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Barnsley man fails in quest to revolutionise pub, but gets credit anyway

Just writing a feature about the innovation that’s happening in cask ale dispense right now, with new hand pumps from Greene King, Bombardier, Black Sheep and others. And I just found out something that absolutely delights me.

The invention of the beer engine or handpump is commonly credited to one Joseph Bramah, a hydraulic engineer and locksmith who invented the hydraulic press, a decent toilet, a money printing press, and lots of other stuff.
On 31st October 1797 he successfully gained a patent for a manually operated beer-pump which he believed would have tremendous advantages for “the masters of families and publicans’.
Because there’s no previous patent, he is cited everywhere as the inventor of the modern beer engine. But the truth is that his device bore no resemblance to the modern (i.e. traditional) hand pump, and never dispensed a single pint of beer. Whereas hand pumps depend on pressure from the beer engine on the bar to create a vacuum that draws the beer up the line for the cask, Bramah’s sketches show a system of pistons inside casks, weighted with heavy bags of sand. The piston pushes the beer down inside the cask, through an opening in the bottom, and up the pipe to a simple tap at the bar.
There were two impracticalities here: one, pub cellars didn’t have the height to set up the pulleys and weights required. Two, we all know what beer casks look like. They have curved sides – making them utterly useless for any kind of internal piston action. The publican would have had to transfer beer upon delivery into special containers the piston could work with, which would have been far more work than just getting the pot boy to run down to the cellar and dispense the beer manually, which is what the system was meant to replace.
The story is confusing because the beer engine that actually worked was in widespread use just a few years after Bramah registered his patent. But whoever came up with the successful idea, there is no record of them – and it wasn’t Bramah.
Anyway, that’s all fine. But the thing that caught my eye is that while Bramah may have been a rubbish beer inventor, he was from t’Tarn! Joseph Bramah was born in Stainborough Lane Farm in Wentworth, South Yorkshire, just outside Barnsley. Of course, Wentworth is the wrong side of Barnsley – it’s out towards Rawmarsh. He may have been within walking distance of Jump, home of Percy Turner’s legendary pork pies, but south of Barnsley is still south of Barnsley. Anyway, in 1783 he made up for the error of his birth by going on to marry Mary Lawton, who came from Mapplewell – the village I grew up in!
He probably had a pint in the Talbot. He probably met Mary while going round tarn on a Friday night, maybe in Ye Walkeabout.
Anyway, the couple soon moved down south, to That London.
Well, they had to. If you tried being an inventor in Barnsley they’d just laugh at you and say “Thee and thi fancy hydraulics. Backbreaking labour in the white heat of the world’s first industrial revolution, man and machine chained together as one not good enough for thee and thi posh mates, is it?”
Two centuries later, I feel a certain bond with this man from Barnsley who tried to change the face of beer, failed, but is still remembered for something he didn’t actually do.
Detail on Bramah’s rubbish beer pump and the emergence of one that worked are from Peter Mathias’ excellent Brewing History in England 1700-1830. A bible to any beer historian since 1959.

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"Backbreaking labour in the white heat of the world's first industrial revolution, man and machine chained together as one not good enough for thee and thi posh mates, is it?"
Thanks for getting me to laugh at 7am.

This is what I love about your writing– you can take a potentially dry subject matter and infuse it with humor, life and fascination.


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