Site Logo Home | Timeline | Breweries | Pubs | Research Resources | Contact

The Harwich Brewery

It all started at Harwich. The Cobbold family, once farmers and maltsters became brewers in the early 18th Century and by the 19th Century it had made them very rich and powerful. Although it is the Suffolk county town of Ipswich with which they are always associated the small Essex sea-port was the place of their first brewery.

Introduction The "official" story challenged
The Early Years The beginnings, the Rolfe Family, where was the brewery?
Cobbold & Cox What happened after 1746, Packet Boats and partnerships
Retirement Another Thomas and the coming of the railway
The Workhouse Brewery The second Harwich Brewery
Summary Filling in the gaps, re-examining the facts


On a memorable visit to the Tolly Cobbold Brewery at Ipswich in 1998 I was surprised to find a brewing copper in the museum that not only was supposed to date from 1723 but also came originally from Harwich, the location of Thomas Cobbold's first brewery.

The Harwich Copper
The Harwich Copper at the Cliff Brewery, Ipswich

The "official" Tolly Cobbold Company story is that The Harwich Brewery was founded by Thomas Cobbold in 1723 but found a problem with the local water supply, salt water seeped into the town wells, making them unsuitable for brewing. Water was brought down the river from the family owned springs at Ipswich, until finally, in 1746, the whole operation was moved there. This account appears in "Souvenir of the bi-centenary of the Cliff Brewery 1723-1923" by Felix Walton, "The Cliff Brewery 1723-1973" by Michael Jacobsen and in subsequent Tolly Cobbold publications up to and including "250 Years of Brewing in Ipswich" by Robert Malster.

There are, I believe, several problems with this sequence of events which have lead me to reveal a much longer and more interesting Cobbold involvement with brewing in Harwich.

The Early Years

Sir James Thornhill, the eminent baroque artist, travelled through Harwich in 1711 en-route to the continent. He clearly described the problem facing Harwich brewers when he writes:

"The water used here for brewing, &c., is got from pumps erected by ye Brewers, but being something brackish, they save all the rainwater they can. Each well supplies 45 casks of water & is then empty, which is about one well a day drawn dry."

Rolfe's Pumps as sketched by Sir James Thornhill
Rolfe's Pumps as sketched by Sir James Thornhill

I have been unable to confirm the exact date that Thomas Cobbold starting brewing at Harwich, but the accounts of the overseers of the for the parish of St. Nicholas (HP 84) contain the following entries:

1730 "Mr. Cobbold's Bill for Small Beer for the Workhouse - 3 17s."
1739 "Mr. Cobbold for a barrel of beer - 1 2s."

Which indicate that Cobbold was brewing in Harwich by 1730.

Cobbold appears to have obtained at least some of his water locally as two leases for the Harwich town wells show that these were rented by Cobbold some time after 1715. One lease is dated 1712 (HBA 18/5) and the other 1715 (HBA 19/3); the latter leases the wells to a George Rolfe ("beerbrewer"), and both documents feature undated endorsements, which read "Now Cobbold's". The main well in question was not actually situated, as many have believed, in Harwich, but in open countryside at nearby Dovercourt. This well was often referred to locally as "Rolfe's Pumps", which probably refers to water-raising apparatus installed by the earlier brewer.

We know Cobbold had the wells by 1743 as the minutes of the court of common council (HBA 98/5) contain the following entry:

"25th Jan. Lease of the stone wells for 21 years to Thomas Cobbold, brewer of Harwich for 3 p.a."

It is most probable that the Rolfe family (George Rolfe died in 1727 whilst mayor of the town) had the wells in the intervening period since the rental regularly appears in corporation accounts payable by a Mr. Rolfe. It is not clear when the Rolfes stopped brewing but they continued to supply beer to the corporation up until 1736 (the going rate was still 1 2s per barrel) although it is entirely possible that someone else was brewing the beer.

We know that brewers also used a well closer to Harwich on the London Road but this was certainly contaminated by a very high tide in 1723. This and other very revealing details appear in Dale's "The History and Antiquities of Harwich and Dovercourt in Essex" (HAH 26):

"They have no fresh water in this Town; the nearnes of the Sea making all the Water in the Wells of their pumps so brackish, that it is fit for nothing but to wash their Houses with, to supply which, they make conveniences to catch and keep Rain Water, for the washing of their Clothes; but for other uses they either have it bought in Water-Carts, from a spring near a Mile from the Town by the Road to Dovercourt, or it is brought in Water-Schoots from a spring in Arwerton (actually Erwarton) in the County of Suffolk; which privilege was granted them by Sir Philip Parker, Baronet, one of their present Members of Parliament 1727, to prevent their being exacted upon by those who are concerned in bringing it from the Well above mention'd. About a Quarter of a Mile from the Town on the London Road is a Well, where the Master of the Brew-House used to have his Water; but this being overflow'd by a great Tide three or four Years ago, the Water was thereby so spoil'd that they have not since thought fit to make use of it; having a better Convieniency by the aforesaid Water-Schoots, which may be laid to near the Brew-House, that they can pump the Water out of the very Vessels into the Copper, &c. Besides the Price thereof is so early, as to be cheaper to them than by fetching it in Water-Carts, from the Well as they formerly us'd to do."

This tells that there was an established brewery operating in Harwich in 1727, that it was supplied with water by Water-Schoots from a spring in Suffolk and that it was very close to the waterfront. Erwarton is a significant distance from Harwich by road but by boat it is less than 3 miles up the river Stour.

Water-Schoots are a sailing craft of Dutch origin that are specifically designed to carry water using large tanks in the hull, it is often mentioned that Cobbold had his own boats and this is very possible but I believe that there may be some confusion about the supply of water to the original brewery and the one in operation, at another site, in the 19th Century; More on that later. In any case it is probable that the brewers in Harwich, including Cobbold, used water from more than one source, importing by boat when required.

The site of the early Harwich brewery is difficult to confirm. We can pinpoint it in later years, and it is probable that it was always at the same location. This site was right on the waterfront, roughly where the Pier Hotel and Quayside Court (formerly the Great Eastern Hotel) now stand. In the eighteenth century the waterfront stood back where the front of the quayside buildings are today, and was simply a collection of private quays. A document at the Suffolk record office records the conveyance of a storehouse in this part of town from Captain Thomas Wimple to Thomas Cobbold in 1741 (SRO HB8/5/520), and it is possible that Cobbold was consolidating his brewery site. Brian Woods in his book "The Legendary Pier" uncovered a good deal of the history of the site, once occupied by the brewery and now occupied by the Pier Hotel.

Access to the water would have been essential for the brewery. There are stories, as yet unsubstantiated, of the brewery supplying Landguard Fort across the estuary at Felixstowe, as well as Royal Navy warships. The daily ration for a seaman at this time was one gallon of beer, so a big demand was there and the brewery would have been ideally placed to supply it.

It is unclear what happened to the brewery at Harwich when the Cobbolds built their new one next to the river Orwell in Ipswich in 1746. The notion that the Cobbolds abandoned Harwich is simply incorrect - they still owned many inns, and two years after Thomas Cobbold died in 1752 his son, another Thomas, set up a seawater bathing establishment in competition with one opened by one Thomas Hallstead a year earlier. This establishment was known as the Brewer's Baths and it is indicative of Cobbold's success that by 1760 Cobbold had bought not only his rival's baths but also his inn, the Three Cups (HGC).

Some local historians have surmised that the Brewer's Baths was situated on the far west of town on a lane that would later become George Street and there certainly was such an establishment there as it is featured in the Harwich Guide of 1808. This has lead people to believe that the brewery was in the same location, the one that would later define the part of the town called bathside. But a small, undated, map at Suffolk Record Office, found amongst other Cobbold papers clearly shows "Cobbold's Baths" on the waterfront next to "Cobbold's Yard" and "Cobbold's Foot Bridge" (SRO HB8/2/123). This map shows excellent correlation with a 1750 map of Harwich (ERO D/DU 557/1) and strongly suggests, although does not prove, the existence of a working brewery on the waterfront, next to the baths. I suspect people have assumed that Cobbold's Baths were the grander of the two and that this enabled him to take over and close his competitor's establishment; I believe that Cobbold Bath's were smaller but his superior finance saw off the over-stretched Hallstead. In any case by 1769 the remaining Baths were owned by Griffith Davies the Collector of Customs.

In 1762 Cobbold leased a quay and inn known as the "Angel and Bell" from the Corporation of Harwich. In this lease Cobbold is described as being "of the parish of St. Nicholas" in Harwich, which makes him a resident of the town at this time. (HBA 21/5)

Cobbold & Cox

The second Thomas Cobbold died in 1767, and was succeeded in business by his second eldest son John (John inherited the brewery business because his elder brother Thomas had gone into the Church.) The elder Thomas did inherit the family lands in Suffolk however, and he eventually sold them out of the family ensuring that brewing and malting - rather than farming - became the occupation of later generations of Cobbolds.

Harwich Quay from a painting by John Cleveley
A view of Harwich waterfront in 1761. Detail from
"The Arrival of Princess Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Streliz at Harwich, 1761" by John Cleveley

The will of Thomas Cobbold proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in 1767 specified monetary sums to be left to his sons and daughters to be administered by his wife Sarah. Sarah Cobbold leased the brewery at Harwich to John Cobbold and a Charles Cox in 1770 for 14 years. Charles Cox was an influential man in Harwich as he was the local packet agent, responsible for the running of the postal "packet" service to the continent. It is clear that John Cobbold was running the main Cobbold brewery at Ipswich at this time, having taken over from his father, and had a gentlemen's agreement with Charles Cox who was running the brewery at Harwich (with "the advice and assistance" of John Cobbold). A letter from Cox to Cobbold in 1769 mentions waiting for timber "with which to build the office", and making an agreement "without much assistance from a lawyer". The agreement is formalised in 1788 and sets a yearly rent for the brewery of 35, plus 15 for the brewing utensils, as well as seven inns in and around Harwich. (SRO HB8/2/123). This marks the founding of the "Cobbold & Cox" partnership, which continued well into the 19th Century.

In 1803 Cobbold & Cox obtained permission to lay pipes through the town to their Dovercourt well. The well's location is not clear, but is very likely to be the same one as used in earlier years.

The next shift of power at Harwich comes at the start of the nineteenth century when another Thomas Cobbold - son of John - took over the brewery at Harwich with Anthony Cox, son of Charles. The Harwich Guide of 1808 says of the White Horse in Dovercourt, "Here is a good and commodious inn called the White Horse, which has lately been rebuilt by Thomas Cobbold esq." Their partnership agreement renewed in 1817 (ERO D/DHt T124/30) is revealing and contains the following passage:

"Nothing herein contained shall prevent or hinder the said Thomas Cobbold from teaching or instructing at or upon the Brewhouse and Premises used for the time being in the said Partnership Trade and Business any person or persons in the act or mystery of brewing Beer Ale or Porter nor from receiving for his own use any Gratuity Premium or Emolument for so doing."

It is often said that the Cobbolds had become particularly good at brewing beer and Thomas was obviously of the opinion that his knowledge was worth both protecting and exploiting. The partnership agreement basically consists of John Cobbold leasing the brewery, residence (probably the "King's House" occupied by Thomas) and six inns to Thomas Cobbold and Anthony Cox; Thomas Cobbold leasing the Dovercourt Maltings, cottages and eight inns to Anthony Cox and Anthony Cox leasing six inns and a storehouse (next to the brewery) to Thomas Cobbold. This gives the Cobbold & Cox partnership a substantial brewery and tied estate; Thomas Cobbold had a two-thirds share of the business and Anthony Cobbold one-third. Anthony Cox had a monthly allowance of 10 while Thomas Cobbold was permitted 20. It is clear that Thomas was actually managing the brewery as he receives, in addition, an annual salary of 100 "for his skill and trouble in such management".

It isn't clear what happened to Cox's share, but when Cobbold retired in 1837 he offered the Brewery, residence and associated buildings along with a double malting, waterworks and 20 inns and public houses for sale by auction, including those inns previously owned by Cox. It is possible that when John Cobbold died in 1835 Thomas was left his property in Harwich, including the actual brewery, which the partnership had been leasing; this would have given him the momentum to buy Cox's share of the business including the freehold to his inns. As it happens Cox had his own lucrative business in the Harwich Bank, which in 1823 was called Cox & Knocker but which, ironically, in 1835 became Cox, Cobbold & Co. as John Cobbold's first son (another John) and owner of the Cliff Brewery became a partner.


The Harwich Brewery sale brochure (APC) of 1837 clearly places the large brewery premises on the northern waterfront at Harwich between the Angel public house and the Kings House, a fine waterfront property. The brewery sale document certainly features the Angel and almost certainly the Kings House as well. Quayside Court, a residential development of the former Great Eastern Hotel, occupies this area today.

The brewery at this time has a stone quay "erected at great expense, with platform and crane for loading and unloading goods". Not only were there no public quays in Harwich at this time but also the roads were poor and the railway had not yet arrived. The maltings and waterworks were at Dovercourt, very close to the site of the original wells used by Thomas's great-grandfather. They were also at the bottom of his garden, since he owned a great part of what is now Dovercourt town centre, and had built a grand house called Holly Lodge at the top overlooking the river Stour on the site occupied by the Harwich and Dovercourt telephone exchange today. The brewery was supplied with water from the waterworks via "wood and lead pipes" which must have run along the side of the road from Dovercourt to Harwich. The trade of the brewery is given as "exceeding 2000 barrels per annum" at the time of sale and the aim was to sell the Brewery and all its associated property as a going concern. In any case the Brewery, Residence, associated storehouses and quay at Harwich, and Malting, waterworks, cottages and a public house (The King's Arms) at Dovercourt were all to be sold in one lot. This lot included the Stock in Trade described as follows:

"Beer, Malt, Hops, Coals, and sundries, and the Vats, Casks, Horses, Drays, and other articles belonging to the Brewery; together with the Brewery Plant, Utensils and Machinery, at a fair valuation to be made in the usual manner. The plant and Utensils comprise a Copper, gauge 54 barrels, with Pan to contain 24 barrels; Two Liquor and Wort Pumps, and open Copper, gauge 15 barrels; Liquor Back, for coolers, a 16-quarter Mash Tun, Hop Back, gauge about 40 barrels; four Working Square; gauging respectively 74, 58, 32 and 14 barrels; Underback, gauge about 35 barrels; Starting Back, gauge about 27 barrels; two pairs of Malt stones, one pair of Malt Rolls, and various other Articles."

Thomas Cobbold was retiring at a time when Harwich was very depressed but about to undergo great change; the railway was coming and Dovercourt New Town was starting to be developed. There was what might be described as an unholy scramble surrounding the coming of the railway and when John Attwood, a London railway promoter, admitting using 10,000 to bribe the electorate during his successful 1841 bid to become M.P. for Harwich he was unseated. Cobbold must have expected to fund a healthy retirement with the proceeds of the Brewery sale, as he knew the brewery itself would be in a prime position on the new public quay but he died in 1845 before the quay was rebuilt and the first train arrived in 1854. By then the Brewery property had been split up and some had already changed hands more than once. The brewery site was eventually acquired by a John Brice who built the Pier Hotel.

The retirement of Thomas Cobbold and the redevelopment of the brewery site did not mean the end of brewing at Harwich, because in December 1840 the old workhouse was purchased by John Bull and converted into a brewery and beer shop. The workhouse had been built in 1669 on waste ground behind the Three Cups Hotel, but with the formation of a union of north-east Essex parishes with a common workhouse at Tendring the old building became surplus to requirements. This interesting development came three years after the sale of the quayside brewery and it suggests that the failure of Thomas Cobbold to sell the quayside brewery as a going concern did leave a gap in the market that was exploited by John Bull, the well-known landlord of the Three Cups Hotel.

It would be interesting to ascertain exactly what happened at the original brewery sale. Did Thomas offer the quayside brewery and tied estate to his brother John? Did John decide that the quayside brewery would be a bad investment? We do know that John or his representatives attended the brewery auction, probably to "cherry-pick" the best inns, and that both John and Thomas continued to be interested in Harwich; John increasing the Company's tied estate in the town and Thomas being elected mayor for the third time in 1843. And what of the brewing equipment? We do know that in March 1840 the brewing equipment again appeared for sale in a local paper so it is interesting to speculate that the purchaser was John Bull.

The Workhouse Brewery

The land upon which the workhouse brewery stood was, in fact, formed of two pieces of land with a strip next to the church being leased from the Corporation of Harwich. Interestingly the land and brewery changes hands several times and several different parties variously own and brew or own and have tenant brewers. In 1844 John Cobbold acquires an interest in the site when he acquires a share possibly in connection with a loan granted by the Harwich Bank. He appears to lose this interest in 1847 when Samuel Graham buys the site but then in 1863 John Chavallier Cobbold, John Cobbold's son, wholly acquires the site. John Chevallier Cobbold completes his purchase in 1873 by buying the strip of previously leased land from the Corporation of Harwich. Finally in 1876 having been seized for inheritance tax, John Chevallier Cobbold sells the entire site to the Church and the buildings are demolished to build a new vicarage.

So what do we know about the operation of the workhouse brewery? The buildings were arranged in a north-facing horseshoe with a central yard the eastern wing housing the brewery and the western wing comprised of the brewer's house and a beer house. The beer brewed by John Bull's son William John Bull was certainly sold in other pubs as well as the "brewery tap" since he is listed as a "common brewer" indicating that he brewed for the trade. During the time John Cobbold controls the property William John Bull is the brewer and seems to continue until 1847 when Samual Graham acquires the site and James Haylett moves in as brewer. At some stage during James Haylett's occupancy as brewer the brewery tap is run by William Haxell the former occupant of the New Swan in King's Quay Street. When John Chevallier Cobbold acquires the site in 1863 James Haylett is still the occupant and brewer but Cobbold was also almost certainly in control of the brewery and the tap since he is listed as the licensee in alehouse licensing records from 1873. At this time Cobbold had a considerable tied estate in the Harwich area and it is a possibility that the workhouse brewery was acquired to supply these pubs. The problem is that the brewery never appears in company accounts of the period and water, always a problem in earlier times, had become even more of a problem.

This workhouse brewery is just within reach of oral history in Harwich and it is here we find local reference to water for the brewery being landed from ships moored at a quay near the brewery in the area known today as Timberfields. This would have been necessary because in many ways the local water supply was worse than it was when the original brewery started up; the population of nearby Dovercourt had dramatically increased with the coming of the railway and the building of Bagshaw's Dovercourt New Town.

The water supply for Dovercourt New Town seems to have been provided from Thomas Cobbold's old malting and brewery waterworks, but the increased demand along with an appalling sewage problem rendered this supply very unhealthy. Bagshaw was ordered to rectify the problem in 1866 after a cholera epidemic, but he refused, and it was not until 1879 that the Council borrowed 10,000 to start drainage works. The water supply was still found to be a problem as late as 1890, when it was declared unfit for human consumption. So the economics of the workhouse brewery operation, using imported water, must have been questionable as it would have been just as easy to supply Harwich and the surrounding area from the now well-established Ipswich Brewery

The brewery in the old workhouse certainly appears to operate right up until 1876 when the church acquired the site and the building was demolished to build a new vicarage. "Official" Tolly Cobbold publications do not seem to consider the possibility that the Harwich Brewery had different periods and sites of operation and imply that the brewery was always "adjoining the churchyard". The books published in 1923, 1973 and 1996 all include an old engraving claiming to show the original brewery next to the church; It clearly depicts St. Nicholas Church after it was completely rebuilt in 1822 and very possibly includes the brewery in the converted workhouse which was indeed next to the churchyard


So, in summary, I have been unable to confirm Cobbolds claimed date of 1723 for the commencement of brewing but I found nothing that leads me to disbelieve it. I am fairly certain, however that they used different sources for their water, certainly from wells and very most probably importing some by boat. They certainly didn't abandon Harwich in 1745 when they built the brewery at Ipswich actually Thomas remained a Harwich resident and continued to develop his business in the town. After Thomas' death "Cobbold & Cox" is founded and the "Brewers and Agents for the Packet Boats" continue brewing at Harwich passing the business to their sons who continue to build the business, despite a decline in Harwich's fortunes. When the coming of the railway forces change the main Harwich Brewery is broken up but local trade is sufficiently great for a new brewery to start-up despite continuing problems with the water supply. This new brewery later becomes owned by the Cobbolds to supply their local trade and when brewing in Harwich ends in 1876 the considerable Cobbold tied estate is supplied from Ipswich, becoming Tolly Cobbold in 1953 and Pubmaster after the disastrous Brent Walker takeover and collapse in 1990.

Cobbold beermat from 1923
A Cobbold beermat from 1923

One interesting mystery presents itself. If the "Harwich Copper" dates from 1723 how did it find it's way to Ipswich? Did it, as is suggested, move up-river in 1746 when the Cliff Brewery was founded or did it, in fact, appear much later in 1876 having first been purchased and used by William John Bull and James Haylett at the workhouse brewery?

If you come to Harwich today you can easily locate the site of both breweries. The workhouse brewery was situated on the North side of the churchyard in an area know as Cow Lane - it is still occupied by the vicarage although this is no longer owned by the church. The original quayside brewery is on the quay where the Pier Hotel and Quayside Court now stand and if you walk up Eastgate Street you will come to the rear of a Pubmaster pub, "The Alma". The building was originally a wealthy merchant's house - it must have been very close to the brewery - and it still features etched glass windows advertising Cobbold Fine Ales.


HAH The History and Antiquities of Harwich and Dovercourt in Essex - Samuel Dale
TLP The Legendary Pier - Brian Woods
HS The Harwich Story - Leonard Weaver
HGC Harwich Gateway to the Continent - Leonard Weaver
HP Harwich Papers - Leonard Weaver
HBA Harwich Borough Archive
ERO Essex Record Office
SRO Suffolk Record Office
PRO Public Record Office
APC Author's Private Collection

Special Thanks

This research is very much a work in progress but I've had an awful lot of help and encouragement to date. In no particular order I would like to specially thank Pete Goodwin, Brian Woods, Don Budds, Anthony Baker, Judith Tydeman and David Male. Cheers!

Tolly Cobbold Heritage © copyright 1997-2008 various contributors. Site hosting sponsored by Comparative Small Business Insurance.