Sunday, 20 September 2009

Farewell Langley Maltings

Late on Tuesday 8th September, fire destroyed much of the Langley Maltings on Western Road in Oldbury; it is believed that arsonists started the blaze that went on to destroy the upper parts and roofs of a building that had been an icon on the Oldbury skyline for 139 years, and a building that had been used for its original purpose until just four years ago by Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. It was one of the last few remaining malthouses in England to make floor malt.

The story of the maltings at Langley goes back to the mid-19th century when Walter Showell, a Birmingham man, started to build up the Crosswell Brewery, seemingly named after the local Well of the Holy Cross. The maltings were constructed in 1870 near the brewery, but those first maltings were detroyed by fire in 1897 when a lamp was accidentally overturned. They were replaced the following year to a design by Arthur Kinder & Son, the renowned London brewery architects. The maltings used two parallel three-storey ranges of malting floors, and between the two ranges, the kilns. Either side of the kilns were two canal arms, filled in at some stage. Both brewery and maltings had, as elsewhere, been built to make use of canal transport although here only the incoming barley was delivered by boat. Sadly, the company quickly switched to rail transport then road only after the Second World War. Part of the maltings, including the roof on the southernmost range, were destroyed in 1922 when one of the kilns was again destroyed by fire, not to be rebuilt until 1977. The main malting floor remained supported by iron columns until the very end.

Showells were taken over by Allsops in 1914 who in turn merged with Ind Coope in 1934 who then sold Langley Maltings in 1944 to Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. Ironically, the founder of Wolverhampton & Dudley was originally an Oldbury maltster, George Thompson. The Thompson family owned one of the competing breweries - Arden Grove. By 2005, just 13 people worked the entire malting operation and it closed in early 2006.

Towards the end, the maltings were clearly struggling to operate in the modern age: changing climate and agricultural practices meant that pests and vermin were getting difficult to control, and by-products which had formerly been used by farmers had to be disposed of as commercial waste. As floor malt no longer commanded a price premium, so the cost of producing this type of malt was not being met. Furthermore, making any food product in old buildings surrounded by wood and iron, rather than the more typical food-grade stainless steel, was adding yet more cost. The wet summer of 2004 resulted in a terrible yield of that year's spring barley harvest in August: spring barley is mainly used for malting, while winter barley, harvested a month earlier, mainly goes to animal feed as rolled barley. These all added up to being the final straws for one of England's last maltings. They specialised in Maris Potter, Proctor and Pioneer barleys, and each supply was kept isolated, and stored with a moisture content of 12%. The barley needed to be monitored to ensure the temperature didn't rise; if it did, the barley needed to be moved around to be aerated.

Most of the original maltings were used to the end, although the barley storage facilities were modern. The barley input used an auger to lift the barley into the storage bins where it dried out and waited for malting. The barley would be steeped in water for two days then left on the floor for a further six days as it grew, being turned once, and then it was left for three days in the kiln; the whole process took a fortnight. The water was drawn up from a well on site - perhaps the Well of the Holy Cross? - at a constant temperatire of 11 degrees Celsius. Each kiln used a coal-fired furnace to create the hot air.

More detail on the implements is available from the excellent article by the Brewery History Society and Amber Patrick's notes of their visit to Langley Maltings in September 2005.

Oldbury itself was a town well-known for its pubs, and despite a population of just 7,000 in 1840, the town then had more than 70 pubs: one for around every 100 people. The Crosswells Brewery was just one of three major breweries and a handful of home-brew operations.

Photographs taken by various groups of deliberate trespassers show that much of the equipment was still there, intact. I am in two minds whether to link to these photo sets - here, here, here and here - because they must surely be taken through trespassing, although from the comments on the various forums, it seems these Urban Explorers are as upset as anyone else.

Langley Maltings have gone - perhaps. The structure of the maltings were actually rather straightforward and the more complicated lower levels were not destroyed, so it may well be possible to recreate the gables and roofs.

More photos or video tagged with langley maltings on Flickr

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