THERE’S nothing quite like a full blooded, full-bodied, cask conditioned, traditionally brewed pint of ale…..especially after a tough day at a noisy, sweaty, dusty engineering plant such as those that churn out heavyweight locomotives and rolling stock.

But did you know that when the Great Western Railway Works was in full-throttle during the 1870s as both the factory and the town ballooned there were no less than 64 drinking houses in New Swindon - from those boasting shiny brass and polished leather to, how shall we put it, poky, grime-ridden dives.

With a population of around 11,000 that’s one pub for every 65 people. So, no lack of drinking opportunities in late 19th century Swindon then - and no lack of opposition from those who felt the pleasurable dispatch of fermented cereal grain was the work of the devil.

But who brewed all of these suds? Who kept those thirsty chaps in Old Swindon and New Town supplied with wallop?

During the 19th century the Swindon area was awash with the large scale producers of beer. At least a dozen breweries were pumping out ales such as Belmont’s Indian Pale Ale, Godwins’ Home Brewed and North Wiltshire Mild Amber for the delectation of local enthusiasts.

But today only one survives – Arkells, Swindon’ oldest company.

I am reminded of the Heydays of Swindon Brewing by the news that Clare and David Bugg have launched The Old Town Brewery CoHopeative.

Turning a weekend hobby of fashioning craft ale into a cottage industry, they are continuing a tradition that harks back 5,000 years.

It is heartening to imagine the ancient Britons who manned the hill-top fortresses strung along the Ridgeway at Uffington, Liddington Hill and Barbury Castle enjoying a well-earned vessel of ale after a testing day on the battlements.

And a few centuries later, having put the invading Mercian’s to the sword (West Saxons versus Brummies – no contest) at the Battle of Ellendune near Wroughton in September 825 it is somehow gratifying to imagine our boys trooping back to Barbury Castle with vast quantities of foaming ale awaiting their arrival.

Over the centuries home-brewing became a way of life, beer by and large being the only liquid refreshment available to the common man (and woman) that was actually safe to drink – the water having been sterilised during the brewing process.

In hill-top Swindon there were numerous establishment where a drop could be had, especially on market days. And virtually all of it was brewed on the landlord’s premises.

Our knowledge of Swindon drinking houses from this era has sadly drained away although a few hardy survivors from the olde days are still around including The Lapwing (now The Bell), The Crown (The Goddards) and The Royal Oak.

Once said to be Swindon’s oldest hostelry, The Bull in Newport Street was demolished in the 1870s to make way for what is now The Steam Railway while The Shoulder of Mutton in Cricklade Street vanished altogether.

By the 1830s, however, only 45 per cent of beer sold in drinking houses was home-crafted following the inevitable arrival during the Age of Industry of mass production. Breweries could make gallon of the stuff in enormous fermenting vessels before distributing these wares to local hostelries via horse drawn carts.

It signalled a steady and then rapid decline of brewing victuallers – landlords who made it in-house.

As far as we know The Star Brewery was among the first in Swindon, having been set up at Stratton during the 18th century while the Arkell family was still happily farming.

A 19th century advertisement placed in the Adver by Star’s “maltsters and hop merchants” assured potential customers that its ales and stouts were only brewed from malt and hops – a reference to the use of cheaper ingredients by some brewers.

The Star in Swindon Road survived until 1896 but sank partly as a result of owner William Pound’s liking for his own product.

William Butler had been brewing in Newport Street during the early 1800s before building The Belmont Brewery in 1860, a stylish Victorian structure complete with chimney and brewhouse tower which happily still stands today as a Grade II listed building.

Owned for many years by William Godwin, the steam powered operation produced pale ale, double stout and porter before ceasing such activities in the 1930s.

Philip Cockhill bought land from a vicar in 1863 to erect The Belle Vue Brewery and Beerhouse in Victoria Road. But booze production stopped when it was swallowed-up by Arkells in 1878 and it continued simply as a pub. Today it is known as Longs.

According to historian/beer buff Dave Backhouse’s tirelessly researched Home Brewed (1985), The North Wilts Brewery in High Street may have had its origins in the 1760s.

But by the 1830s it belonged to prosperous landowner John Henry Harding Sheppard (a modest fellow who named four New Town streets after his good self, using each of his given names).

He was, wrote Dave, “a man of considerable miserliness who once charged a guinea an inch for land to build a chapel.”

Acquired in 1870 by Richard Bowly, it was re-built into a cutting edge brewery described as “a large and handsome building surmounted by a tower nearly 80ft in height.”

He was succeeded by his aptly named son Robert Brewin Bowly - a man of such impressive girth that a special toilet had to be built for his exclusive use in the yard. I am tempted to believe that the portly fellow enjoying his grog gracing the front of the first edition of Home Brewed is, in fact, Brewin himself... but it probably isn’t.

Bowly’s beer was said to have been “thick and malty, unlike the well-hopped Arkells.”

Following the death of Brewin and his wife 70 years ago, ‘Bowly's Brewery’ was used by Courage as a bottling plant but demolished in 1984.

However, a section of this once formidable Old Town structure - part of the original façade - can be seen today, having been incorporated into Barclays Bank.

  • The day the draymen supped up - and handed out buckshee booze

IT sounds like something out of a Carry On film but in 1864 three draymen trotted through Highworth while liberally helping themselves to the product they were supposed to be delivering.

The result was mayhem as the tanked-up trio began cheerfully off-loading bottles of booze to passing pedestrians while their dray horse – who may well have guzzled some of the stuff itself – galloped off out-of-control.

Their boss, William Hitchcock, owner of Highworth’s Sun Brewery, must have been wild after he was fined 30 shillings.

Its origins unknown but possibly 18th Century, the brewery – based in Brewery Street, where else - was closed in 1918 while its 17 pub were taken over by Ushers. The former brewery buildings were destroyed by fire in 1974.

Highworth’s other beer manufacturer The Globe, in Sheep Street was a “small brewery of obscure origins” that didn’t see out the 19th century.

  • Bassett brewery produced champion ale

SUCH was the quality of the suds that came out of Howard Horsell’s Beaufort Brewery in Wootton Bassett that its’ Light Dinner Ale won a prestigious first prize at a 1904 London brewers exhibition.

At one stage Horsell ran a School For Scientific Brewing. One of the town’s largest factories, the Beaufort Brewery experienced ups and downs during the late 19th and early 20th Century before the production of beer made way for the production of yoghurt when the premises were incorporated into the now defunct St Ivels dairy.

Wootton Bassett had two other now long gone beer manufacturers – the Steam Brewery and the Wootton Bassett Brewery both in High Street.

And for a while in the 19th Century there existed The Wanborough Brewery whose products included table beer, double stout and “family ale.”

  • Duke of Wellington wasn't toast of everyone...

HE may have been the hero of Waterloo but the late Duke of Wellington was not the toast of 1860s Swindon – at least not among a certain section of our community.

As Prime Minister his 1830 Beerhouse Act enabled anyone to brew and sell beer for a small license fee – two guineas (£2.10).

This was partly to promote ale as a healthy alternative to gin whose widespread popularity had left poverty and squalor in its wake.

By allowing people to turn their homes into inns the Act led to a profusion of public beer houses – including the 64 in New Swindon.

Such establishments could open all day, six days a week, leading less disciplined Swindonians down a sad, hazy, predictable path.

As a result a large and determined temperance movement extolling the virtues of abstinence took root in Old Town on the hill and New Town below.

When “Cheap Jack” Rees loudly arrived in Swindon in 1862 in a carriage pulled by four sturdy carthorses he was greeted by 3,000 locals.

Rees was an evangelist who preached abstinence and his public orations here persuaded more than 400 Swindon folk sign the temperance pledge.

Their call for a repeal of the Act was bitterly fought by, among others, brewery boss John Arkell who opened a pub in Eastcott Hill which he called The Duke of Wellington (which like Napoleon’s nemesis, is now sadly diseased), just to inflame the temperance tub thumpers.

The Act was eventually repealed and as a result no new pubs opened in Swindon between 1905 and 1953.