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Saturday, 4 August 2012


Extract from the 1847 Post Office Directory for Reading, Berkshire:
Salter, Ebenezer: 15-16 Castle Street, grocer, bacon factor, Marlboro’ ale stores, & agent for Sweetman’s Dublin porter, & agent to the Argus life assurance company

Local grocers these days can also be agents for everything from telecom providers to dry cleaning companies. In 1847, as in 2012, the corner shop offered whatever it took to attract trade and stay in business. Selling insurance was probably a profitable sideline in an age before state welfare payments were introduced – Argus eventually became part of the Sun Alliance Insurance group. Selling alcohol has of course always been profitable. I don’t know what advantage ale from Marlborough in Wiltshire would have had over a Berkshire brew – both counties had hard water, and by 1847 the so-called three B’s were well established in Reading – biscuits (Huntley and Palmer’s factory opened in 1822), bulbs (Sutton’s Seeds was founded in 1806), and beer (Simond’s Brewery was established in 1785). Reading could certainly do its own beer.

Sweetman’s Leinster Ale

But Sweetman’s was a famous brand, and one worth bragging about. Patrick J Sweetman’s brewery predated the Guinness family’s involvement in the industry: there were five Sweetman breweries in Dublin by 1759 when Arthur Guinness’s St James Gate brewery was founded. Sweetman’s probably launched their dark porter ale before Guinness too – Guinness as we know it today was first brewed in 1778, two years after the earliest Irish porters were introduced. Sweetman’s are certainly credited with the first public advertisement for porter, in 1780 – at a price of two guineas a hogshead. (That’s 54 gallons, 432 pints for £2.10, or about 0.5p a pint.)

My great great grandfather’s cousin Ebenezer had been a grocer in Reading since at least 1830. (The address, 16 Castle Street, is now attached to the 14th century Sun Inn, Reading's oldest pub; but I think the street must have been renumbered at some point because there is no suggestion, despite his storage of Marlboro ales and agency for Sweetman's, that Ebenezer was a publican.) Ebenezer's uncle was a cheesemonger and bacon factor in London’s Newgate from 1812 until his retirement in the 1830s. His father, a cheesemonger and butter factor in the London burgh of Hammersmith, died in 1812 when Ebenezer was nine years old. His mother carried on the family business and after her death it continued in the hands of his two older brothers and a sister. But his father’s will had provided for his children to become apprenticed in the trade of their choice, and gradually many of them found different occupations in the Hammersmith area: one, John, became a successful horticulturalist, another, Stephen, entered the architectural profession.

Simond’s Bottled Beers

Ebenezer, the youngest son, struck out on his own. He married Amelia Martin, a draper’s daughter from Berkhamsted, and went into business in the expanding coaching town of Reading, well placed on the turnpike from London to the West Country. Manufacture of the three B’s was boosting the town’s economy. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway reached Reading in 1841 and brought it within easy reach of London. Reading prospered, and its population more than doubled in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It must have been a good time to run a shop in the town. In 1847, the same year that he was selling ale, porter and life assurance, Ebenezer was also involved in a partnership with one Joseph Haddon Johnson as auctioneers, appraisers and furniture brokers, from which he withdrew in November. By 1851 he had also quit the grocery business and become a “house agent,” which I imagine meant the work of building repair and maintenance. By 1861, at the age of 58 and having presumably spotted a gap in that market, he had set himself up as a brick and tile maker. (I wonder if he knew, that had been the trade of his forebears.)

Another porter

It does sound, from the various agencies he offered and the late change in occupation, as if Ebenezer Salter worked hard to find ways of earning a living. By the age of 67 he was dead, but he must have done well enough for his two children, both girls, to make good marriages before his death – Amelia to a farmer with 450 acres, and Sarah Ann to a coal merchant, and both of whom looked after their mother in her old age.

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