Ely Ales & Forehill Brewery – A Brief History

Image: The Original New Story

I recently redesigned the website for Ely Museum and while gathering information I came across the museum exhibits for the Brewery in Forehill and Ely Ales. I have lived in the area all my life and was aware Ely once had a brewery but didn’t realise how important it was to Ely at that time!

While viewing the exhibits I saw a reproduction news article detailing the history and beer making process of the Forehill Brewery when it was owned by Hall, Cutlack and Harlock (It was later owned by East Anglian Breweries) and decided (with the kind permission of Ely Museum) to reproduce it here. The article featured on page 11 of the Ely Standard on 15th April 1938.

The Brewery itself is long gone but if you are interested, it was located at the very bottom of Forehill, to the left, just before the sharp turn into Broad Street.

If you worked there be sure to leave a comment.

Hall, Cutlack & Harlock – Brewers of the famous Ely Ales

The antiquity and fame of Ely Ales dates from the reign of King Henry III.

In 1257 the King commanded the Mayor and Burgesses of King’s Lynn (then know as Lynn Episcopi) to permit the men of Ely to come into the town to sell their beer.

During the period 1700-1750 brewing was carried on by the Hall family on the Quayside, which was then the business quarter of the City, and in 1760 Messrs. George & John Hall Jnr. had a very extensive business.

In 1771 Lohn Harlock bought the lease of the ‘Three Crowns’ Inn and Brewery attached at Quayside, Ely, on December 25, 1771. The ‘Three Crowns’ site is now occupied by the residence of Mrs. Harlock, and the Old Brewery is now storage.

Beer was produced in the monasteries by the monks, and it is quite certain that it was produced at Ely in the Brewhouse near the gateway known as Ely Porta.

Ale or beer was first mentioned several thousand years ago, and Egypt, in the time of Seti I (1300 b.c.), was celebrated for it’s production. Later it is recorded that the methods of the Ancient Britons were improved upon by the Romans.
Beer was produced in the monasteries by the monks, and it is quite certain that it was produced at Ely in the Brewhouse near the gateway known as Ely Porta. The custom has only been discontinued in comparatively recent years, perhaps within the memory of some older people alive today.

A Progressive Firm

The present Company of Hall, Cutlack & Harlock Ltd. has now acquired the capital of Mills Brewery (Wisbech), Ltd., and it is expected that within a very short time every house formerly supplied by the Wisbech Brewery will have the famous Ely Ales on sale, both on draught and in bottle.
Hall, Cutlack & Harlock, Ltd. is a combination of nine brewery concerns as follows:

  • A & B. Hall, Ltd., composed of
  • George & John Hall, Ely.
  • Crown Brewery, Lincoln
  • Cutlack & Harlock, Ltd., composed of
  • F.L. Harlock, Ely
  • W. Cutlack, Littleport
  • Cutlack & Co., Ltd., Peterborough
  • Percy & Co., Soham
  • T.C. Legge, Ely.

It is interesting to note that their houses, numbering about 360, in which Ely Ales can now be obtained, extend from Newmarket to Lincoln.
Familiar indeed are the names of the Directors of this company, and it is very gratifying to recall the Public Services rendered.

Whether it is upon Rural, Urban or County Councils, or Magistrates or Sheriffs, or upon Military Service both in peace and war, or in the political world, each of them has or is giving his help to his county and country.

Their Forehill Brewery, Ely was completely remodelled in 1930, and it is considered to be the finest brewery for its size in the country. Many additions are still being made, and a bottlery, with the best automatic machinery for the handling of the enormous output of bottled ales, will shortly be at work.

The Directors of the Company realise that if good beer is to be produced it must be made of the best malt and hops available. To make such production an accomplished fact, large quantities of the finest Eastern Counties barley are purchased each year and dealt with at their own malting.

The Malting

The malting, in keeping with the rest of the brewery, is completely up-to-date in every respect. It contains barley screening, drying and elevating machinery, malt bins and malt cleaning machinery.
Malting, of course, cannot be carried out in really hot weather. The barley, when screened, passes to large tanks known as ‘steeps’ in which it is soaked (with changes of water) for nearly 60 hours. It is then run out on the floors, and the grain begins to chit. Meanwhile the blade begins to grow, but must not penetrate the husk. Internal changes are also taking place, and in about 12 days (during which it has frequently been turned over) it is ready to load up on the drying kiln under which is a furnace. An electric fan in the roof assists in getting away the vapour.

Slowly heated, the grain know as ‘green malt’ is hand dry in two days, and the heat is increased until about the third or fourth day, when it is cured and dried off. The curing process is the one which decides the colour and flavour of the malt.

Malts are high dried for mild and dark ales, and pale for pale ales.
The value of the malt depends largely upon the skill and attention of the maltster in looking after his floors and temperatures.

The Brewhouse

The brewhouse itself is worth a visit from anyone who wishes to see a modern and spotlessly clean plant and building. This ornamental building was erected in 1871. Vast changes have been made internally, and in 1930 the whole of the interior was removed and what amounts to a new building in steel and concrete has taken its place. White and green enamelled walls, girders, etc, make it look very pleasing. Various kinds of vessels are show to advantage, and one realises that as regards this company no expense has been spared and that every care is taken in each operation to ensure that the beer produced is a pure, wholesome and invigorating beverage.

Image: The Brewhouse

Very briefly the cycle of operations is as follows:

The required amount of malt for the brew is taken from the malt store, which is a closed heated room (to avoid the malt taking up moisture) and shot into a bin.
From this bin it is elevated to the screen for cleaning which commands a malt mill where the malt is ground. The ground malt, known as ‘grist’ falls into the grist case. The mashing operation then follows.
About 6 a.m. the grist is mixed with hot water at the required temperature, and in a suitable amount, by a machine.
The resulting mixture, looking rather like porridge, falls into the mash tun where it is stirred by mechanical rakes.
The mash tun has a gunmetal false bottom with very fine slits sawn in the plates, the object of which is to facilitate the drawing off of the fluid (now know as ‘wort’) from the husks in the mash tun

The wort is then run into a pressure copper, where the hops are added and the hopped wort boiled under a pressure of 2lb. for roughly two hours. At the end of this period the copper is emptied into another vessel with a false bottom of gunmetal plates and after allowing the hops to settle the hopped wort is drawn off bright and pumped to the cooling machine (paraflow) at the top of the brewery. After being cooled in the paraflow, with no chance whatsoever of coming into contact with the outside air, it passes to the fermenting vessel; the yeast is added and fermentation starts.

In the fermenting vessel the total gallons of beer made is gauged by the Officer of Customs and Excise, and the vessel may not be emptied before it is gauged and recorded. It should be noted that a brewer is responsible for giving 24 hours notice to brew and for entering up all the materials from which the beer is to be made before mashing operation takes place. In fact, the Excise Officer has a key to the building so that he can inspect at any hour he wishes, and the entire operation is open to inspection by the Customs and Excise from start to finish.
The Beer Duty payment is assessed upon each brew, depending upon amount and strength, and at the present time is £4 per standard barrel compared with 7s. 9d. in pre-war days. At the moment unfortunately, cheaper beer does not seem at all likely.

During fermentation, which may take from 5 to 7 days, the yeast has multiplied and floats to the top of the beer, and is removed by a vacuum pump. The best yeast is selected for future brewing and placed in its own cold store and the remainder pressed up and sent away to be sold. The beer is then run into casks by means of a machine, and the casks stored in the cellars. The casks, have of course, previous to this have been carefully washed and steamed internally to ensure they are clean and fit to store the beverage.

A short storage in the cellars enables the beer to get into a condition fit to send out to the houses, mild ales generally take less time to mature than pale. Beer in cask when served in good condition is considered by many to be much superior to bottles beer and constitutes by far the larger proportion of the output of this brewery.

From the cellars the casks are hoisted by an elevator on to a loading stage, loaded into lorries and delivered to the company’s houses where it is hoped, it will be appreciated by the consumer.

The Bottling Department

Image: Ely Ales

High taxation, the cause of the present high price of beer and the change in the habits of the population to-day, has resulted in a large turnover to bottled beers instead of small casks.

This applies to Ely Brewery as well as well as every other brewery, with the result that large and costly additions had to be made to the bottlery of the Forehill Brewery. The very modern bottling department contains the latest machinery for bottling Ely Ales. It consists of an extensive conditioning room from which, when mature, the beers are moved into the cold rooms for storage until required. Both conditioning room and cold room are temperature regulated, the former at 60 F., and the latter at 33 F. The tanks used for storage are solid copper and glass lined steel.

From the cold room the beer is filtered, bottles, crown corked (or stoppered), pasturised and labelled. There are various ingenious machine involved in these essential processes.

Bottle-washing — a very important process owing to the misuse to which some of the bottles are subjected — is done on machines which spray out dregs, soak in hot detergent, rinse, spray internally and externally both with the detergent and clean water, after which, cool and clean, they pass to the bottling machine.

The result of this care is shown by the fact that Ely Ales & Stout will keep for an almost indefinite period.

Power and Light

It is interesting to recall that at the Quay Brewery at Ely many years ago, gas for lighting was produced in a small private gas works, but that was over-indulgence on the part of the gas man so frightened the owner (Mr. E.W. Harlock) that he demolished his gas works and proceeded to generate electric current by an ingenious arrangement of the primary batteries. This was successful but also expensive, but when one of the acid pots bust on the head of his son, an electric dynamo was installed, driven by a steam engine, and was one of the earliest electrical installations in the country.

It is interesting to recall that at the Quay Brewery at Ely many years ago, gas for lighting was produced in a small private gas works

Considerable progress has been made since those days, and at Forehill Brewery to-day there are two sets of Bellis and Morcom high speed steam engines direct coupled to dynamos for power and light.

The exhaust steam from these engines which work out on the ‘pass out’ system, leaves at pressure and is used for boiling the water in preparation for the next day’s brew. It is also used for making a continual supply of hot water for cask washing, etc., and for heating the buildings when necessary.

Image: The Dynamos

The power used in a brewery to-day has increased so much owing to the more general use of machinery for ice making, water cooling and beer bottling, that to use the steam plant alone much of the steam would be blown to waste. To obviate this, two diesel Garnder crude oil engines direct coupled to dynamos have been installed, which can be work independently or in conjunction with the steam sets. The required load can be systematically adjusted. Each machine has its own motor, belting and shafting being avoided, thereby bringing a considerable saving. When the dynamos are idle, lighting is provided by electrical storage batteries.

The maintenance of so much plant and machinery naturally calls for expert supervision, and a workshop fitted with lathes, drills, forge etc., is provided, where mechanical and electrical repairs and replacements are efficiently dealt with.

Wines, Spirits and Aerated Waters

In addition to the brewing and malting, attention must be called to the very extensive wine and spirit business carried on, and to the very fine quality supplied.
There is also a large Mineral Water factory with the most modern machinery all electrically driven, situate at the Quayside Brewery.


A firm of this size naturally has to expend a great deal upon repairs, a large part that is put out to contract.
There is however a very up to-date repairs department, concisting of carpenters shop, complete with sawing and planing machinery, blacksmiths shop and paint shop, which is responsible for a conciderable proportion of the work involved.

71 replies
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  1. Barbara Kippax
    Barbara Kippax says:

    We owned Anchor House in Stuntney until about 9 years ago. I am interested in discovering some of its history and know it once was an Ely Ales house as the pub sign hung in the house (don’t know if the present owners still have it) Does anyone know how to go about researching the owners/licensees of closed pubs?

  2. William Craven
    William Craven says:

    My Great Grandfather, Robert Lound Craven worked at the Forhill Brewery until he was in his early 90’s, he died shortly afterwards. I believe he was Head Brewer at the time.
    Although he came from Kings Lynn he worked at different brewery’s all over the country before settling in Ely. The only Brewery left he worked for today is Arkells of Swindon.

  3. Ben Wilby
    Ben Wilby says:

    Great information. I have an ancestor Richard STEARN who is listed on his daughter’s marriage certificate in 1869 as being a Brewer, he was from Ely, is there any way of discovering which Brewery he worked at? Are their any records from that period? Any info would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    My grandfather, Ernest Sidney Bryant, worked at the Brewery in the 1920s until his suicide in 1932. Family memory is that he was a drayman, presumably a lorry driver. (During the Great War he served in the Army Service Corps as a driver). He was probably working there when the major works were done in 1930. If anyone has pictures of the time please drop me a line, or any records of the brewery.

  5. Sara Lanctot
    Sara Lanctot says:

    We have and Ely Ale sign. On the bottom Brilliant Sign Company of England. Can you give us any informtion on this sign and if it has any value.

    Thank you

  6. Robin Lupson
    Robin Lupson says:

    Hi, my son has just found a complete hall, cutlack and harlock beer bottle, the bottle has raised letters around the base and the original stopper which has the company logo embossed on it.

  7. Julie Nunn
    Julie Nunn says:

    My Lt. Grandfather John Henry Nunn (known as Jack) and nis son my Lt. Father John Robert Nunn both worked at the brewery on Forehill. My Dad worked there until he got married in 1963 and moved to Gt. Yarmouth. I remember him telling me that he was delivering beer on the dray lorries the day before he was married.

    Getting to work was easy to them as they lived opposite on the Corner of Broad Street, the houses are no longer there.

    If any one knew either my Grand-Dad or Dad I’d love to hear.

  8. David Davies
    David Davies says:

    I have a coin commemerating Queen Elizabeth II coronation. It also has ELY BREWERY 1853 – 1953 on the reverse. Is this of any relevance to you?

  9. Tom4728
    Tom4728 says:

    I went metal detecting today and found a silver coin/token with ELY Ales For strengthh and stamina written on the one side. The other side has YOU PAY with a arrow or what looks like a compass needle In between the two words. I cant find any info online and what to find out what it is any info would be appreciatedd thanks.

  10. michael hunt
    michael hunt says:

    My Uncle was wines and sprits manager I believe in the ’60s at the Forehill site his name was Bill Lupson and his Dad my, Grandad worked there in ’40-60s bert lupson they lived in a brewery house in Station Rd.

  11. Paul Hickman
    Paul Hickman says:

    Hi Kay. If you give me name/surname details I will try to find your ancestors in the 1930s trade directories and electorial lists.

  12. Kay
    Kay says:

    Hi, I am trying to track down my family tree and believe that two generations of the family could possibly have worked at the lincoln site! I know this is a long shot but I don’t supose anyone knows if any employment records from 1930 are still in existence?

  13. Sam
    Sam says:

    I found an old Ely beer bottle whilst walking in east sussex. Thanks to you I now know it’s history….and how old the bottle is. A rather early one by the looks of it.

  14. Frank Williams
    Frank Williams says:

    I remember those Happy Days Also. I worked at the Ely brewery under the leadership of John Broad and David Summerson untill its closure, I was then transfered to Ushers Brewery Trowbridge Wiltshire, I became Senior Brewer, and retired 2000 when the brewery closed. Happy Memories.

  15. John Broad
    John Broad says:

    Most interesting to read of the history of Forehill Brewery. I was Head Brewer 1963/67 when it taken over by Steward and Patteson Brewery, Norwich. In 1966 S&P themselves were purchased by Watneys and I moved again as Head Brewer to their brewery at Alton, Hants which also suffered closue as a brewery and became a Distribution Centre in 1971. The Assistant Brewer at Ely David Summerson, took over until the sad closure in 1967. The brewer’s house was the adjacent and lovely family home Vineyard House in The Vineyards… Happy Days.

  16. Stuart Smart
    Stuart Smart says:

    We run a pub which we believe was built by the Ely brewery and we are trying to find out more on the history of the pub, especially the early years – do you know if the museum has old records, or can you point us to anyother source of information

  17. terry lynch
    terry lynch says:

    whilst clearing my parents loft i found a 24 set of royal portraits issued in coronation year 1953. on the back of these cards they say with the compliments of the ely brewery co ltd cardiff. Can anyone tell me weather these cards hold any value.

  18. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Great Website but would u be able to give any information on the temple bar which was named the Crawshay Arms as im doing resaerch on the history of this pub if so thank you x

  19. Paul Staniforth
    Paul Staniforth says:

    I read with interest the account of the brewery and in particular it’s own private gas works. As the author of “Can you Smell Gas?, a history of the Ely Gas Company”, I am especially interested in this aspect of the brewery. There were over 2,000 gas works of many types during the countries history many of them private ones and the early types did not use coal as their source fuel. What more is known about the brewery gas works and is a date for its construction known? The town gas works was built in 1835 so I guess the brewery plant might most likely be before this date. Anyone know? My father Claude Staniforth by the way was manager of the Ely works.

  20. Peter Edwards
    Peter Edwards says:

    I have recently found a bottle (Brown) with ‘A&B Hall Ltd. Ely and Lincoln’ embossed. The bottle has a screw top but the thread is on the inside of the neck. On the bottom of the bottle it has B685UGB s1928. Is this any interest to you?

  21. freda
    freda says:

    Can anyone tell me if there is any connection with the Hall, Cutlack & Harlock Brewers to William Cutlack, father of Susan Cutlack, born about 1810 in Littleport. She went on to marry William Flanders in 1830. I am afraid I have no more details on William Cutlack at all! Any help very much appreciated
    email : fredasmith@ntlworld.com

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