The Truman Brewery has a long history. Sitting on Brick Lane it was once known as the Black Eagle Brewhouse. It developed alongside the street and the community that grew up there. From 1666 when it first opened to 1988 when it closed, the names of it’s owners even now are forever linked to the history of the East End of London.
Nowadays the Truman Brewery is mainly an events space. Yet, at one point there was the thought that it would be demolished. We can in some way credit the fact that it wasn’t with the cultural legacy that exists around it now. It’s massive space having been taken up by artists attracted to the area because of the cheap rent and plentiful square footage.
There are plenty of tales to tell about this place not only from a historical angle but from an art one too. The buildings that make up the brewery have seen so much. As the streets around it has evolved so too has the Truman and it’s secrets are now set to be revealed…
Historic Facts of the Truman Brewery
The Truman Brewery goes back to 1666
The exact origins of the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane are a little shaded. However nowadays it is commonly understood that the brewery was established in 1666. A brewhouse on Black Eagle Street to the west of Brick Lane had originally been built by Thomas Bucknall on a place called Lolesworth Field around the same time. Though this was probably more like a few years before.
Joseph Truman first started at the brewhouse in 1666. Eventually he would go on to take over the lease for this in 1679. Another lease was then later acquired in 1694 to the east of the lane and the initial nucleus of today’s brewery footprint either side of Brick Lane was set. After he died around 1720 the business was inherited by his eldest son (also called Joseph) with his younger son Benjamin joining in 1722.
Joseph Jnr died in 1733 though probably hadn’t had an active operational interest for some time. Instead it was Benjamin Truman who really ran and grew the business. He was knighted by King George III around 1760 and even had Thomas Gainsborough paint his portrait. That picture now hangs in the Tate Britain. He died in 1780
It was originally called the Black Eagle Brewery
The brewery was first established on Black Eagle street around 1666 (possibly earlier). Originally it was called the Black Eagle Brewhouse. Even now as you walk around you’ll be able to see it’s black eagle crest dotted around the perimeter. Black Eagle Street was an offshoot of Brick Lane but is officially no more. It has long been consumed within the footprint of the current brewery and is now known as ‘Drays Walk’. You can see the original location of Black Eagle Street marked here ‘Morgans map of 1682‘.
Drays Walk takes its name from the carts used to transport beer
The street formally known as Black Eagle Street was renamed ‘Drays Walk’ at some indeterminate time in the past. A Dray was a kind of cart which would be filled with barrels of beer ready to transport. The cart would then be attached to a horse and onwards to where the deliveries would be made. At one point Brick Lane would’ve been filled with horses and carts transporting beer to the pubs of the East End. The horses used to pull the ‘Drays’ which were also confusingly sometimes called drays themselves. Big sturdy animals they might also have been known as a draught horse or a carthorse. The horses were stabled in the open area now known as Ely’s Yard. Drays Walk would have been where the drays would have all exited and entered the brewery yard.
Nearby streets remember former owners
In 1816 the brewery become known as ‘Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co’. Whereas Trumans name is now immortalised on the brewery grounds, Hanbury and Buxton have had nearby streets named after them. Hanbury Street (originally called Browns Lane) was probably named after Sampson Hanbury.
He had become a partner in 1780 and was later joined by his brother Osgood Hanbury. Eventually Sampson took over the business in 1789. Their sister Anna married Thomas Fowell Buxton and their son, also called Thomas Fowell Buxton, was born in 1786. Buxton Jnr joined the business in 1808 and became a partner in 1812. In 1818 Buxton become an MP and would gain a reputation as a philanthropist and a reformer. He worked closely with William Wilberforce in his quest to abolish slavery. When Hanbury died in 1835, Buxton took over. The nearby Buxton Street which edges the brewery was named after him.
It was a built on the last remaining remnant of an ancient place called Lolesworth Field
The original Black Eagle Brewhouse was built on an undeveloped piece of land called Lolesworth or Lollesworth Field around 1666 (or possibly before). The field was one of the last remnants of the old name for the area of ground which covered what would eventually become the hamlet of Spitalfields.
Formerly owned by the Bishop of London there are references to the field in relation to the formation of the old priory of St. Mary Spital when it formed the priories eastern boundary. It was, by all accounts, quite marshy. It had a natural spring called ‘Snekockeswelle‘ (Senock’s Well) contained within its lands. In 1279 the Bishop granted the well to the priory. The intention being that it would be enclosed with a wall and the water piped underground into the priory up towards the southern end of the priory garden. The fresh water could then be taken to the infirmary where the ‘poor and sick lay.’
Nearby Princelet Street was first built by Joseph Truman
Buoyed by the success of the brewery, Joseph Truman thought to turn his hand to property. In 1705 he bought a plot of land to the south of the brewery described as being on the junction of Browns Lane (later Hanbury Street) and Brick Lane. There he built around 15 houses including a little court off Brick Lane that would later extend west to become Princes Street (itself later known as Princelet Street). Later in 1724 after further building had extended the street his son Benjamin Truman would move into number 4 which is still there today.
The Directors House has a plaque commemorating Thomas Fowell Buxton
A grade II listed building, the Directors House at 91 Brick Lane was the former company headquarters of ‘Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co’. It also doubled as a town house and was for many years the home of Thomas Fowell Buxton who lived there from 1808-1815. He would also stay at the property occasionally in his later years up until his death in 1840.
Buxton was an active member of the African Institution. Founded in 1807 it’s aim was to ensure that legislation outlawing the trade in slaves was adhered to. In 1821 William Wilberforce officially asked him to become his partner and successor in his ongoing campaign against the slave trade. A blue plaque commemorates Buxton on the front of the Directors House.
The Old Cooperage Can Still be Seen
The old cooperage which would have once made the barrels for the brewery is still there. A rare remnant of the brewing industry. It’s hard to imagine what the energy of this place would’ve been like. The entrance is just opposite the Directors House. Through a yard which once would have carried barrels. Now it is the entrance to a trendy bar. The sign of the old Cooperage can still be seen on Spital Street which runs parallel to Brick Lane. Like many industries coopers had their own traditions. For the Cooper’s one of there’s was called ‘Trussing the Cooper‘. An initiation rite after an apprentice had served their time. To be trussed would be to be covered in sawdust and water, rolled in a barrel and then thrown in the air.
There’s a pink car painted by Banksy in the yard
In Ely’s Yard a pink car can be seen sitting on an old shipping container and enclosed in a rotting perspex box. This is the remnant of a piece of work by Banksy from 2005. The car itself, a Triumph Spitfire GT6, used to be yellow and was already on the container (no idea why) before Banksy got to it. He painted it bright pink and placed a stencil of a grim reaper driving it. The Grim Reaper disappeared sometime around 2007 or early 2008 and since then it’s just been a pink car in a box. There is an excellent photo story showing the early history of the car over on Flickr here.
A Sculpture from Vhils was left behind
A remnant from the Festival Iminente exhibition, a piece from Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto aka Vhils, remained inside the brewery grounds. Showcasing Portuguese art and music the exhibition had been curated by Vhils alongside the Underdogs Gallery from his home town of Lisbon. A hugely popular worldwide artist the piece he left behind is a face made from a slab of concrete.
Crunchy the Credit Crunch Monster overlooks the yard
A giant pink creature overlooks the brewey on top of the former crack den on Grey Eagle Road. ‘Crunchy – The Credit Crunch Monster’ has been looking down from there since 2011. Keeping watch on the comings and goings of the brewery and the street below it would have seen some changes. Created by the artist Ronzo in 2009, Crunchy’s original location was on the roof of the Village Underground overlooking Great Eastern Street. It was moved in 2011 when the space it was sitting on needed to be used for an advertisement. Before the move to Spitalfields Crunchy was given a new paint job. Painted pink it’s been chewing coins there ever since.
Olympic Arrows are Embedded in the Building
Look carefully and you’ll be a number of giant golden arrows sticking into the side of the brewery building. Visible from Ely’s Yard, they were installed just before the start of the 2012 London Olympics and originally had an accompanying giant bow. The bow has now been moved to the Cooperage area on the other side of Brick Lane but the arrows remain embedded in the building. The artwork is a remnant from the Olympics ‘Gift of the Olympic Gods‘ series which placed giant sculptures of javelins, shotputs and bow and arrows around the city. To our knowledge the Truman Brewery’s is the only remaining sculpture in place from this series.
Art by Shepard Fairey and Invader overlook Ely’s Yard
Work by two of the World’s biggest name street artists overlook the brewery. Positioned alongside each other the pieces by Shepard Fairey and Invader can be seen from the brewery grounds. Shepards piece is probably supposed to represent a stereo. On it, is written, ‘Low Distortion Hi Fi – Warning may overload inferior equipment’. It was part of a series of murals that the artist put up in London in 2012. This was all to align with his ‘Sound and Vision‘ show at the Stolen Space Gallery.
The piece by French artist Invader is earlier. Installed in 2009 it was part of an ‘invasion’ of London which took place that year. it coincided with an exhibition called ‘Low Fidelity’ that the artist was having at the Lazarides Rathbone gallery. The invader piece which overlooks the Truman Brewery is quite possibly the largest in London.
Small Little Sculptures can be seen in the Truman Brewery Grounds
There are a number of little pieces which can be seen dotted around inside Ely’s Yard. Works by Ronzo, Isaac Cordaal and Jonesy can all be found hidden around the edges. These street art sculptures can’t immediately be seen. Keep your eyes open though and you may well start to see quite a few dotted around.
There’s a Hooded Man Fishing from the Roof of the Truman Brewery
Look up and on the corner where Ely’s Yard meets Drays Walk you’ll see a hooded fisherman. Created by Mark Jenkins, the piece originally had a framed picture of a fish attached to the end of the line. Now the fish has gone but the slightly sinister looking sculpture remains silhouetted against the sky. Erected in 2019, Jenkins himself acts at the model for his works. They aren’t meant to last though. His figures are meant to lead only brief and solitatary lives. You can learn more about the art of Mark Jenkins here.
For more posts featuring the history and street art of the area. Have a look at: