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The Satis House Brewery in Great Expectations

In this video, Amber discusses the Satis House brewery and considers the significance of beer and brewing in ‘Great Expectations’.
One of the first things that Pip notices about Satis House is its brewery. To us this can seem an odd presence, for what does beer and brewing have to do with the polite world of the English country house? Today when we visit these grand estates, we’re not so used to seeing brewhouses, but this is because many have been demolished or repurposed. During recent building work at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, the foundations of a former brewhouse were discovered. And the brewhouse at Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire was first converted into a laundry, then later into a private residence. The brewhouse at Knowle in Kent is now a National Trust tea room. Some country houses have preserved their breweries.
Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, for example, invites its visitors to walk along the beer tunnel connecting house with brewhouse, where they can see an original mash tun still in place. And this is where ground malted barley would have been mixed with hot water, known as liquor. Surviving household accounts reveal that beer was drunk both above and below stairs. The family and their guests would have enjoyed beer alongside their wine. Wine was the higher status drink, but a weak beer was often on hand to quench thirst. Servants and staff often had beer and board as part of their working contracts and this constitutes the largest proportion of beer-drinking within the country house.
So the architectural, archaeological, and archival record reveals that beer and brewing were a fundamental part of everyday life on country estates. And in this report, ‘The Brewing Industry’, produced by The Brewery History Society for English Heritage, Lynn Pearson explains that ‘By the 18th century, the purpose-built brewhouse had become an integral part of the offices typically found at the large country house.’ Breweries were then a normal and visible presence. They were an essential part of the domestic economy at the country house and they provided a staple drink for the family, visitors, and staff.
Tea and coffee did not arrive upon these shores until the mid-17th century, and beer remained the most common daily drink until well into the 19th century, for water could not be relied upon to be clean and tea and coffee long remained expensive commodities. This private form of beer and ale manufacture was originally associated with female domestic labour, with kitchens and cooking, and these brewing women were known as “brewsters”. But as brewing increased in size and scale, occupying large buildings on the estate or becoming a commercial enterprise, women’s involvement began to decrease. As Pip follows Estella through the courtyard of Satis House, she says, “You could drink without hurt all the strong beer that’s brewed there now”.
And a moment later, she remarks, “As to strong beer, there’s enough of it in the cellars already to drown the manor house”. But what does she mean by “strong beer?” Well this is quite a tricky question, for the meaning of “ale” and “beer” shifts and changes across the centuries and between different locations. Ale, for example, was long associated with rural brewing, while beer was the product of the cities. But according to Pamela Sambrook, who has researched the history of country house brewing and brewing manuals, the distinction between ale and beer was more likely a matter of strength and quality.
Ale was the product of the first malting, mashing, and boiling, while beer was the thrifty product of the second or third mashing and boiling of the same charge of malt. And so despite its name, the strong beer once brewed at Satis House probably wasn’t as strong as it sounds. Most likely, it was the ordinary table beer consumed by the household. But in ‘Great Expectations’ the household is disbanded, save for Miss Havisham and Estella, and the casks in the cellar remain undrunk. But these casks might also have been a former commodity. In chapter 22, Herbert Pocket provides a glimpse into Miss Havisham’s family history.
“Her father”, he says, “was a country gentleman down in your part of the world and was a brewer. I don’t know why it should be a crack thing to be a brewer, but it is indisputable that while you cannot possibly be genteel and bake, you may be as genteel as never was and brew”. So a country gentleman and a brewer. Though little can be gleaned from the novel about the Havisham family pedigree, it is clear that at least part of the family wealth was based upon the trade. Indeed, the English Heritage report tells us that commercial brewing steadily increased throughout the 18th century.
And in chapter 11, Pip notices a separate dwelling in the grounds of Satis House that he presumes to have once belonged to the manager or head clerk of the brewery. To think of Satis House as once a commercial space goes some way to explaining Mr. Pumblechook’s connection with and exclusion from the Havisham family. Pumblechook is a tenant of Miss Havisham, to whom he pays rent, but he’s also a corn channeler and seedsman. Could he once have supplied the brewhouse with its barley, enjoying a half pint or more with the manager or head clerk? These connections help to explain how a tradesman could have been asked to introduce a boy, Pip, to the family.
But there is no longer any brewing and presumably, Mr. Pumblechook owes no rent, for Estella will not permit him to enter through the gates of Satis House. And in chapter 9, Pumblechook’s failure to contradict Pip’s lies about Miss Havisham make it clear that he has never met her in person. As a tradesman and a tenant, he is not granted that level of intimacy. The apparent stasis at Satis House serves to obscure this commercial past. We don’t see it commercially active. And yet Miss Havisham’s wealth, the money that allows her to exercise power, is at least partly based upon the commodity of beer. But these undrunk, unsold casks in the cellar had been withdrawn from the market.
They’re no longer attached to value and they no longer circulate. But strong beer does not keep in perpetuity. Pamela Sambrook’s research has revealed that the very best ale could be kept for up to 10 years, if bottled and stored in the right environment. But most ales and beers are meant for drinking, not keeping. A conservative estimate would suggest that the casks in the cellars of Satis House had been there for 13 years. This beer would certainly have spoiled and there are references to sour beer and brewing throughout. The empty casks in the yard are said to possess a “certain sour remembrance of better days”.
And Estella suggests that if beer were brewed there now, “This spoiled brewhouse would inevitably produce sour beer”. And so these undrunk, unsold casks form part of the novel’s register of decay. There is an ocean of sour beer, it seems, waiting to flood the foundations of Satis House. Yet Pip does drink beer on that first visit, and it would have been perfectly normal for young children to drink weak beer. But the little mug presented to Pip must have been filled with bought-in beer. And so we catch a glimpse of the otherwise obscure domestic economy of Satis House. The estate is no longer productive, the neglected kitchen garden has overgrown, and the brewhouse stands empty.
Food and drink must now be bought and Miss Havisham and Estella must now be consumers, not producers. Miss Havisham has withdrawn from public life and she has withdrawn her family beer from the market. Satis House, therefore, no longer contributes anything useful to the store of materials that circulate in society. And on that sobering note, cheers.

This is an activity for interest and fun – feel free to have a go at it if you have the time.

In this video, Amber discusses the Satis House brewery and considers the significance of beer and brewing in ‘Great Expectations’.

The Satis House Brewery

One of the first things that Pip notices when he visits Satis House is its brewery. Following Estella through the court-yard, he hears the wind howling through the building’s open sides and he reflects that no brewing could have taken place there for some time. A few pages later, this brewery is host to one of the strangest, most extraordinary moments in the novel.

Dismissed from his “play” with Miss Havisham, insulted by Estella on the grounds of his class, Pip explores the grounds of Satis House in the hope of expelling his anger and frustration:

To be sure, it was a deserted place, down to the pigeon-house in the brewery-yard, which had been blown crooked on its pole by some high wind, and would have made the pigeons think themselves at sea, if there had been any pigeons there to be rocked by it. But there were no pigeons in the dove-cot, no horses in the stable, no pigs in the sty, no malt in the storehouse, no smells of grains and beer in the copper or the vat. All the uses and scents of the brewery might have evaporated with its last reek of smoke. In a by-yard, there was a wilderness of empty casks, which had a certain sour remembrance of better days lingering about them; but it was too sour to be accepted as a sample of the beer that was gone, and in this respect I remember those recluses as being like most others.
Behind the furthest end of the brewery, was a rank garden with an old wall; not so high but that I could struggle up and hold on long enough to look over it, and see that the rank garden was the garden of the house, and that it was overgrown with tangled weeds, but that there was a track upon the green and yellow paths, as if some one sometimes walked there, and that Estella was walking away from me even then. But she seemed to be everywhere. For when I yielded to the temptation presented by the casks, and began to walk on them, I saw her walking on them at the end of the yard of casks. She had her back towards me, and held her pretty brown hair spread out in her two hands, and never looked round, and passed out of my view directly. So, in the brewery itself, by which I mean the large paved lofty place in which they used to make the beer, and where the brewing utensils still were. When I first went into it, and, rather oppressed by its gloom, stood near the door looking about me, I saw her pass among the extinguished fires, and ascend some light iron stairs, and go out by a gallery high overhead, as if she were going out into the sky.
It was in this place, and at this moment, that a strange thing happened to my fancy. I thought it a strange thing then, and I thought it a stranger thing long afterwards. I turned my eyes – a little dimmed by looking up at the frosty light – towards a great wooden beam in a low nook of the building near me on my right hand, and I saw a figure hanging there by the neck. A figure all in yellow white, with but one shoe to the feet; and it hung so, that I could see that the faded trimmings of the dress were like earthy paper, and that the face was Miss Havisham’s, with a movement going over the whole countenance as if she were trying to call to me. In the terror of seeing the figure, and in the terror of being certain that it had not been there a moment before, I at first ran from it, and then ran towards it. And my terror was greatest of all when I found no figure there.

Satis House brewery is uncanny – it is both a familiar and an unfamiliar space. It is an everyday part of the country house and its domestic economy, and it was previously an integral part of the Havisham family business. But now it stands vacant and unproductive.

The Satis House Brewery and Pip’s Vision

Comment upon the following questions using the contextual information provided in the video, and draw upon textual evidence from the novel to support your answers:

  • What is the purpose and significance of Pip’s vision of the hanging Miss Havisham?
  • Why does this vision occur in the brewery?

Full text

Text excerpted from The Project Gutenberg eBook of ‘Great Expectations’, by Charles Dickens, 1867 edition.


Information provided about country house brewing in this step is indebted to the research of Pamela Sambrook and Lynn Pearson (Brewing History Society).

Lynn Pearson, ‘The Brewing Industry: A Report by the Brewing History Society for English Heritage’, Historic England (February 2010)

Pamela Sambrook, ‘Country House Brewing in England 1500-1900’ (London: The Hambledon Press, 1996)

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Literature of the English Country House

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