It may not be surprising that little is known of a long-closed distillery that operated somewhere in the remote Highlands, but you might expect more records to survive of a distillery that produced malt whisky in a big city. However, strange though it may seem, very little is known about the only distillery that ever distilled malt whisky in the capital. And with ‘capital’ we mean London, not Edinburgh.
Lea Valley distillery produced malt and grain whisky at the turn of the 20th century. In Victorian times, London’s Lea Valley was an important industrial centre. Distilling in itself was not new to the area: the Three Mills distillery, operating from the first half of the 18th century until after the Second World War, but this malt spirit can not really be considered whisky, as it was distilled to be rectified into gin.
Lea Valley distillery was visited by Alfred Barnard and his description of the works, given in full at the end of this article, is basically the only real source we have on the distillery. As usual, Barnard describes every nut and bolt of the works, but three questions are left wide open by him: when, where and what. When did Lea Valley operate (Barnard gives no year of establishment)? Where in London did Lea Valley operate (Barnard only gives ‘Stratford’)? What did the malt whisky taste like (Barnard rarely writes something we would consider a ‘tasting note’)?
To start with the ‘When’ question, the first reference to Lea Valley distillery appears to be in the 1886/7 local directory (it is not included in the 1882 directory). The entry reads “182 Warton Road West Side Lea Valley Distillery Co Limited whisky distillers E A Brock, man. dir.” This is a reference contemporary to Barnard and indeed the name of the managing director fits the one given by Barnard. Exactly when the distillery was established is still unclear. The last reference is in the local directory for 1902/3: “New Lea Valley Distillery Co Limited A J Carden, man. dir.” Very little is known about this second managing director, except that he was a member of the Society of Chemical Industry. In 1902 or 1903 Lea Valley was offered to D.C.L., the dominant whisky company in those days; the offer was declined. It appears that Lea Valley was not in good shape in 1902 and quite possibly went bust shortly after the decline by D.C.L as the company is not listed in the 1903/4 directory (Charles Craig, in his Scotch Whisky Industry Record, writes that the distillery closed before 1910). The exact circumstances surrounding its closure, including the reasons behind this, remain obscure. Similarly obscure are the reasons behind establishing a malt distillery in London (Barnard talks about a ‘bold experiment’). The enterprise wasn’t small: the annual production of 155,000 gallons of malt whisky (and the 40 employees) would make Lea Valley rank among the top 20 malt distilleries in Scotland in those days.
We can answer the ‘Where’ question a bit better thanks to an Ordnance Survey map from 1894-6. London Sheet VIII. 21. shows Lea Valley distillery occupying part of a stretch of land between the Waterworks River, Warton Road and Carpenter’s Road. The area occupied by the distillery is partly split in two by the Lea Bank Soap & Candle Works. However, detailed though Barnard’s description may be, the exact layout of the buildings can not be ascertained with any accuracy.
Is there still anything left of Lea Valley distillery today? Fortunately, the road lay-out of the area hasn’t changed in the 100+ years since the map was published and it is not difficult to find the approximate site. The 1st photo is taken looking north on the corner of Carpenter’s Road and Warton Road. The 2nd photo is from further up Carpenter’s Road, looking west; the 3rd photo is from further along Warton Road, looking north. A detailed archaeological survey would be needed to say exactly where the distillery buildings stood and whether a wall may still have survived. But with the site being occupied by a Tarmac concrete plant and several car breakers, there doesn’t appear to be much, if anything, left of London’s Lea Valley distillery.
And finally, what did the whisky taste like? Barnard mentions a set-up with three pot stills, which shows the whisky was triple-distilled and therefore, probably, quite light in character. He does not mention peat, which again would point to a very light-tasting whisky. But was the whisky meant to be bottled as a single whisky or did the entire production go to the blenders? Yet again, more unanswered questions …..
Thanks to the Newham Local Library for drawing our attention to the local directories. Given how little is known about Lea Valley distillery, we would be delighted to hear from anyone who has additional information on London’s only malt whisky distillery.
© 2003 Alex Kraaijeveld & Brian Strong
Lea Valley Distillery, Stratford, London.
Proprietors, The Lea Valley Distillery Co., Limited.
Managing Director: E. A. Brock.
Secretary: W. A. Carden.
There are several ways of reaching this Distillery, which is five miles from the City. Tram-cars run from Aldgate, omnibuses from the Bank, and trains from Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street Stations; we chose the tram-car, which landed us nearer our destination than any other route. When the Distillery was built, the whole district was a country suburb, and land was very cheap; now, with the exception of a few fields at the back of the works, every inch has been built over and almost absorbed in the great City. Lea Valley is the only Malt Distillery in England, and it was certainly a bold experiment to make a trial in the very heart of the Kingdom, so far away from the hills and mountain streams; the proprietors find, by experience, that they did wisely, and the demand for their Whisky has led to the erection of other buildings and the enlargement of those existing. The Company have also gone in for the manufacture of Grain Whisky, and possess all the appliances and vessels used by the Scotch Distilleries for that purpose. The managing director, who is a practical distiller, received us most courteously, and himself conducted us over the establishment.
The Distillery was founded by Mr. E. A. Brock in connection with Mr. Geo. Phillips, who sold it to the above Company, Mr. Brock remaining as managing director. The buildings, which cover one acre, are planted on the banks of a section of the Canal, and are erected entirely of brick, after the plans of Mr. Brock. The Maltings are all at Ware, in Hertfordshire, and the malt is brought direct therefrom by canal. We first inspected the Granary building, a lofty structure of four stories, which abuts on the canal, and is 120 feet long by 45 feet broad; the grain is lifted by hoists direct from the barges and spread out in the Lofts. One of the lower floors is appropriated to the Mill machinery, and contains five pairs of stones, the other are used for storing the grain.
Adjoining the Granary, is the Heating Tank Room, wherein are three wrought iron Tanks, made by Fraser, of Bromley, two hold 24,000 gallons the other one 20,000 gallons. They stand on iron columns and girders, and are heated by steam, the space underneath being utilized as a Smithy and Fitters’ Shop. We passed from the second floor of the Granary on to the top floor of the next house, which constitutes the Grist Loft, and is over the Mash House. It is a light and spacious apartment, 85 feet long by 45 feet wide and placed in its centre is the Grist Hopper, which feeds a Steel’s Mashing Machine. Descending a stair ladder, we reached the Mash House, of same dimensions as the Grist Loft, where we inspected the metal Mash Tun. This vessel, which is 26 feet in diameter and 8 feet deep, contains a set of double revolving rakes and the usual draining plates. There is another Mash Tun in the same house in course of construction, which will be of similar dimensions, and both are by Turnbull, Grant and Jack, of Glasgow. The Underback, holding 12,000 gallons, is placed under the paved floor, and the worts and pumped up therefrom to the Worts Receiver, placed on iron columns, 32 feet high, close to the Back House. This Receiver is a prominent object from the railway, and is a very handsome vessel. Underneath, by a neat contrivance, there is a hanging Grains Receiver, containing an automatic measure, which registers the quantity of draff as it falls into the farmers’ carts. The Mash House is well and conveniently arranged, and the walls are painted white.
Passing through a doorway we next found ourselves in the Tun Room, a long gallery, 90 feet by 40 feet. On either side of the walls are four Washbacks, unlike any we have seen before, being composed of thick metal plates, 16 feet in diameter, and 18 feet deep. On the half-landing above are placed two of Morton’s Refrigerators, of 60 barrels capacity per hour. We next went through an opening in the wall, and descending a long flight of steps found ourselves in a platform level with the heads of the Stills in the Still House, a lofty apartment, 60 feet long by 25 feet wide, containing three handsome Pot Stills, made by Fleming, Bennet, and McLaren, and all heated by steam. They consist of a Wash Still, holding 4,000 gallons; a Feints Still, 3,000 gallons; and a Spirit Still, 1,500 gallons, and on a gallery there are four Low-wines and Feints Receivers, holding 2,500 gallons each, and one Spirit Receiver, containing 2,000 gallons.
Our guide then conducted us to the No. 2 Still House, 65 feet long and 25 feet broad, which contains a Coffey’s Patent Still, made by John Dore and Sons, of Bromley; two Spirit Receivers, holding 2,500 and 2,000 gallons respectively; two Wash Chargers, each 25,000 gallons capacity; two Feints Receivers, each 1,000 gallons content; and also a Morton’s Patent Vertical Refrigerator, the first ever erected in a Distillery for cooling spirits. We next made an inspection of the Engine Department, containing a 30-horse power engine, by Deakin and Parke, of Manchester; there are also four others, of less horse-power. Adjacent are three steam-boilers, by Galloway and Fraser; two of them are 60-horse power and the other 50-horse power, all 31 feet long, by 7˝ feet in diameter. Here also are three sets of three-throw pumps, by Hunter and English, of London, and several patent pumps for water, worts, &c., by Picking and Hopkins, of Arnold Works, Bow. Crossing the yard we entered the Spirit Store, a detached building, containing two vats; one holding 10,000 gallons, the other 450 gallons. In close proximity there is a larger building used for storing spirits in vats. The Warehouses are three in number, and contain together a little over 1,800 casks. On the premises there is a Cooperage and Cask Shed, Distillery, and Revenue Offices, a private office for the Managing Director, Foreman’s House, and capital stables. Forty persons are employed in the works. The water used is from the New River and the Whisky made is both Grain and Malt; the annual output of the former is 305,000 gallons, of the latter 155,000 gallons.