Robert Cain’s First Head Brewer

William Blackburn and Ann Brownbill Blackburn

While I was writing Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Liverpool Records Office. But the most compelling research material came from some very generous individuals whose family histories overlap with Robert Cain’s. One of the most interesting documents I looked at was the ledger of William Blackburn, a young brewer who worked for Robert Cain at the Mersey Brewery (now the Robert Cain Brewery) on Stanhope Street in the 1860s. I was given access to the ledger by Charles Taylor, a descendent of William Blackburn and of the boxer Charles Blackburn (1872-1950), William and Ann’s younger son. Charles was the Lightweight Champion of Lancashire and later became a boxing referee and a publican. Charlie and his wife Elizabeth ran the Stag’s Head Hotel on Pembroke Place and had other pubs in Liverpool. Here’s some of what I have to say in the book about William Blackburn’s time working for Robert Cain:

The general process of converting malt into beer through the stages of mashing, boiling, and fermentation is the same everywhere. But brewers are notoriously secretive about their techniques for combining water, malt, and hops, the three main ingredients in beer. This makes it difficult to work out exactly what beer from the period was like. In the case of Cain’s however, evidence from the 1860s offers an insight into the style and quality of the beer being produced, as well as telling us quite a lot about the size of the brewery. This evidence takes the form of a ledger or brewers’ diary kept by William Blackburn, who joined Robert Cain’s brewery on July 14, 1862. For the next five years he brewed some of Cain’s best-known beers and the ‘Superior Ales and Stouts’ that were advertised around Liverpool on billboards and pub signs. Blackburn’s meticulous record includes details of the type, age, and quantities of of hops and malt used, as well as recording the outcome of each brew. The final brew Blackburn made for Cain took place on September 7, 1867, before he took up a position in the Windsor Brewery on Upper Parliament Street, which belonged to his family. He records sadly ‘These brews were left in the squares when I left Cains and I do not know the result of them’.

In the mid-nineteenth century scientific approaches to brewing were in their infancy, though chemical analysis of water supplies was becoming common among the larger producers. The rate at which Cain’s brewery expanded suggests that even then he was able to make reliable, uniform beer of good quality. William Blackburn records the rate of expansion in his ledger. When he first began working for Cain the brewery was producing around 53 or 54 barrels of beer every two or three days, up to around 150 barrels each week. Five years later production had risen to 64 barrels every other day. In some weeks in 1867, even during the difficult summer months, the brewery produced almost 300 barrels of finished ale each week, around 15,000 barrels a year. This was not a large brewery by national standards. London brewer Whitbread produced 190,000 barrels in 1830 and 250,000 in 1880. But the rate of growth–a doubling of output in just five years–is remarkable nevertheless. Later in life Cain became known for having a keen interest in the most up to date techniques and claimed that if he could see an advantage in a new piece of equipment he would buy it without hesitation. It is likely that despite having limited formal education Cain was already interested in brewing to modern scientific standards when he bought the Stanhope Street site.

It is probably worth noting that Blackburn’s Windsor Brewery was taken over by the well-known Liverpool brewer Higson’s around 1912. Higson’s renamed it the Cheapside Brewery. In 1923 Higson’s bought the Mersey Brewery from Robert Cain and Sons and brewed there until the late 1980s.

Read more about Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint.

Read more about the boxer Charles Blackburn at the Liverpool Museums website.

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 (

Cains Radio Interviews

I was off sick most of the last week but on Saturday I managed to drag myself into Liverpool for radio appearances on the Billy Butler show on BBC Radio Merseyside and then on Brian Reade’s show at City Talk. I’ll try to get copies of the interviews up here as soon as I can; they seemed to go pretty well.

What seems to be becoming clear from talking to people about the book is that there is a lot of interest in the final ‘credit crunch’ chapter. I was asked to comment a couple of times on whether I thought the brewery could survive now and of course that’s an impossible question to answer. While I have been following the company quite closely for several years now and have spoken to the Dusanj brothers several times, that kind of information is just not available. What I do think is that by taking back the brewery and the core pubs and having the administrators take the former Honeycombe estate off their hands, the Dusanj brothers have been handed something an awful lot of companies will be trying to pull off right now, namely a company reduced in size. Had the bank not withdrawn funding–an act that seemed like a disaster at the time–the Cains Beer Company would now be struggling with an over-sized organisational structure, massive debts, and too many pubs, many of them unsaleable. It’s been a painful process for everyone, but that must count as one of the luckiest of lucky breaks.

I did manage to talk a little about the rest of the book though and it’s really the early chapters, about the Robert Cain era, that excite me most about it. The Robert Cain story is obscured by the mythology that has grown up around him and uncovering those myths was one of the most enjoyable parts of researching the book. Robert Cain is often talked about as ‘an Irish immigrant’ who came to Liverpool with nothing, aged 18, but in fact he arrived much earlier than that and had an even more difficult start than has been thought. I’ll be saying more about that here over the coming weeks.

Finally I should mention that the brewery has decided to buy a number of copies of the book and these will be on display and on sale in pubs such as Doctor Duncan’s and The Brewery Tap in Liverpool, and through the brewery website.


Listen to me reading chapter 1 of Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint here:

or here:

Cain’s Chapter One (

Cains Book in the Daily Post and Echo

Yesterday I went down to the Brewery Tap to meet with journalists and the Dusanj brothers to mark the publication of Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint. The fact that the Dusanjs were there was surprising in itself as they have stayed away from the media since the Cains Beer Company went into administration in the summer, but they were also willing to pose for photographs and handed out bottles of beer. Let’s hope this is the start of their rehabilitation in the city. Mike Chapple has a good write-up in the Daily Post, where he focusses on the final chapter of the book, which deals with the summer’s events:

This crux period is documented in the revised final chapter, Full Circle, the title being just about the only thing that remains unchanged about it. Ultimately, it tells how the Dusanjs managed to negotiate a rescue deal with administrators – but without flinching from reflecting the criticism which has been subsequently aimed at the brothers themselves.

As it states: “The sheen had come off the previous six years of expansion and awards.”

The Echo‘s business correspondent Neil Hodgson also has a news piece today on the book launch, History of Cains goes into Print.

Download: Listen to me reading chapter one of the book. (via

Cains mp3 Download

It looks like Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint is starting to find its way out to the bookshops now. Yesterday I received my own copies and the supply chain should improve over the next few days. From today you can also listen to me reading the first chapter of the book, “An Immigrant Story” by downloading an mp3 from here:

Cain’s Chapter One (

Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Wordle


According to the developer Wordle is a toy for creating ‘word clouds’ from chunks of text, or from any blog or website that has an RSS feed. Apart from being quite entertaining, it looks like Wordle is being used in schools to teach spelling and vocabulary. You can tweak the font, layout, and colours, or just keep hitting the Random button until you see one you like. That’s what I did with the wordle above, generated from the first chapter of Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint. The most commonly used words appear largest, which gives you a pretty good idea what the book is about.

Here are some more:

Thanks to Andrew Beacock for putting me onto this.

Wordles are licensed by the Creative Commons.

Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint–It's Finally Here

An email from the publisher this morning to say that the Cain’s book has finally arrived. I haven’t seen a finished copy yet, so the tension is high around here, but it looks like it is starting to show up at the online bookstores at least. Borders seems to be quickest off the mark and is offering 24 hour dispatch times in the UK. Here is the listing. More links to online stores are in this post.

Robert Cain's Winter Ale

In the 1860s brewing was becoming an industrial process. The ability to keep the fermentation warm in the winter and cool in the summer made it possible to brew year-round. In 1865 a young brewer called William Blackburn was working for Robert Cain at the Stanhope Street brewery, known then as the Mersey Brewery. While researching Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint I was privileged to be shown his brewing ledger by one of his descendents, whose family owned the Windsor Brewery in Parliament Street, which appears to have been bought from them half a century later by Higson’s. Blackburn’s ledger is a meticulous document outlining all his brews over a five year period.

In December 1866 Robert Cain’s brewery was producing large quantities of what it called ‘xxx ale’, a traditional brew for the brewery at this time of year. Sixty-one barrels of this ale were produced on December 4th, and then 62 on the 5th. A further 60 barrels were finished on the 7th and so it goes on roughly every other day until the end of the month, at which point Blackburn notes that the weather had been very cold–the winter of 1866 was notoriously hard–but the brews turned out ‘very fair’. We are lucky enough to have the recipe for this ale as Blackburn outlines it (this is exactly as written, spelling and capitalisation included):

December 4th, Brewed xxx ale. 1866

Malt 176 Bush’ of Whitworth

Hops 60lb of Kent 1865

Hops 30lb of Hereford 1865

Hops 28lb of Bavarians 1866

Piched at 57Tv 27G Barm 30lb

Finished at 68Tv 8G 61 Barrels

a good fermentation.

To get an idea of what this tasted like, compare the proportion of hops (bitter) to malt (sweet) from his ‘Bitter Ale’, brewed a few days later. Using three times the amount of hops (296lb) and less malt (128 bushels) to produce 62 barrels of finished ale, this would probably have been more bitter than the ‘xxx’, though William Blackburn complains that in this later brew there were too many old hops for a bitter ale–the Kentish hops he used were from the 1856 harvest, ten years earlier.

Cains Still Not on Try Here Instead

Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint.
Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint.

Updated The list of people receiving order cancellations from Amazon is growing so I’m putting together a collection of alternative places where you can pre-order Cains: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, which will be with us very soon now. Many thanks to everyone who has pre-ordered the book.

Amazon (UK) is taking orders.

Amazon (USA) is taking orders.

WH Smith (UK) is taking orders. (Matches the price for UK customers)

Waterstones (UK) is taking orders.

Borders (UK) is taking orders. (Matches the price for UK customers)

Borders (USA) is taking orders.

The publisher is taking orders and also gives a link for customers in the USA and Mexico.

Former Cain's Pubs Not Selling

The Morning Advertiser reports that the administrators of the former Cain’s Beer Company are having trouble selling a group of 26 pubs from the company’s estate to Pubco Calco. Given the economic circumstances–the lack of available credit, the continuing fall in property values–it’s probably not surprising that they are finding it hard to sell them all off in one go:

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the administrator, is thought to have held talks with Calco after the little-known pub company that operates more than 100 pubs in the UK outbid its nearest rivals by more than £4m.

However, it is thought that Calco struggled to raise the necessary finance to fund the deal, forcing PwC to re-market the pubs.

The administrator, which has now set a bid deadline of 21 November, may abandon plans to sell the 26 sites as one package.

Here’s the link.