Social Mobility in Victorian England: The Case of Robert Cain

cains151One of the things that surprised me while I was researching my book Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint was how open Victorian society seems to have been to social climbers. Robert Cain, the founder of the Cains brewery in Liverpool has always been widely believed to have arrived in Liverpool aged 18 and to have built his business from scratch. But it was also thought that he had an aristocratic lineage, or at least a family background among the Irish ‘gentry’. This fits with the common view in the Victorian period and later that somehow ‘quality’ would survive despite financial difficulties. Even the great social critic Charles Dickens goes along with this. For example in Oliver Twist Oliver grows up in the workhouse and becomes part of a gang of thieves. Despite his poverty and lack of opportunities and good influences, his inherent goodness wins out. Oliver of course turns out to be a member by birth of the upper middle classes; he is the grandson of a gentleman and because of that it is somehow less of a surprise that he should have been able to resist a life of crime and moral depravity.

In reality the Victorians were a lot more pragmatic about class and it seems that as long as aspiring members of the middle classes had wealth, could follow the rules of social etiquette, and lived a ‘respectable’ life, they would be accepted. Robert Cain, who turns out in fact to have grown up in the horrific Liverpool slums of the 1830s and 1840s, was able to make a conscious effort to adopt the manners and tastes of the Victorian middle classes. More specifically he joined the merchant classes who acquired wealth and shifted the balance of influence from the great country estates to the cities in the second half of the nineteenth century. They in turn bought their own great houses and were awarded peerages. Here’s part of what I have to say about the beginning of Robert Cain’s rise through the social ranks, from chapter 2 of my book:

By 1854, the year that Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government took Britain into the Crimean War, the brewery in Limekiln Lane was no longer able to cope with the demand for Cain’s beers. He purchased a larger brewery on Wilton Street, at a stroke doubling the number of ‘hands’ he employed and the amount of beer he produced. By then his capital was beginning to ‘work itself’ and the Limekiln Lane premises were leased and later sold to brewers David and Mathew Warriner. Cain’s business kept expanding and in 1858 he was able to purchase an established brewery on Stanhope Street, where Cain’s beers are brewed 150 years later.

The Stanhope Street site offered space to expand, it had its own good quality water supply and existing equipment. But the move from the’North End’ ghetto to South of the city centre was also a move away from Cain’s Irish beginnings and possibly even his family. Certainly the purchase of the Stanhope Street brewery was an indication of his ambition and of his determination to escape the poverty of his past. By then Robert and Ann Cain had four children. Besides Robert James and Hannah, Mary had been born in 1854 and a second son, Alfred Dean Cain, was born in 1856. Two more daughters, Sarah and Maria, would arrive in 1859 and 1861.

In the year of Maria’s birth the Cains were living not far from the brewery at number 3, Stanhope Street, which was then the Transatlantic Hotel, now a pub called The Coburg. It appears that the Cains ran the hotel as part of the business, with Robert as the licensee and Ann’s mother, by then a widow, living with them in the capacity of housekeeper. The family employed two live-in general servants and shared their property with Thomas Thomson, a barman. Although Cain’s business was doing well by then the Transatlantic Hotel was not a grand establishment. Being close to the docks and surrounded by warehousing and other industrial buildings it was probably a cheap residential hotel for single men–sailors and labourers–who needed a place to stay while working away from home.

For Robert Cain and his family the early 1860s were the period in which they began to enjoy their success. Benefitting from the abolition of duty on hops Cain made constant improvements to the brewery and expanded the number of tied houses. The pace of change at the brewery was dramatic. From the tiny brewery on Limekiln Lane in 1850 by the early 1860s Cain was no longer able to manage every aspect of the business himself. By then the brewery was producing around 200 barrels of beer every week and was growing fast. On July 14, 1862 he engaged a young brewer William Blackburn who stayed with the company for the next five years and helped develop some of Cain’s most distinctive beers, including the celebrated XXXX ale.

The death of Robert and Ann’s two year-old daughter Maria in 1863 was followed the same year by the birth of another daughter Lena, and on May 7, 1864 a son, William Ernest Cain. By 1866, when Charles Alexander Cain was born, the family had moved into a villa called ‘Mersey View’ in Grassendale Park, an exclusive Victorian enclave several miles outside the city. William and Charles would go on to become the joint directors of the company Robert Cain and Sons Ltd. after their father’s death and later took charge of Walker’s of Warrington. Both received knighthoods and in 1933 Charles entered the House of Lords with an hereditary peerage and became known as Lord Brocket.

The move to Grassendale Park was a significant one for the Cain family, not only for the way it changed how they lived, but also for what it represented. Grassendale Park in the 1860s offered wealthy families a retreat from the city’s noise and grime and when the Cains lived there the enclave was separated from the city by open fields. Sefton Park and the grand houses around it had not yet been built, while to the east Garston was a farming community. The houses in Grassendale Park are large and most stood in their own grounds. One of the attractions of Grassendale Park is the Esplanade, a promenade that runs along the bank of the Mersey, backed by large Victorian villas facing across the river. It is easy to imagine Ann Cain and her growing children taking walks along the Esplanade, or looking at the view from their large picture windows. In a little over ten years they had come a very long way from Limekiln Lane.

Even in the 1860s Grassendale was a convenient commuting distance from the city. Cressington station, which opened in 1864, handled trains that would have taken commuters into Liverpool in just a few minutes, passing through Aigburth and St. Michaels. But Robert Cain chose to travel to the brewery every day on his horse, setting off long before the first train was running to begin work at 5 a.m. Cain’s regular work habits gained him a reputation in Grassendale and Aigburth where the sound of his horse’s hooves became as important to some people as the chiming of the church clock. The Liverpool Review takes up the story:

“Mr. Charles Challoner, who lived in … [Aigburth] Hall used to hear the sound of a horse trotting past in the early grey hours of the morning, and at length enquired about the person from the sexton of Grassendale Church. ‘He goes past like the clock’, said Mr. Challoner. ‘I have looked at the time over and over again when his horse passed and he was almost invariably to the same minute. I never need to look at my watch in the morning now, I know the exact time by Mr. Cain’s horse’s hoofs’.” (Liverpool Review, 1887, 10)

For all of the attractions Grassendale had to offer the journey into Liverpool must have been difficult, especially in winters such as 1866, when the snowfall was heavy enough to bring down telegraph wires. Despite the success of the business he was still working 12 or 13-hour days and continued to do so well into his seventies, but time spent traveling kept him away from his developing interests in rare plants and collecting art.

From Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint.

Listen to me reading from chapter 1 here or here (

31 thoughts on “Social Mobility in Victorian England: The Case of Robert Cain

  1. hhhHello

    I am the great great grandson of Robert Cain Brewer of Liverpool and am most anxious to learn more of our family and it’s development over the course of the last century.
    I know that my Great Grandfather quarrelled with his father for some reason and was banished to Jersey as a Remittance Man. From what I can tell he led a life of luxury.
    Unfortunately his eldest son(my Grandfather quarrelled with his father and in due course was not recognised in his will)
    My Grandfather lived in Jersey and in due course married Clara Vivien Morley of St Hellier.

    How I wish I had asked more about my family when I was young,however; like most young peiople I did not take advantage of the opportunity. Now I am attempting to write my family history and hoping someone will come along to give me more informatio

    Many years ago while serving aboard the Royal Yacht Britanna we visited Jersey where my Grandmothers family made me welcome. I wonder if they remember my visit.

    It would be both wonderful and incredible if anyone responded to this E mail,however I am living in hopes tha information relating to my Great Grandfather and his wife will prove forthcoming.

    H . M . Cain (known as Peter to my friends.



  2. I’m a great great grandson of Robert Cain too, living in Sydney. I agree with Peter – I wish I had taken an interest in all this when we were growing up. I had no idea! But – I do have a copy of the complete family tree and if anyone wants a copy I will be happy to send it to them. It goes down to my mothers era born 1915. We came from the Alfred Dean Cain line.

    David Sawyer


    1. Hello David.

      On looking through the websight of Chris today I found your Email indicating that you too are the great great Grandson of Robert Cain Brewer of Liverpool.
      If only I had known many years ago when I served aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia visiting Australia a number of times with Her Majesty the Queen on board. I remember calling in at Sydney which proved popular with the crew. What a strange world!!!
      I now live in Norfolk with my wife Oriette and are not benefactors in any way from either Great Great grandfathers or Great grandfathers wills. It seems my Grandfather and my Great Grandfather quarrelled and our side of the family were left out of the will.
      I find it fascinating to learn about members of our large family and feel there are a large number dotted around the world holding various bits of information
      I would be delighted if you took time our to get in touch.
      Peter Cain of Norfolk England


    2. Hi Herbert!

      I am trying to track down my father’s family. My grandfather was Alfred Hampden Cain and was born in Douglas, Isle of Man. Do you have any record of my grandfather?



      1. Hello Gail
        I think I might have replied to your recent Email however as I am a beginner at using the Internet I might have failed in my attempt to contact you.
        I can find no reference to your Granfather in the family chronicles but this does not mean you should give up in your attempt to learn about you Grandfather.
        There are numerous Cains who live on the Isle O f Mann so who knows what information is available to you.
        Why not contact one of the local papers, they often come up with information.
        I would like to keep in touch with you.


      2. Hi
        Did you have any luck in learning more about your family on the Isle of Mann?
        As a young trainee sailor in 1945 I did my Naval training on the Island and well remember the thrill of being so many miles away from Cornwall.
        Happy days although I did not realise at the time!!
        Best wishes
        Peter Cain


    3. Hi ,

      I am currently researching my family tree and my family originated from Ireland and the Isle of Man settling in Liverpool, my late Father always said our family were related to the Cain brewery family and I wondered if I could have a copy of your family tree to help with my research.

      Many thanks.


    4. Hi David.
      I am new to using the internet so I hope you will bear with me. I feel almost certain that we are related and that our family has quite a history to be proud of.
      Do you ever watch a programme called “Who do you think you are”? I watch it whenever I can and always think of our family and wonder what it must have been for our Great Great Grandfather all those years ago when he moved to Liverpool from Ireland.
      Do get in touch.
      I have happy memories of visits to Australia when I served aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. On one occasion we circumnavigated the whole continent of Australia.
      Best wishes from a devoted Cain


    5. David

      Peter and I have been conversing for a few months and he sent me this link. I am in the US and come from the same Robert James line as Peter. I have quite a bit fo the fmaily tree worked out but dont have much on Alfred Deane’s daughter. I would love to swap information if we could.
      I am in the US (Tennessee) but I have a niece in your neck of the woods in Brisbane at the moment 🙂



      1. David
        send me you email address to aysgarth at hotmail dot com and I’ll send you what I have (goes for anyone else out there too)


    6. Hi David,

      I was born in Liverpool and now reside in Los Angeles.

      Please forward a copy of the Cain family tree to my email address as I am currently researching my family tree.

      Charles Alexander Nall-Cain, 1st Baron Brocket (29 May 1866 – 21 November 1934), born Charles Alexander Cain.

      Lord Brocket married, firstly, Florence Nall, daughter of William Nall. In 1921 he assumed by deed poll his wife’s maiden surname of Nall in addition to that of Cain.


      Colin Carr-Nall


    7. Hi David
      Could I trouble you for a copy of the Cain family tree. I am from the Robert James side of the family. i.e. his son Robert was my grandfather and my father was his eldest son also a Robert
      All the best
      Robert Cain


  3. Hi David, Peter, Anthony

    I’m amazed how many Cains ended up in Australia or scattered around the world, but I suppose that’s true of a lot of families from Liverpool.

    Peter, I think your great grandfather was seen as a bit of an oddball by his father. The original quarrel I think went back to his marriage, which seems to have taken place without his family’s approval, but he was probably not well suited to business–he had several different occupations. In the course of researching my book I came across stories about his younger brothers, Charles and William, making efforts to get him out of the business, though Robert James did refer to himself as a brewer for a while. I’m not sure he was exactly banished to Jersey as much as encouraged to leave; I suspect moving to Jersey in particular was to do with tax avoidance. If you know for sure though, perhaps you would share it here.

    David, what do you know about Alfred? He was quite difficult to trace back. Here’s what I wrote about him. Have I got this right?

    “It was also during the 1880s that the Mersey Brewery became a truly family concern. In the 1870s Cain’s eldest son Robert James lived with his wife Sarah at 65 Stanhope Street, right next door to the brewery and by 1880 he had given up his career as a builder and was working as a brewer in the family firm. It was not to last and within a few years Robert James moved to the Channel Islands to live on his ‘independent means’. By then it was becoming clear that the other sons, Alfred, William, Charles, and Herbert, would be more willing to work together. Cain’s daughters were mostly excluded from involvement in running the business.

    Alfred, William, Charles, and Herbert all listed their profession as ‘Brewer‚’ in the 1890s. The family also had connections by marriage with another brewer, Shaw‚Äôs of Ashton under Lyne. Both Alfred Cain and his sister Lena married members of the Shaw family and after Alfred‚Äôs death in 1899 his wife Mary was represented at Robert Cain and Sons board meetings by her brother George. Lena, who married Henry Shaw in 1886, lived with him near the Dukinfield Brewery in Ashton. They moved with their children to Hoylake in the late 1890s.”


  4. Thanks – I didn’t know anything!
    A couple of coincidences: Robert and Peter were in the merchant navy – so was I for a couple of years – not on the Royal Yacht though!
    I didn’t know the Shaws were brewers too – my father-in-law was a brewer with the SA Brewing Company in Adelaide – so I don’t stand a chance!
    My daughter, Kate Sawyer, is going to Liverpool tonight to shoot a commercial until Wednesday – she will be staying at the new Hilton in Liverpool – just up from the brewery by the look of it.
    She’ll have a copy of the family tree in her bag if you want one – but you probably know it backwards! She will be quite busy but she could always leave it for you.
    I look forward to receiving the book.


    1. David
      That’s a kind offer, but I couldn’t make it I’m afraid. You’re right though, the Hilton isn’t far from the brewery. I hope she found time for a pint in the ‘Tap’.

      Not sure I know your family tree backwards: The Cains had a lot of children so there are a lot of branches, especially after 150 years. It’s real rags to riches stuff.



    1. Yes please Chris. Do please arrange to exchange our Email addresses. It seems we have a lot to talk about.
      Kind regards


  5. I do hope my messages left on Chris’s websight make sense to David and Antony. It would be super if we could get to know one another.
    I am attempting to write a fictional novel loosely based on the Cain family;although in this instance I am only allowing Robert two sons. As you can imagine one is jealous of the other.
    I also enjoy writing short stories for a number of magazine,and am always delighted when any are accepted for publication!!
    David. I was in the Royal Navy and not the Merchant Navy. The Royal Yacht was crewed by Royal Naval sailors of which I was one (Chief Petty Officer) On retirement I underwent training at Southampton University to become a Probation Officer.
    I am now living in Norfolk with my wife Oriette where we have settled down to a relaxed way of life far removed from the pressures of everyday work. Retirement suits me!!

    Hopefully you David and Antony will get in touch with me soon. Oriette is most excited that a few of we Cains are making contact.



  6. It seems I am always attempting members of the Cain family;however I find it fascinating to discover the whereabouts of all those who have arrived on the scene since those early days in the 1800s.
    I am sure that a number went on to make their family fortunes while the remainder have led very ordinary lives far removed from that of my Great Great Grandfather.
    I wonder what he would have thought about my chosen caree as a Chief Petty Officer serving as a member of crew of the Royal Yacht Britannia a


  7. It seems I am always attempting members of the Cain family;however I find it fascinating to discover the whereabouts of all those who have arrived on the scene since those early days in the 1800s.
    I am sure that a number went on to make their family fortunes while the remainder have led very ordinary lives far removed from that of my Great Great Grandfather.
    I wonder what he would have thought about my chosen career as a Chief Petty Officer serving as a member of crew of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Perhaps not a lot!!


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