'The odours of Wem': A history of the smells of the town

Reporter:

Barrie White

By Oliver Richardson

A welcome return to Wem and our Bygones page...

In the centre of any town, the very walls of the buildings absorb history, either of their inhabitants or of their use. Noble Street in Wem is no exception.

A small area of ‘Back Street’, as it was once called, certainly holds a number of stories related to the business history of the town.

No-one knows why it was officially named Noble Street, though Garbet in his ‘History of Wem’ commented that ‘it seems to have been so-called from some imposition, or charge upon it, which accounted to just a noble’. A noble had a value of six shillings and eight pence (about a third of a pound sterling)

Wem was no different when it came to the smells distinguishing it from other towns and while a tannery and brewery didn’t worry the authorities, brickworks did.

For Wem this meant that the early brickyards were in Barkers Green and bricks would have had to be transported to building sites by horse and cart and would have been kept busy after the ‘Great Fire of Wem’.

The tanneries could be also be fairly noxious from the substances used for preparing and tanning cattle hides.

As a result, they were usually confined to the outskirts of a town, though this does not seem to have been true in Wem. There were two 19th century tanneries – one belonging to Everards in the High Street and the other to Goughs in Noble Street.

An 1889 picture by D Lee depicts the open air troughs containing the hides on the Noble Street site with a processing plant behind it.

The hides were first soaked in water to soften them, after which the fat would be scraped off. In ancient tanneries, they were then soaked in urine-filled tanks until the hair was loose enough to be removed. A lime solution may also have been used.

The skins were then ‘bated’ to soften them to the consistency needed for particular finished products. The mediaeval producers used a dung solution and it was not until the early 20th century that less smelly enzymes were introduced.

By 1935, the address was still given as ‘The Tan yard’, but the industry was dead. Today, only the street name of the houses built on the site bears evidence to this once-important industry.

The closure might possibly have had an impact on the brewing and malting industries, for one of the malt kilns was next door. After the tannery closure, the flavour of the malt might have changed.

When the malt kiln was built is not clear, but maltsters were listed in Noble Street throughout the 19th century – including George Thomas (in 1842) and Elias Puleston (in 1870).

By 1925, the Noble Street building shown in the photograph was listed as ‘Kynaston’s malt kiln’. This was still in operation in 1941, at which time Kynaston was also operating a malt kiln in Station road.

Malt is a vital ingredient of the brewing industry; the barley was produced locally and was harvested when it had reached a 9-12 per cent starch content (lower than that used for whiskey).

It was delivered to the maltings, where it was steeped in water until the water content reached around 46 per cent.

It was then ‘couched’ in a heap to allow the heat to build up and for the conditions for germination to develop. After this, it was laid out on malting floors to allow it to continue germination and for the starch to be converted to ‘green malt’. Such a system is still used in the maltings at Warminster, Wiltshire.

After germinating for about five days, the malt is transferred to the kiln to dry. Different flavours of malt can be achieved by the length of time in the kiln, and the amount of heat applied - the more skilled the maltster, the greater the varieties of malt that can be produced.

The products of the malt houses and brewery had a large local market – especially in the days when the majority of the inns were ‘tied houses’ and had to serve Wem Ales.

At one time, the town had more than 20 inns but there was only ever one in Noble Street and strangely, it was the only one in town that was never a Wem brewery house.

“The Dicken Arms” first appeared on business listings in the 1830s – possibly as a result of the Beerhouse Act of 1830.

This Act was intended to cut down the consumption of gin by allowing anyone to brew and sell beer on payment of a licence fee of two guineas.

Today the tanning, the malting and the brewing industries, together with their associated smells, have gone.

However, look at the buildings and the road signs, close your eyes, and it is possible to imagine Noble Street’s bustling industries of yesteryear.

Email:

barrie.white@nwn.co.uk

See full story in the Whitchurch Herald

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