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1723 - About That Date

There is a problem with 1723 - there I've said it - the unthinkable idea that the Cobbold's didn't start brewing in 1723 is out in the open.

The problem with the traditional history of the Harwich Brewery is that it is too convenient. It usually goes something like this:

Thomas Cobbold founded his brewery at Harwich in 1723 but due to problems with the local water supply - it was too brackish - moved the entire operation to Ipswich in 1746.

There are also stories of water being brought down-river from Ipswich to help supplement the meagre Harwich water supply.

The problem is that closer analysis reveals that the story is confused and has some fairly major holes. Harwich historians have long known that the Cobbold presence at Harwich continued long after they were supposed to have upped-sticks and left and that the Harwich Brewery existed on two sites and continued until the 1870s.

But back to that date again. In Felix Walton's book marking (wrongly) the bi-centenary of the Cliff Brewery in 1923 the Thomas Cobbold born in 1680 is credited with founding the brewery in some passages but the Genealogical Table of the Cobbold Family features this revealing passage:

"Thomas Cobbold lived from 1717 to 1777. In St. Clements Church is a flag stone to the memory of Thomas Cobbold common brewer who departed this life April 21st 1767 aged 59. This would make Thomas Cobbold to be living in 1708 to 1767 and is probably the individual to whom Cobbold refers as living from 1717 to 1777. He was evidently the founder of the family. Tradition says he came from Harwich and started the Cliff Brewery."

Clearly (and unsurprisingly) there is confusion surrounding the early years here and a cynical mind might suggest that Thomas I was only introduced when someone realised that Thomas II would have been too young (at 15) to have started a brewery in 1723.

Trying to confirm the 1723 date by searching original documents reveals no mention of the Cobbolds in Harwich until 1730. One certainly finds references to a brewery however but it seems to be owned and run by George Rolfe. In fact you can trace the brewery back over 100 years to the late 16th Century and it is highly probable that the brewery was supplying not only the numerous local beerhouses but also the large number of Royal Navy and merchant ships using the harbour.

So where does the 1723 date come from? The simplest explanation is that was once inscribed on the "Harwich Copper" - the ancient brewing vessel at the Cliff Brewery. It seems plausible that the Cobbolds based their beginnings as brewers on the age of this artefact. It is quite possible however that the vessel was actually commissioned by George Rolfe and was simply taken over by Thomas Cobbold along with the Brewery at Harwich.

Of course all this is pure speculation but I believe the story fits the facts better than the traditional version. Additionally rather than posing a problem for the history of Tolly Cobbold I believe that this new chronology offers a new opportunity to discover a much more interesting and accurate account of the early years of the common brewer in Great Britain.

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