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A household name with a strong Bedfordshire heritage, Whitbread traces its long history back over 275 years when it was first established by Samuel Whitbread senior, who was born in Cardington. The business has gone on to innovate, experiencing highs and lows through the centuries. Whitbread may now have moved on and away from brewing, but Bedfordshire remains central to the 21st-century business with its diverse portfolio.

by Isobel Murdoch W

hen Samuel Whitbread senior founded his brewery in 1742, he was drawing on an old and still evolving tradition. During the Middle Ages, water was so foul that ale was the most common everyday drink, and tended to be brewed on a very small, local, scale, sometimes within the household. It was only when beer using hops was introduced from overseas during the 15th century that brewing became more commercial. Beer could be stored for longer periods of time because its brewing required boiling, which reduced bacteria. This allowed brewing to take place on a larger scale and become more commercially viable. By the 16th- century, larger breweries were replacing home production, and they soon proved a success. It was this trend that Samuel Whitbread was to follow 200 years later.

The Whitbread family’s Bedfordshire roots ran deep, with strong links to the villages of Cardington and Southill. Samuel Whitbread senior was born in Cardington in 1720. He was in his early twenties when he established the brewery which was to bear his name, going into partnership with two fellow businessmen, Thomas and Godfrey Shewell, in 1742. The business soon grew, and 1750 saw Whitbread move to London and open the very first mass- production, purpose-built brewery. This was on Chiswell Street and would be the centre of Whitbread operations for more than 220 years. But, while the business moved to the capital,

Cardington remained home to Samuel, who married during the 1750s. His eldest son, also called Samuel, who was to inherit the brewery, was born in 1758. Samuel senior was soon widowed when his wife died young, but he brought up his family here. Life in Cardington during the 18th and 19th centuries is unusually well documented because a

1782 survey of the village has survived, as well as the 1851 census. The survey was conducted by the local schoolmaster, and paints a clear picture of Cardington at the time of both Samuels. Some 800 people lived in Cardington in 1782, and the village was almost to double in size by 1851 despite the high incidence of infant mortality, which saw nearly half of all children born in the village die before reaching the age of 2. It was a busy, lively, independent place, with diverse craftsmen and tradesmen, from six carpenters and three blacksmiths to a butcher and a miller. Whereas most rural communities at the time depended on agriculture for employment, here textiles and other trades provided an alternative. But there was still terrible poverty, and Cardington was fortunate that Samuel and his second cousin, John Howard, the main local landowners, were committed to helping the community. In 1787, they built almshouses to help poor villagers at a time when rents were high and housing sometimes primitive. The Whitbread chapel, in St Mary’s church, houses monuments to members of the family, although the church itself was rebuilt during the late 19th century, so it was a different earlier church that Samuel senior knew. Samuel senior’s wealth soon enabled him to expand his Bedfordshire estates. As Samuel senior built up his successful business, he also branched out into politics. He was elected MP for Bedford, and was then re-elected in 1774, when John Howard was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. The cousins shared a strong political conscience and a commitment to reform. For John Howard, this led to his campaigns for penal reform, which saw him travel widely across Britain and overseas to expose prison conditions. He caught jail fever on one of these tours, in 1790, and died. The brewery business and Howard's Cardington home

continued on page 18 14 County Life

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