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Only a small plaque now marks the place where the Barclay Perkins Brewery once stood in Southwark, south London – but 200 years ago it was the largest brewery in the world.

Originally named the Anchor Brewery, the business was founded in 1616 on land formerly occupied by the Globe Theatre near the River Thames. Barclays’ involvement began in July 1781, when Robert Barclay, of the banking family, bought it and went into partnership with the brewery’s chief clerk, John Perkins.

The pair paid £135,000 over a period of four years to the widow of its former owner, Henry Thrale, and managed to increase output from 85,700 barrels in 1782 to 260,000 barrels a year in 1809, making it the world’s largest brewery. They renamed it Barclay Perkins in 1797.

The brewery initially produced only porter – a dark style of beer made from brown malt – until 1834, when it introduced pale ale. It was also well known for its Russian Imperial Stout.

Members of the Barclay family continued to be involved in the brewery’s management into the 20th century. A letter written in 1799 by David Barclay to his son-in-law Richard Gurney, now held in the Barclays archive, questioned the wisdom of finding a position in the business for his grandson, Hudson Gurney. He writes that he does not want “my dear Grandson… placed so young in a situation dangerous to youth”.

Turbulent times

In 1832, a fire at the brewery caused £40,000 worth of damage, destroying a number of buildings and resulting in extensive rebuilding. The new brewery attracted international interest and a string of famous visitors, including Napoleon Bonaparte, the German statesman Otto von Bismarck and the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi. The writer Samuel Johnson, better known as Dr Johnson, had his own room at the brewery, and his favourite chair was kept in the boardroom for some time after his death.

In one notorious incident, the Austrian General Julius Jacob von Haynau - known as “the hangman” for his brutal suppression of uprisings in Italy and Hungary – toured the London brewery in 1850. News of his presence spread, and a crowd of local residents gathered, booing and heckling him, ripping his clothes and even flogging him with brooms. An eyewitness recalled: “Nearly all the labourers and draymen ran out with brooms and dirt, shouting ‘Down with the Austrian butcher’ and other epithets of rather an alarming nature to the marshal.”

In 1955, Barclay Perkins merged with rival London brewer Courage and brewing continued at the site until the early 1970s. The brewery buildings were demolished in 1981. The Anchor Tavern, now known as the Anchor Bankside - which for many years was the brewery’s tap – is still serving pints to this day.

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