The writing on the wall

WE USED TO DRIVE to France during the early 1960s when I was a child and before the M2 motorway was in use. The first part of the drive was from London to Dover and prior to the opening of the M2, it was a slow journey because the main road went through numerous small towns in Kent instead of bypassing them, which the M2 does. To break the tedium of the lengthy drive, I used to count how many Esso filling stations we passed as well as the number of Fremlin signs along the road. I liked the name Fremlin, but in my childhood, I was unaware that this was the name of a brewery based in Maidstone (Kent) and founded in 1861. It is a long time since I passed the time on journeys by counting signs such as Esso and Fremlins, whose name appealed to me. Recently, we drove through the centre of Hertford (in Hertfordshire) and I spotted several buildings bearing a name that intrigued me because we have friends with the same name (as surname). The name is McMullen and it, like Fremlins, is the name of a brewery.

Peter McMullen (1791-1881), the son of a Scottish nurseryman, founded his first brewery at Railway Street in Hertford in 1827. It was his wife’s idea. She suggested that it would be better to open a brewery rather than to continue his hitherto rather unsatisfactory life poaching and undertaking failed apprenticeships (www.mcmullens.co.uk/about-us/our-history).  Given that the first railway station opened in Hertford in 1843 (www.hertford.net/history/railway.php), Railway Street must have had another name when the brewery was established. The business was expanded in 1860 by his sons Alexander and Osmond McMullen, when they took over the brewery. They bought some other breweries and opened several pubs run by tenants. By 1910, McMullen was one of 1284 brewing companies that were in business in the UK. By the 21st century, it was one of the 38 of these that remains.  Now in 2021, it is run by the sixth generation of Peter McMullen’s family (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMullen%27s_Brewery).

One of the first beers brewed by Mcmullen, which has been available since 1833, was Mcmullen AK. This and several other brews are cask ales. The company also produces bottled beers including McMullen Hertford Castle, which is named after Hertford Castle, where Queen Elizabeth I visited frequently during both her childhood and her reign. The castle still exists: the remains of an early motte; Norman encircling walls; the so-called Gatehouse, built by Henry VIII; and other more recent additions. Incidentally, the Castle was the home of The East India Company College between 1805 and 1809, which then moved to Hailey, also in Hertforshire. The college’s presence in Hertford was before McMullen began producing beer in the town.

The company produce an IPA (Indian Pale Ale), suitable for exporting to tropical climes, but I do not know whether this was ever shipped out to India. The company’s history relates:

“The McMullen relationship with IPA can be traced back to the 1800’s when Peter McMullen recorded the brewing of an East India Pale Ale with connotations of the brew being commissioned to quench the thirst of the British Army at the East India Company College originally in Hertford.” (www.mcmullens.co.uk/blog/2019/04/mcmullen-rebranding#.YJKaSrVKhPY)

Well, you do not have to travel as far as India to sample beer brewed by McMullen. It can be drunk in pubs in the English counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Middlesex, Berkshire, Bedfordshire, and more (www.mcmullens.co.uk/our-locals).

After seeing the name of our friends prominently displayed on buildings in Hertford, I rang them and asked them whether they are related to the brewing family. As far as they know, they are not, but they did tell me that there used to be a pub near where they live in north London, which did serve McMullen’s beers, but sadly that has now gone out of business.

Next time, we visit the charming town of Hertford, one of the things I plan to do, which I have not yet done, is to sample some of McMullen’s beer or maybe beers.

PS: One building prominently bearing the name McMullen in Hertford was part of a former seed merchants, A McMullen, established by a brother of Peter Mc Mullen.

Adam’s brother and Jane Austen

IRRIGATED BY MANY STREAMS, branches of several rivers, notably the Lea and the Beane, the town of Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire in eastern England. Some parts of this historic place with its numerous water-filled channels recalled distant memories of Brugge (Bruges) in Belgium but the architecture differs considerably from what one sees in the Belgian city. We made our very first visit to Hertford on the 2nd of May 2021 and were surprised by its richness in old buildings and waterside parklands. Amongst the edifices in the historic centre of the town, we came across a well-restored brick building on Fore Street. It, the massive though elegant Shire Hall, now the home of a Crown Court, dwarfs its neighbours. Apart from its size and elegance, its architect attracted my interest.

Shire Hall, Hertford

In 1627, a Sessions House was constructed on the site of the present Shire Hall following the issue of a charter by King Charles I (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1268930). By the mid-18th century, it was considered to be too small. An Act of Parliament issued in 1768 during the reign of King George III led to raising money to build a new shire hall. The specifications were sent out to various architects, and amongst the six short-listed were the now very famous Robert Adam (1728-1792) and his far less well-known younger brother James Adam (1732-1794). The new structure was to incorporate:

“…2 courts, a room for the Corporation of Hertford, and both with and without a County Room.”

 The Adam’s brothers won the contract to carry out the above along with the addition of a previously unspecified Assembly Room.

James Adams took charge of the project, which commenced in April 1769 and was completed in April 1771. The arcaded ground floor was used by the Corn Exchange until 1849, after which date a separate edifice for the Corn Exchange was built in 1857-58 on Fore Street. James Adam built far fewer buildings than his better-known brother Robert. James and Robert, both born in Kircaldy (Scotland), started their architectural practice in London in 1758. Not only did they design buildings but also, they provided detailed designs for their interior decoration and furnishings; they provided what could be described as a ‘holistic’ design service. James collaborated with Robert on several other projects apart from the Shire Hall in Hertford. These include the now mostly demolished Adelphi buildings near London’s Strand and Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire.

The Assembly Room in the Shire Hall, which was used for concerts and theatrical performances, is supposed to have inspired Jane Austen (1775-1817) when she was writing her novel “Pride and Prejudice”, part of which is set in the fictional ‘Merytown’, which she might have based on Hertford. The Assembly Room featured as the ballroom in Austen’s novel (http://wardtimes.info/hertfordshire/east-herts/hertford/news/what-now-shire-hall-hertford). Here is a little extract from Chapter 3 of the book:

“An invitation to dinner was soon afterwards dispatched; and already had Mrs. Bennet planned the courses that were to do credit to her housekeeping, when an answer arrived which deferred it all. Mr. Bingley was obliged to be in town the following day, and, consequently, unable to accept the honour of their invitation, etc. Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies, but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve he brought only six with him from London—his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the assembly room it consisted of only five altogether—Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.”

The above-mentioned assembly room was that in the Hertfordshire town of Meryton to which the wealthy Mr Bingley had recently arrived from the north of England.  Although the Assembly Room, mentioned in the novel, is thought to be that in the building designed by the Adam brothers in Hertford, at least one authority identifies Meryton not with Hertford but instead with nearby Ware (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/dighum/2016/12/01/mapping-pride-and-prejudice/). Yet another informant felt:

“Re-reading Pride and Prejudice, I have to say that Meryton bears a strong resemblance to Hertford. But it also feels remarkably like Harpenden. And what about Ware?” (https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/people/finding-jane-austen-s-hertfordshire-7217568).

Stepping aside from the identification of the fictional Meryton in “Pride and Prejudice”, I must not forget to mention the large clock attached to the Shire Hall, which projects over Fore Street. Supplied by the Hertford bell founder and clockmaker John Briant (1749-1829), this clock with two faces was erected on the Shire Hall in 1824. It still works and now has a mechanism regulated by a radio signal from Rugby (www.hertford.gov.uk/town-clocks/).

Apart from the Adelphi, which I have seen several times, but until now did not know it was associated with James Adam, the Shire Hall is the first building of which I was aware of James’s hand in its design. I noticed that a plaque attached to this building makes no mention of Robert Adam but only of his brother. It reads:

“Shire Hall. Designed by James Adam. Built 1769-1771”

I do not know whether one can conclude from this that James’s contribution to its design was considerably greater than that of his brother, if he had any involvement at all. In any case, the large structure has a magnificent presence in amongst the smaller and often older buildings amongst which it stands.