There are many layers to the story of the relationship between Dublin and her most successful brewery. The story of Guinness is a story of, naturally enough, brewing stout. Yet it is also a story of philanthropy, and a story of politics. At different points in the history of the company, it has been confronted by diverse opponents, including the powerful O’Connell family, with Daniel O’Connell’s son briefly going head to head with the company as a brewer himself. The founder of the company, Arthur Guinness, was undoubtedly a pioneer in his field, beginning as a small-town brewer in Leixlip before becoming one of the leading figures in a city of dozens of breweries. This brief post will look at a protracted dispute he found himself entangled in regarding the supply of water to his brewery, and the manner in which he resorted to most unusual methods (of eh….swinging a pickaxe at unwanted visitors to the brewery) to protect his supply.
While dozens of breweries may sound like a dream come true to some readers today, it should be noted that just because the city was awash with breweries does not mean the beer was any good. One eighteenth century ballad joked that:
The beer is sour – thin, musty,thick and stale
and worse than anything except the ale!
Yet, Arthur Guinness succeeded by producing a quality product of a higher calibre than most of his opponents. As David Dickson has noted, his success even preceded the move of the brewery towards porter:
Porter, cornerstone of the brewery’s later fame, was not brewed in the early years, and may indeed have only been introduced in the 1780s, in imitation of a similar black ale pioneered in London. But it seems that, long before its introduction, ale from Arthur Guinness’s establishment was of a more predictable and more agreeable standard than that sold by most of his rivals. In an age of economic turbulence and short-lived partnerships, his success lay in building up the core business, in consolidating its profitability and assets over the forty years that he was involved, and in training up a competent and willing heir to take over the reins – his second son, Arthur (1768–1855). These achievements were what set him apart from all but a very few of his commercial contemporaries.
The story of the humble origins of the brewery is well known. Arthur, at the grand old age of 34, signed a nine-thousand year lease on a disused brewery at St. James’s Gate in 1759, committing to paying an annual rent of £45, a relatively high figure at the time. Guinness acquired the brewery from Mark Rainsford, who is today commemorated via Rainsford Street in the vicinity of the brewery.
Having assumed control of the premises, Arthur found himself entangled in a dispute regarding the supply of water to his brewery. As Joe Joyce has noted in his history of the family, water was critical to the growing city of the eighteenth city, and while the River Liffey “provided no drinking water or water for brewing”, businesses largely depended upon the River Poddle to provide them. Arthur Guinness got his water supply from the city main, as did many of the businesses in the area of the city in which he operated, but crucially he believed that the lease he had signed entitled him to full water rights, without becoming a tenant to the city main supply of which he was a user.
As the Guinness brewery continued to expand its output, the Corporation complained that he rejected “all reasonable methods” which were made to induce him to pay for this supply. There were further tensions in 1772 when a sub-committee found that Arthur was utilising two illegal pipes, larger than permitted, to supply his brewery with its required water supply. In Guinness’s Brewery in the Irish Economy 1759-1876, it is noted that the committee observed that the waterworks beside the Guinness brewery had been described as belonging to the city, and they believed that neither Guinness nor Rainsford, from whom he leased the brewery, had any claim to the ground in question.
In an 1947 edition of the Dublin Historical Record, the story of the attempt to bring Arthur into line with City policy is well told:
On 16th May 1775, the Committee, with the Sheriff and a number of workmen, went to the Back Course for the purpose of filling in the section between the Limerick property [neighbouring land] and St. James’s Gate. Mr. Arthur Guinness appeared on the scene and strenuously opposed the Committee. He told them that if they filled in the stream he would at once open it again; he seized a pick axe from a labourer and, placing himself in front of the workman, resisted and protested to such good purpose that the Committee, although supported by the Sheriff, whom they had brought to enforce the law, withdrew without accomplishing their design.
Arthur, the report of the Committee noted, told the men that “the water was his, and he would defend it by force of arms.” He told the men that “if they filled it up from end to end, he would immediately open it”, and his use of “very much improper language” was also commented upon.
The dispute dragged on and on, but on 24 May 1784, Arthur agreed to sign a 8,795-year lease for the use of the water (the remainder of his original 9,000 year lease), that required him to pay £10 annually for the privilege. Ultimately, it was a compromise between the two sides. To his credit, Arthur did have some interest in conflict resolution in his lifetime. He was a member of the wonderfully named Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick, described as a fraternal organisation “that opposed duelling and aimed to promote social harmony.” While he evidently detested pistol duelling, it appears that waving pickaxes was another matter entirely!