I was watching The Apprentice last night and noticed that one of the contestants described himself as owning a chain of ten public houses. I thought this must be a sign of the times : with the state of British pubs at the moment I suspect that you would be able to acquire a chain of ten pubs and still have change out of a fifty pound note. I launched into one of those "it wasn't like this in the good old days" rants : when I was a young man landlords looked after one pub and looked after it well.
And then this morning I was reading John Pudney's excellent history of the Courage Brewing Group when I came across the story of George Wyatt. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the increasingly powerful brewers were beginning to establish a pattern of "tied" houses which continued for almost one hundred years. Different brewers adopted different approaches to creating the all-important "tie", the approach favoured by Courage was to use loans. Innkeepers would receive the necessary capital to develop their business from the brewery in return for an agreement to exclusively buy their beer. It was not uncommon for publicans to obtain a series of such loans in return of exclusivity agreements : one for draught beer (from, for example Courage), one for bottled beers (from, for example, Bass or Worthington) and one for spirits.
In his book, Pudney tells the story of one George Wyatt, a nineteenth century publican who was a big man in a number of ways. Physically he was a big man weighing in at over 20 stones, but he was also a sizable businessman as well, owning some fifteen public houses. He had a loan from Courage for each of his fifteen pubs and was in receipt of some £100,000 in total from the brewery (which, according to the clever little measuringworth calculator, is the equivalent of getting on for £8 million today). The brewery was understandably worried about - what today would be called - their exposure and the Directors decided to take out an endowment insurance policy on Fat George to cover themselves in case of his demise. The insurance company demanded that George should be weighed before a policy could be issued and he was told to report to the brewery for weighing. When he got there it was discovered that the brewery did not have enough weights to complete the process so a string of clerks were sent to the brewery office to carry out the heavy office ledgers to use as balances on the scale.
It appears that, despite his size, George Wyatt survived to pay off the loans. As the owner of a chain of fifteen pubs he would have been prime material for a Victorian version of The Apprentice.