There once was a time – long before all-day haute cuisine, 4-star accommodation and free Wi-Fi throughout (even in the beer garden) – when the public house was considered by many to be the domain of men. But the truth is, while snug bars across the country might well have been avoided by the fairer sex in the past for any number of reasons (including, but not restricted to, the aroma of damp whippet and stale cigars), women have always played an important part in the local, especially in St Austell Brewery locals, and continue to do so to this day.
Of the total number of public houses currently in the Brewery estate, nearly 70% of them are run – either single-handedly, or as part of a married couple or partnership – by women, playing a crucial role in the growth of Brewery business and at the same time carving out successful careers in an expanding and important sector of industry.
While it could be argued that this is simply a reflection of the modern (and rightful) acceptance of women’s equal place in society, a search through the archives up at ‘Brewery House’ reveals that the feminine touch has always been considered fit for purpose, either behind the bar or at the very helm of the business.
The story of Hester Parnall’s management of the Brewery from 1911 to 1939 is well documented, though no less remarkable for that. In an age when the Suffragette Movement was making the headlines in London, its effects would barely have been felt in the quiet countryside of Cornwall and Hester’s promotion to Director of Walter Hick’s fledgling empire in 1911 must have been seen as extraordinary.
No doubt, he recognised in her the qualities needed to carry on the business and not to be put off by the many disadvantages of being a woman in small-town Edwardian Cornwall and his judgment proved to be sound, according to Clifford Hockin – starting as office boy in the Brewery in 1926before progressing to Company Secretary in 1963 – who memorably described her as ‘ruling the Company with the grace of a duchess combined with the aplomb of the successful businessman.’
That the Brewery thrived and grew during the inter-war years is testament to her rugged determination and hands-on approach to the running of the company and the estate was in great shape when the Chairmanship passed on to Egbert Barnes in 1939, on the eve of World War 2.
Showing a clear vision to the last, only three weeks before her sudden death, she advised Mr Payne the Brewery Manager against buying German-made glass-lined tanks for the Brewery at such a delicate time, choosing to pay more for British counterparts to show where Brewery loyalties lay!
But Hester’s story, integral though it is to the Brewery, is just one of many that can be found in the Brewery archives, a testament to those who put in the hours behind the bar to make a success of their business.
One very early story that proves the point that running a pub was a fit role for a lady involves the former Brewery-owned White Hart Hotel in Hayle, the original building having been put up on the instruction of one John Harvey to provide an income for his daughter while her husband – a certain Richard Trevithick – went gallivanting off round the world inspiring the Industrial revolution. In the long run, despite the magnitude of his inventions, Jane’s running of the White Hart proved to be based on more sound business acumen than many of her husband’s far-flung ventures.
A brief glance through the 1919 version of the Brewery estate shows a number of women almost compatible with today’s figures in charge of the various pubs then on Walter Hicks’ books. Florries (Truscott at the Duke of Cornwall in Mount Charles and Prior at the Barley Sheaf in Liskeard), Bessies (Bennett at the Cornish Arms in St Merryn, Langler at the Royal Hotel in Falmouth and Reynolds at the Red Lion in Penryn), and Amelias (Clymo at the Pandora Inn in Restronguet and Richards at the Kings Arms, Marazion).
Just a few of the wonderful names that grace the pages of the estate records, names which local people might be able to add more flesh to over the coming months and years as the Brewery Archive Research team reaches out to the community to help fill the gaps in the Brewery’s long and illustrious history.
The support that the Brewery has always shown its tenants and managers is demonstrated to even greater measure during the war years when many women, even those not accustomed to running a public house, stepped up to the mark and took over the reins of power at locals across the county. Again, Brewery records abound with licensee requests from wives and partners, all of whom were supported in their desire to keep their families afloat during the crises.
One which stands out is from a certain Mrs Howes in 1914, formerly married to a German subject and whose son, Edmund Brannach, ran the Ship & Castle in St Mawes for the Brewery. When he was interned at the start of the war for his German descent, Mrs Howes tried valiantly to hold on to the licence and was supported fully in her quest by the Brewery at the time. While the Authorities initially refused to allow her to take up the business, the Brewery eventually managed to strike up an agreement that would allow her to work alongside a Brewery manager.
So is this St Austell Brewery tradition of women at the helm still alive and kicking in the twenty first century? The statistics suggest that Walter Hicks would be proud of the current state of play across the estate and comments from those on the front line bear testimony to the Brewery’s forward thinking attitudes
“Balancing the job with having two young children is a challenge”, said Lucy Brewer, who runs the Rashleigh Inn in Charlestown with husband, Rob. “But as a woman I’ve always felt very supported by the Brewery and that really helps to maintain that balance.”
A highly successful and well-attended Ladies Only beer tasting event held recently at the Rashleigh also proved that the ‘other’ side of the bar was just as welcoming to women!
Louisa Dicker, who last year took on the challenge of the Globe Hotel in Bude singlehandedly at the age of 26, describes the crew she deals with back at the Brewery as “Good as Gold!” With the Brewery always there to support her when needed, Louisa has managed to set up a great routine at the Hotel and is still “thoroughly enjoying” the challenge as she nears the end of her first year at the helm.
While the Brewery ethos clearly works towards treating everybody as equals and encouraging all those in its employ to succeed, perhaps old Walter had an eye for the past when he placed Hester Parnall in charge of the company and played his part in supporting women working in the brewing industry.
After all, history tells us that the very first brewers were probably women, while the oldest surviving beer recipe, describing the production of beer from barley via bread, comes from a 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honouring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing.
Perhaps, after all these years, paying ‘Tribute’ to the goddess has played its own small part in the St Austell Brewery success story.