly the White Horse, Hendrerwydd were connected to the Hand and it supplied public houses other than his own such as the White Lion in Denbigh.
Throughout his ownership of the Hand Brewery, Roberts faced competition from other brewers. There were breweries in all the surrounding towns. He also had competition in the town from other breweries. The last of them, the Park Place brewery was sold in December 1918 to Marston’s of Burton.
The Hand seems to have had little difficulty fending off competition from local sources. There are constant references to ‘Robert Roberts (Hand Brewery)’ in the press; whether he was attending a function or a council meeting, he was always identified with the Hand. He seems to be the only local brewer advertising his ales, in fact, as far as the Ruthin media was concerned, he emerges as the only local brewer.
He developed social and political networks across the town and became a person of great influence. He was a member of the Conservative Club, the Ruthin Ratepayers Association, the Borough council and a founder member of an association for the Betterment of Ruthin. The Hand was among the most frequent to offer prizes at the town’s shows and auctions. Together with his weekly advertisement in the Denbighshire Free Press, these kept his brewery and its beers at the forefront of public attention. His networking skills were put to good effect during Ruthin Castle’s Grand Bazaar held to pay for the land on which the County Offices would be built. The great and the good of the whole area were involved and Robert Roberts and his wife, Martha. organised the livestock donations from around the area. They were clearly well known and respected by the local rural community.
The Hand Vaults continued, probably now known as the Hand. The Hand had an access onto Wynnstay Road directly opposite the entrance to the new livestock market. Many a weary farmer would have taken advantage of this. It closed around 1960 but the Corporation, the Boars Head, the Feathers, the Drovers and the Farmers continue to trade as public houses despite the changes in fashion and leisure activities.
Robert Roberts lost his wife, Martha, in early 1918. Both he and she had been members of the Llanfwrog Baptist Chapel. Robert Roberts died in 1923; they had no children and he left £42000. Average land value in the UK in 1926 was £30 per acre and today is around £10,000 so his estate in today’s prices could be worth up to £14 million. He was probably the most successful businessman from Ruthin of his generation.
Robert Roberts had not finished with his community. He made a generous donation of £2000 towards the building of a new Baptist Chapel for Ruthin. This had risen to £3000 with interest by 1935.
The old Llanfwrog chapel was demolished in 1934 and the new chapel was built on Park Road, Ruthin in 1934-1935. The Chapel cost £4450 and its design has been much praised. Remarkably, thanks to Robert Roberts the chapel was opened without debt.
This, more than the few remnants of his business, is probably the best memorial to Robert Roberts whose photograph hangs in the Chapel.
Very well known, he was probably the best known businessman of his generation. He was a brewer and a Baptist. This combination surprises us, but seems not to have been remarked on at the time, possibly because he was Robert Roberts, a Llanfwrog, Ruthinian, who climbed to the top and never forgot his roots.
For further information, see D G Evans, The Hand Brewery, Ruthin, Clwyd Historian, Spring 2017, No 75, 3-18.
The former dray and waggon garage now the Vale of Clwyd Farmers Shop c. 1990
The remnants of the brewery on Wynnstay Road. The Hand’s gable end juts out above the low building.
Capel y Bedyddwyr, Ruthin. Crown Copyright