The Bass Museum

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

The Bass Museum


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


It was water which made Burton upon Trent the brewing capital of England. The monks of Burton Abbey, Staffordshire's leading medieval monastery, sapiently discovered the admirable effects of the local water, rising up through gypsum beds, on the quality of their beer. In the sixteenth century secret correspondence from the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, was smuggled out of nearby Tutbury Castle in casks of Burton ale. Burton beer was exported to London in the seventeenth century and with the improvement of the River Trent navigation the worthy fluid was sent all over England, to the Baltic and soon to the East, where prodigious quantities of India Pale Ale assuaged the desperate thirst of expatriates shouldering the white man's burden in the heat.

The year of the opening of the Trent and Mersey Canal, 1777, saw Michael Bass, a carrier by trade, open a brewery in the backyard of a house in Burton's High Street. He and his three remarkable successors, son after son in turn, built up a business which would eventually become Britain's biggest brewer (the carrying business was sold off to an obscure outfit called Pickford's). The original Michael Bass produced 800 barrels a year in the 1780s. Michael Thomas Bass (died 1827) pushed output up towards the 10,000 barrel mark. His youngest son married a Miss Worthington, the two Burton brewing families were close friends and the firms ultimately merged in the 1920s. The great Michael Thomas Bass 11 (died 1884), one of the most successful of Victorian business magnates, turned Bass into a household name with an output nearing a million barrels a year. Michael Arthur Bass (died 1909), ennobled as Lord Burton, was a tremendous swell and a friend of Edward VII, but at this point the direct male line failed. Lord Burton had no son, and there are no Basses in Bass today.

The Bass Museum was opened in 1977 for the bicentenary of the original brewery. Since then it has expanded enormously, covering not only the story of the Bass company and the history of Burton beer, but developing into a centre for the study of brewing as part of British social and industrial history, and taking over some of the functions of a local history museum after Burton Museum closed in 1981. Sarah Elsom, who has been Curator for ten years, has seen the museum more than double in size, and also in visitor numbers - now around 90,000 a year. This was not exactly planned or intended, she says, but like. Topsy the museum has `just growed', backed by Bass senior management which is justifiably proud of it. Mrs Elsom, who comes from Staffordshire and took her degrees at Durham, planned to be a field archaeologist originally, but later decided that digging holes in the ground in the cold and wet left something to be desired, and joined the North Hertfordshire Museum Service as an assistant for a spell before moving to Burton.

Anyone who still thinks of museums as moribund places where nothing moves but the dust-motes will find this one a shock. In the spirit of its slogan, `There's always something brewing at the Bass Museum', it is alive with activity, expanding its collections with material from other firms besides Bass, putting on special exhibitions so that there is always something different to see, providing an enthusiastic education service for children and college students. …

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