Oakhill Brewery was founded in 1767 by Jordan and Perkins. During its life it passed through the hands of several proprietors, including Billingsley and Jillard in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For most of the 19th century the Jillard and Spencer families were the owners, and in the early 20th century the Hobhouse family came into the business as the last of the Directors. The most famous owner was John Billingsley (1747-1811), a local man and entrepreneur, known for many major engineering projects in Somerset. A practical and forward thinking man, he had a wide variety of interests and talents including agriculture, for which he is best known. He lived at Ashwick Grove, a mansion just outside the village of Oakhill.
The Brewery was sited in Oakhill on account of the excellent Mendip spring water, the water supply being taken in pipes from springs on the hill to the south. As the business prospered its proprietors built gracious mansions in landscaped gardens, the managers were provided with houses, and terraces of humbler houses were built for the workers. Much of the village of Oakhill was built by the Brewery. The business also developed a range of services and buildings for its own use, apart from those necessary for the actual brewing, including: gasometers for lighting both the brewery and the local streets; offices; stables for the dray horses; a sewerage system for both the brewery and local housing; a light railway to take the beer to the mainline station at Binegar; and a clean water system which carried water from the brewery to many dwellings in the area, with one supply heading out towards Nettlebridge. These services were provided free, before many nationally – including those in Shepton Mallet – had sewerage, water or gas lighting.
The business acquired many inns and public houses, mainly in Somerset, and the proprietors bought up land as investment, both as part of the company’s assets and as personal holdings. However, the financial benefit was not all taken by the owners. The Brewery proprietors were almost all non-conformists and noted for their concern for the health and welfare of their workforce. They gave land for the construction of chapels and started the first primary school in Oakhill. They distributed free coal in harsh weather and provided food and entertainment on occasions of public celebration, such as the ending of the Napoleonic War, when feasting and fireworks ‘accompanied by a good band’ were the order of the day.
In the early days the beer was delivered by cart, later by drays using heavy horses. Later still a Wallis & Stevens traction engine delivered the barrels to Binegar station. By its heyday the Brewery was a major producer, most famous for its award-winning Oakhill Invalid Stout – in its peak it produced more Stout than Guinness. So in 1904, due to its large volume of production (between 2,000 and 2,500 barrels per week), the Brewery constructed its own railway to take barrels of Stout to the Somerset & Dorset Railway in nearby Binegar. It was the only Brewery in the country to have its own railway. The line was 2’6″ gauge and operated two 0-4-0T locomotives, the ‘Mendip’ and the ‘Oakhill’, which were painted in an olive green livery. Traces of the railway line can still be seen in the surrounding area.
During WW1 production and sale of British beer was limited for several reasons – including Government imposition of a heavy tax in order to discourage drinking. As Ireland suffered no such limitations sales of Oakhill Stout fell behind those of Guinness and never recovered.
The malthouses were situated a little way up the High Street, where the stone wall of the old malt-house abuts the street. This building is thought to date from about 1890. Adjacent to that building, but further away from the street are the partial remains of an earlier malthouse, probably the one recorded as ‘newly built’ by the Shepton Mallet Journal in November 1864. In 1866 the same newspaper reported that ‘A workman’s supper was provided for employees of Jillard and Spencer. About 50 sat down in the malthouses next to the brewery for supper, songs sung, finishing at 10pm’
To the side of the malthouse is Coronation Terrace which belonged to the Brewery and was built to house the maltsters and their families: these properties had wooden stairways between their backyards and the malt-houses for employees to get to work easily.
After the Oakhill Brewery
The Brewery suffered two major fires in the first part of the twentieth century. The second, in 1925, came just months after a major refit and renovation – the main brewery building caught fire and was largely destroyed. Following this the business was taken over by Bristol United Breweries (BUBS). Brewing was relocated to Shepton Mallet although malting remained in Oakhill. Subsequently the brewery belonged for a period to Bristol based Georges and in 1961 was bought by Courages.
In 1981 brewing recommenced in the original brewery building when the Beacon Brewery took over the premises to brew Fosseway Bitter and later Fosseway Forty. However, it was short lived as the brewery closed in 1983 when owner Gerry Watts died, but not before he had produced Fosseway Stout, a tribute beer to the former Oakhill Brewery.
In 1984, the brewery plant and premises were bought by local businessman Reg Keevil. Under the name New Oakhill Brewery, he brewed beers in the original location until 1997, when he moved the plant to the original malthouses in order to expand. The brewery produced a total of 31 different beers through the company’s 13 year history. This company finally closed in 2004 when the owner retired.
Little of the Brewery site remains today. Most of the brewing area was demolished and a gated development of new houses erected in 2005/6. The original malthouses are still recognisable, but were converted to residential use in 2013/4.
The Oakhill Brewery Owners and Directors
1767 Brewery started by Partnership of James Jordan & Richard Perkins
1776 Jordan, Perkins & George Blake
1782 Jordan & John Billingsley
1803 Billingsley & William Peard Jillard
1810 Jillard, John Spencer jnr & Edward White
1811 Jillard, Spencer & White
1820 Jillard & Spencer
1835 (By this date) John Plummer Spencer had joined
1858 William Vernon Jillard, JP Spencer & (brother) Henry Spencer
1867 WV Jillard, JP Spencer, (& JP’s sons) John Maitland Spencer & Frederick Spencer
1876 JP, JM & F Spencer
1889 JM & F Spencer – still trading as ‘Jillard & Spencer & Co’ form a Public Company – ‘The Oakhill Brewery Co Ltd’
1904 F Spencer & Sir Reginald Hobhouse
1925 The Great Fire
1925 After the fire ‘Bristol United Breweries’ take over
1956 ‘Georges Brewery’ take over ‘Bristol United Breweries’
1961 ‘Courage’ take over ‘Georges Brewery’
1981 Gerry Watts opens ‘Beacon Brewery’
1984 Reg Keevil restarts brewing
1993 Keevil moves Brewery to Malthouse site
2004 Brewery finally closes