Brewer and bon viveur - John Patteson (1755-1833)
- Credit: Norfolk Museums Service
Chris Armstrong looks at the life of John Patteson, a riches to rags story of a remarkable and hospitable man
‘Alderman Patteson gave an elegant entertainment at his house in Surrey Street’
Bury & Norwich Post, January 13, 1802
John Patteson gave many such entertainments, and despite periods of great wealth and business success he died an impoverished man, existing on a grant of £50 p.a. paid to him as ‘a decayed alderman’. He must have been the despair of his eldest son who spent much of his life trying to pay off the debts of his father.
But Patteson senior was not just a spendthrift playboy from a rich family – he was a travelled man, a dedicated amateur soldier, a Member of Parliament and, at times, an exceptionally shrewd businessman.
He was born into a comfortably-off family with interests primarily in ironmongering but when John was nine, his father died. His mother Martha, a formidable lady, moved with John and his younger brother to live with his Uncle John in the fine house he had built, in Surrey St, Norwich.
Uncle John was an extremely wealthy wool-stapler and weaver, whose free-spending habits became the pattern for John’s own adult life. It was said of Uncle John that he burned all the bills for the Surrey Street mansion so nobody could see how much he had paid.
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Unlike his younger brother, who went to Eton, John was educated either at Norwich Grammar School or at a school in Greenwich – the records are unclear. However, since by the time he was 12 he had been despatched, in the charge of a family servant, to complete his education in Leipzig neither can claim him as their own.
Sending him to be educated in Germany was the conscious and commercial choice of Uncle John, no doubt in cahoots with the determined and ambitious Martha. The company traded extensively in Germany, and John was expected to become fluent in German, and to embed himself effectively with the local business community reinforcing already strong existing trading relationships – his uncle, a widower and heirless, intended to make John a partner in the business.
John duly completed his education and returned to Norwich as an apprentice weaver, to the satisfaction of his uncle. But, when John was just 19, his uncle died. His will, of which John was the primary beneficiary along with another protégé, stipulated that for the next three years control of the company should devolve primarily on Martha, who kept a close – and probably beady – eye on John. While engaging in the business he also found time to enjoy himself. Bath was much to his taste, as was the social life of London – young, single and rich, he made the most of them both.
When the three years were up, John and the other main beneficiary of his uncle’s will, Luke Iselin, were admitted to partnerships, but Martha continued to exercise a high level of authority within the firm and in 1778 John left to spend some time on the continent with a view both to strengthening continental business connections and to completing a mini Grand Tour as the final stage of his education.
Fortunately, the email age was 200 years away, so our generation can still enjoy the very engaging correspondence between mother and son. Within a month Martha was complaining at the bills John was running up - Norwich’s worsted industry was entering its long decline and business was not good.
She was full of advice too on everything from his health to his choice of companions and was particularly anxious about one of them, nicknamed ‘Richard the Rake’. She was also keen that he should make an appropriate marriage – she favoured him setting his cap at Bet Ives, the daughter of a prominent and wealthy Norwich merchant.
John did his best to promote the company’s business – from Lubeck he reported that trade was slow as the merchants felt that changing fashions were limiting demand. Martha sent him to give one particular customer, called Otto, a flea in his ear.
He had not made any orders recently because he had not been able to agree a sufficiently low price to satisfy him. Martha expressed an anti-Semitic opinion of the man and said that ‘she would not give a f*rt for his friendship’. She was not just formidable, she was outspoken. As the business continued to struggle, she changed her tune and instructed John to accept orders from Otto regardless of profitability.
In pursuit of his Grand Tour ambitions John moved on to Italy, starting in Turin, where he reported that he worked all morning and spent each evening at the opera, before travelling to Naples, Rome and Sicily. He found himself treated with scant regard by Italian society because he was ‘in trade’ and felt that the businesspeople he was canvassing were not of the calibre he had hoped.
In Naples he met the young John Soane, studying classical architecture on a Royal Academy scholarship. Soane’s scholarship gave him just £60 p.a. while Patteson was ‘struggling’ on £500 p.a. Soane was glad enough to fall in with Patteson and a few fellow travellers who paid him to produce illustrations of the sites they visited. Later, when Soane was at the height of his fame, Patteson employed him to make alterations to the Surrey Street mansion which he had inherited.
Back in Norwich, and with Martha still keeping watch, he ran the business with Iselin, and became heavily involved with civic affairs. He became Sheriff at the age 30, and Mayor just three years later. He was a member of the Corporation for half a century.
On one occasion, attending an election, he was knocked down in a scuffle between the two sides. The man concerned was arrested, but discharged on the bizarre grounds that he was ‘drunk but respectable’. John was also a director of Norwich Union, and played a part in the eventual removal of its eccentric founder, Thomas Bignold.
He married, not the Bet Ives his mother had suggested, but another heiress, Elizabeth Staniforth of Manchester, and they had seven children – sadly all seven were to pre-decease him.
Patteson also involved himself, very effectively, in the local militia. The history of this force was not entirely without blemish, but he was an effective commander, rapidly promoted from Captain to Colonel, and his corps was one of the few locally to be recognised as fit for any service required of it.
He tried his hand at politics, too. Initially he bought one of the rotten boroughs later abolished by the 1832 Reform Act, at Minehead, for 4,000 guineas. He was a bit ambivalent about financing his political career, subsequently hesitating before agreeing to stand in Norwich until a subscription was raised to meet his costs.
Even when representing Minehead he had done his best for Norfolk, introducing to Parliament a petition on behalf of the distressed Norwich weavers and involving himself with a fight to reduce the tax on malt – a little self-interest here, perhaps – by now he had started a brewing business.
He started to take an interest in brewing in his mid-30s, claiming that his intention was to find a business for his eldest son to run. At the time his son was only 10 years old, and it seems probable that both for his son and for himself he was looking to diversify the family’s interests as the weaving industry in Norwich contracted. Whatever his reasons he made a great success initially, and it is for his time as a brewer that he is primarily remembered today.
He started in quite a small way, originally going into partnership with Charles Greeves, and then buying him out. His was the smallest of the eight breweries in Norwich, producing just 3% of the total amount brewed in the city. Just a year later he bought another brewery, that of James Beevor.
John already owned two inns, one inherited from his father, and the other bought as an investment. The acquisition of Beevor’s brewery brought with it a number of other inns, and just one year later he made his most significant purchase yet, of Fisher’s brewery in Great Yarmouth. This was a much more substantial business, comprising not just the brewery but also malthouses and inns.
By 1800 he was the largest brewer in Norwich, supplying over 150 inns. The business had its principal premises in Pockthorpe, then not the most salubrious quarter of Norwich, but this didn’t stop John from entertaining there, once giving a dinner for the visiting Prince William (nephew of George lll) in an empty vat, which was then named after the Prince, who agreed to become godfather to one of John’s sons.
By then the value of his brewing interests was computed as about £12,000,000 in today’s values. John had never been shy about spending money, having already bought two estates, and all seemed set fair. The mansion in Surrey Street had been extended under the auspices of John Soane, and had, according to one visitor ‘a style seldom seen but in the houses of our first nobility’.
Its luxurious and tasteful apartments accommodated visiting dignitaries and hosted lots of ‘elegant entertainments’. John had achieved everything Martha had hoped for him, commercial success and social acceptance within the ‘best’ society.
But it was not to last. The evidence of what broke him financially is not wholly clear. Obviously, his huge social expenditure didn’t help – something like 200 paintings and all three estates (one inherited by his wife, two more purchased by him in his pomp) were sold off, his wife agreed to forego the arrangements made for her potential widowhood- in fact he had been selling off assets which were in trust for her without her knowledge.
Economically it was not a good time for extravagant spenders – in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars there was a huge slump and there is some evidence to suggest that he had invested in a bank which failed, and that some of his continental interests lost money too.
Whatever the reasons, one of John’s worst moments came when he had to sell the Surrey Street mansion in which both he, and his uncle, had invested so much capital, both financial and social. The purchaser was Samuel Bignold of Norwich Union.
One rather touching aspect of the whole affair is that even when the cracks appeared he seems to have remained a popular and respected local figure. It is inconceivable that his difficulties were not known in the business community, yet Norwich Union made a huge loan to him – the equivalent of £2,000,000 today was still outstanding at his death.
His eldest son worked hard to pay off his debts, primarily by diluting the ownership of the brewing business by selling shares in the company, mainly to the Steward family.
It would be nice to think that the generosity and consideration shown to John in later years was a reflection of what he had given earlier both by his hospitality and his civic service. He was clearly a man of great character and charm, and an extremely generous host – it would have been a pleasure, one feels, to have known him.
A fuller version of the life and career of John Patteson can be found in Chris Armstrong’s book, Mustard, Boots and Beer (Larks Press 2014).