Ipswich Icons: How local lads caught train to go for a Burton
PUBLISHED: 17:00 24 September 2017
I spent my formative years in Burton on Trent, the brewing capital of the United Kingdom, writes John Norman
Writing about Ipswich Icons, one inevitably comes across maltings: buildings into which barley – initially from local farms but increasingly from across the world – was delivered and turned into malt, the essential ingredient of beer (and multiple other foodstuffs).
But we’ll start 150 years ago with the agricultural industry and its extensive requirement for labour (to whom it paid low wages and in the winter no wages!)
In the latter half of the nineteenth century farms were slow to mechanise; they were predominantly small units with little capital to spare.
Gone for a Burton was a phrase used by mothers and girlfriends of the young men who left Suffolk to over-winter in the maltings of Burton on Trent. In the rural villages of Suffolk there was little choice of employment: either take the intermittent work on the farm or don’t work at all.
The “not at all” was very relevant, especially during the winter.
There was no demand for labour after the harvest was in at the end of August, except perhaps a horseman to tend the animals.
The dozen or so workers on a typical farm were laid off; nothing could be done on the land during the months of snow and rain.
During the second half of the nineteenth century a number of factors came together that led to a requirement for labour in the maltings in Burton on Trent (and elsewhere).
The railways had arrived, and the breweries of Burton could transport their production across the country and across the world (hence India Pale Ale, originally brewed for shipment to the troops stationed in the sub-continent).
Increased production meant an increase in the requirement for raw ingredients, especially malt, which led to the construction of maltings in Burton, as well as across Suffolk and other barley-growing areas.
The process of turning barley into malt required good, strong, young men to work during the malting season: the end of September until the end of May.
These guys were recruited from the villages of Suffolk and transported by train to Burton, usually on the second Monday in September.
Burton’s brewers appointed agents who selected big-framed unmarried males who were tough and strong, usually aged between 17 and their early 20s.
A specially-chartered train left Framlingham, collecting passengers at Woodbridge and all intermediate stations to Ipswich.
The engine was turned and the train ran through to Peterborough, where it met a similar train from Norfolk.
The two were hitched together for the journey to Leicester and Burton.
An idea of the working week to come was summed up in the phrase “no more Sundays after Leicester corner” (ie, Sunday was just another working day until the following May).
On arrival in Burton it was straight to the pub for a “comin’ up pint”.
Usually the landlord would ask “Fresh up?” and offer the first pint on the house in the hope that these lads (fresh into town) would make this particular pub their local for the next eight months.
Work in the malting was hot, dirty (dusty rather than muddy), with long hours.
They would either be carrying 16-stone sacks of barley or turning the germinating grain with a malt shovel (made of wood so as not to bruise the barley).
The temperature in the malt house needed to be strictly controlled, by opening and closing the louvred windows: 60 degrees for 10 days, with the grain being turned by shovel twice every day and raked overnight to aerate and ensure separation.
By the beginning of summer it was becoming increasingly difficult to control the temperature simply by opening the windows and the season came to an end.
In any case, the lads needed to get back to Suffolk and their old employer.
Hay-making was about to start, soon to be followed by the grain harvest.
They reckoned they’d be home in time for the Framlingham Gala, (originally a Whitsun fair at which the farmers would hire labour for the summer). Later, Gone for a Burton came to mean they had gone to Burton to drink Burton beer: India Pale Ale, which was stronger, tastier and more popular than beer brewed in Suffolk.