NEW insight into the life of one of Scotland’s most famous brewers has been shed by a recently acquired collection of letters written by his family and friends.
The cache of nearly 500 letters sent to William McEwan reveal the 19th-century beer magnate was hesitant about entering the brewing trade and even considered emigrating to New York.
Even after starting in the business, McEwan, from a prosperous shipping family in Alloa, was not above some industrial espionage and the correspondence shows he nearly set up his first brewery in Liverpool, rather than creating Edinburgh’s famous Fountainbridge plant.
In an ironic twist, the documents also confirm previous speculation that the father of McEwan’s Export shared links with a temperance movement.
The letters were purchased last year by Scottish and Newcastle, who now own the McEwan’s brand, and have only recently been analysed by staff at the Scottish Brewing Archive, based at the University of Glasgow. The documents date from 1844-60 and paint a picture of McEwan’s progression from a clerk in Glasgow to a brewer at his uncle’s Edinburgh firm.
But as the letters indicate, the path to brewing fame had not necessarily been guaranteed.
Alma Topen, archivist at the University of Glasgow, spent months researching the 496 letters and is currently writing a biography on McEwan and his work. "There are quite a few letters that mention him trying to get a job in Liverpool that was not connected with brewing," says Topen.
"He seemed desperate to go in any capacity and it is never exactly stated why he didn’t go in the end. When he came over to the brewing idea, he must have thought Edinburgh was the best place in terms of learning the trade."
In one letter, his sister Janet indicated that starting a new life in America was an option McEwan had considered: "Uncle Tom was quite pleased at your going to Liverpool but said he never would have given his consent to your going to New York and neither would my mother."
But when McEwan’s uncle, John Jaffrey, offered him a job in Liverpool as a brewery agent, the young man instead asked to learn about the brewing process itself and moved to Edinburgh in 1851.
The letters reveal how, during his training, McEwan questioned the ethics of several "fact-finding" trips he made to rival breweries in an effort to study their brewing techniques and costs. In one letter. He wrote: "I have been from one end to the other of both Bass and Allsopp’s Breweries.
"I had to put conscience altogether out of the question for the nonce and declare I was not at all connected with the trade."
After completing his training, Liverpool again became a possibility for the young brewer. "Again in 1855, you get him training to start up his own brewery. His friend James Younger writes to say he has found a brewery for him in Liverpool and it was perfect in every respect but deemed ‘too large for a beginner’," says Topen.
Despite creating beer that would dominate the market in Scotland and the north of England, his indifference to drink is demonstrated in several documents uncovered by the archivist. McEwan’s account book shows that in 1850 he took out charity subscriptions for a social event organised by the Huddersfield Total Abstinence Society and Teetotal Society.
He was also recorded staying at hotels run by the Temperance movement in Perth and Huddersfield. In later correspondence, McEwan’s brother-in-law, James Younger, applauded the decision to study brewing, writing prophetically: "With respect to the remunerative nature of the business - the concern you are going into speaks for itself and you will soon be able to form an idea for yourself what the business will yield when well managed."
His sister Anne echoed the sentiment, writing: "Brewing is the only profession that one is likely to make anything of nowadays and besides it is a very healthy employment."
The collection was acquired at auction by a Scottish stamp enthusiast who quickly realised its value and was sold to Scottish and Newcastle brewers last year for a four-figure sum.