Friday, 8 July 2022

Tales from a Kilkenny Brewery #1: 'The Cavalcade of Loaded Drays' ...

Kilkenny has always been a city of events and fairs, which is a trend that has continued right to the present day with its hosting and support of the arts, comedy and food festivals. In the 1960s and 1970s it hosted a very successful beer festival which probably paved the way for all the other events that followed in the city, but if we go back to the 19th century it was famous for its fairs, where the emphasis was mostly on the serious business of the buying and selling of livestock more so than entertainment and experiences.

The Spring Fair held in March of 1858 was such an event, where the city was thronged for a weekend with people from all over the country and further afield for the purpose of trading in farmstock. It was purported to be the largest fair ever seen in the city by the reports of the day to the point that there were complaints about lack of space to be had for both people and animals, with the latter occupying every available free spot in the city. The hotels and other accommodation were packed to bursting and the city heaved with the movement of all those cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and of course people. One would imagine that the various sounds and smells, combined with the sights and general bustle of the city, made for a unique experience!

By Monday the trading was mostly done but the city would still have been crowded and full of activity as the logistical issue of getting the livestock from the seller to the buyer began. Huge amounts of cattle and sheep were being transported on that day by various methods including four special trains put on by The Great Southern and Western Company, with another having to be sent the following day such was the volume of animals in need of finding a way to their new owners.

On such a busy day it is probable that no one paid much attention at first to a drayman and his cart leaving Edmond Smithwick’s St. Francis Well Brewery and turning left on Parliament Street, as this would have been quite a common sight for the last couple of decades or so. But that drayman was quickly followed by another, and then another, and yet another until a column of drays and horses formed a slow-moving cavalcade that worked its way through the crowds of people and livestock as it headed down what was then King Street before turning left on to Rose Inn Street and jigging right on to John’s Bridge and over the fast-flowing Nore.*

By the time the procession had stopped emerging from the archway at the brewery it was an incredible fifty-three drays long. The size of each dray is not known but if we estimate they were possibly five metres long including horses and the rig itself, and allowing for another two metres or more between drays that makes almost 400 metres of a convoy of drays loaded with ale and porter. This would mean that as the first dray was going over the bridge the last one was only just exiting the brewery.

This is must have stopped people in their tracks – literally. The newspapers of the time states that ‘sensation caused by the passage of the vast cavalcade of loaded drays through the fair was great in the extreme.’ The use of those words - ‘sensation’, ‘vast’ and ‘extreme’ - give an inkling of what a sight it must have been to behold. (Note: I must admit to taking all of this with a small grain of salt, as it seems like a huge amount drays for a brewery to have, although they may have called in favours from other establishments. The reporter - quoted above - seems to imply it was all one delivery but of course the drays might have gone back to the brewery to be loaded again. How fifty-three drays, horse and drivers would even fit inside the walls of the brewery is another issue too ...)

This enormous quantity of ale and porter was destined for the export trade via the railway station at the eastern end of John Street, and specifically a train from The Waterford and Kilkenny Company who would bring the load (probably) to the docks in Waterford and from there onwards to other ports across the sea and thirsty palates in 'foreign' inns and taverns. It would appear from reports at the time that the stock had to leave that day regardless of the fair in order to make its sailing, as time and tide indeed do not wait for man - or brewery.

As to what beer was on those drays we do not know, but at the time the brewery was selling Pale Bitter Ale, XXX and XX ale and also XX Stout Porter. The load may have been mostly their stout porter as two English newspaper advertisements of the time carry advertisements for Smithwick’s Kilkenny Stout Porter, although the Kilkenny report mentions both ale and porter.**

I can find no record of how many barrels were sent but if we calculate that the drays could have held a double stack of perhaps 6 plus 4 to make 10 Irish barrels this would make 530 Irish barrels***, which in modern terms would be about 75,599 litres or 42,960 Imperial pints.**** Indeed the reporting of the day does say that the quantity sent was ‘immense’, so although there is a huge amount of guesswork here we could be looking at those sorts of figures – but be aware again there is no record of quantity.

(For context, Guinness were exporting 848 hogsheads of porter a week around this time and relatively smaller brewers like Watkins were sending 289 - a hogshead was roughly a barrel and a half in size.*****)

But by anyone’s measurement, that long line of drays and horses piled high with ale and porter must have been hugely impressive ...

Liam K.

(Adapted from a report in The Kilkenny Moderator on the 31st of March 1858)

*This is the route I assume it would have taken but it is not reported.

**The Worcestershire Chronicle on the 7th of April 1858 and The Gloucester Journal of the 22nd of May 1858

***This is at best an educated guess but I may not be very far off in my calculation, also I have seen images of drays with anything from two to perhaps twenty barrels stacked on them so this is an average guess. There is absolutely no proof of the quantity – THIS IS NOT FACT!

****I am assuming a barrel is an old Irish Barrel by liquid volume which would be 40 Irish gallons. An old Irish Gallon is 3.566 litres so an Irish Barrel contained 142.64 litres. FYI, tierces were slightly larger and dry volume barrels were also different.

***** The Waterford Mail - Tuesday 20th April 1858

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission, full credit to its sources, and a link back to this post. Newspaper image © The British Library Board - All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( from whom I have received permission to display this images on this site.

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