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Sir  Henry Bruce Meux (1856–1900), by unknown photographer [with his wife, Valerie Susie Meux, Lady Meux]Sir Henry Bruce Meux (1856–1900), by unknown photographer [with his wife, Valerie Susie Meux, Lady Meux]
Meux family (per. 1757–1910), brewers, was descended from an old landed family from the Isle of Wight that had possessed a baronetcy from 1641 to 1705. On the original baronetcy's extinction the family's standard passed to Thomas Meux, who had established himself as a merchant in London. He married well, taking as his wife Elizabeth (d. 1738), the daughter and eventual heir of Sir William Massingberd, second baronet (1677–1719), of Gunby, Lincolnshire. Their elder son, William Meux, inherited Gunby and assumed by act of parliament the name of Massingbird; the younger son, Richard (d. 1751), who in 1732 married Hannah Bradshaw, was rector of Weddington, Warwickshire.

It was the latter's eldest son, Richard Meux (bap. 1734, d. 1813), who first dipped his toes into the swirling vat of London brewing. Baptized at St Giles's, Cripplegate, London, on 4 October 1734, he acquired with a Scottish partner, in 1757, aged only twenty-three, a run-down brewery in the Long Acre district, famed as the centre of London's leading coach building and cabinetmaking workshops. The business was valued at about £15,000, and the young men had to raise half its purchase price from several lenders, including £2000 from William Massingbird. Progress at first was modest. Loans were not paid off. Output barely grew. In a list of the amounts of malt consumed by London breweries, Meux came thirty-first. Then in January 1763 Meux's brewery was badly damaged by fire. Quickly they built the new Griffin (the crest of nearby Gray's Inn) brewery in Liquorpond Street (now part of Clerkenwell Road). The new brewery slowly began to prosper. By 1787, when Richard Meux appears to have been its sole proprietor, it was producing close on 50,000 barrels of porter a year. Although this was less than half of the amount brewed by each of its major rivals, Barclay Perkins, Whitbread, Trumans, and the two Calvert breweries, growth had been impressive since 1780. Further growth was promised. For the first time, in 1795, the brewery's output exceeded 100,000 barrels, clearly placing it among the capital's half dozen market leaders.

Richard Meux had a good eye for publicity. This was achieved by brewers erecting larger and larger vats in which to mature their porter. In 1790 Meux had constructed one sixty feet across and over twenty feet high. On its completion 200 people dined inside it with a similar number standing around to toast its builder. Five years later he was constructing one designed to hold 20,000 barrels and costing £10,000 (equivalent to the cost of a large country house). Richard Meux's success attracted new partners into the firm: Andrew Reid, a well-to-do merchant and distiller in 1793, and five years later the incredibly energetic Sir Robert Wigram, an even richer East India merchant, shipowner and shipbuilder, cable maker, drug importer, and the owner of Blackwall docks. Although both brought large amounts of capital into the firm to extend the brewery, to acquire the freeholds and leases of more public houses, and to make large loans to publicans to tie their trade, its management sharply deteriorated.

Richard Meux had married, on 31 July 1767, Mary, daughter of Henry Brougham, of Brougham Hall; his wife was the aunt of Henry Brougham, the lord chancellor. They had three sons and two daughters. His wife died at their home in Bloomsbury Square, London, on 8 December 1812; he died on 2 July 1813, at Castlebar Hill, Ealing, Middlesex. He had withdrawn from the brewery's day-to-day affairs in his sixties, and introduced his three sons into the firm. With Reid and especially Wigram busy elsewhere, running the brewery in the early years of the nineteenth century was left largely to them. Heavily indebted to their father for their shares in the business, the sons proceeded to fall out among themselves. Matters were not helped when the eldest son, Richard Meux (1768–1824), was declared insane in 1806.

The second, and dominant, son, Sir Henry Meux, first baronet (bap. 1770, d. 1841), baptized at St Andrew's, Holborn, London, on 8 May 1770, was at constant loggerheads with his younger brother Thomas Meux (1772–1842), who was in charge of the brewing operations. Henry, overseeing the firm's sales and tied houses, began to conceal things from his partners. Andrew Reid became increasingly suspicious of his transactions and in 1808 instigated a much publicized case in chancery accusing Henry Meux of misappropriating £163,000 of the partnership's capital. Meux defended himself as best he could, claiming that the large loans he had made to publicans had been in the best interests of the firm and with the tacit agreement of Sir Robert Wigram. In truth he had been running a distilling business hidden from his partners and in competition with that owned by Andrew Reid. Chancery ordered the sale of the brewery, and in 1809 the immensely profitable concern was sold. Its purchasers were members of the Reid and Wigram families and, for seven uneasy years in the new partnership, Thomas Meux, Henry Meux, and his father, had two strategies. Realizing the likely outcome of the chancery case, Richard Meux had attempted to find a partnership for Henry with Whitbreads, claiming he would bring all his old customers with him. In view of Meux's reputation for trouble, the Whitbreads wisely turned his offer down. Next, again unsuccessfully, they had attempted to buy the Griffin brewery, but their resources, although they had a fifth share in the sale's proceeds, did not match those of the Reid and Wigram families.

Undeterred, Henry Meux soon acquired the Horseshoe brewery in Tottenham Court Road. He quickly transformed its fortunes. Then in 1814 disaster struck. On 17 October one of his great vats burst under the pressure of 7664 barrels of porter. Walls were swept away, basements flooded, nearby tenements collapsed. Eight people lost their lives, either by ‘drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes or drunkenness’ (Mathias, 62). Despite losses of £15,000 the brewery survived. Indeed it flourished. One historian maintains, from evidence given in 1817 to the select committee of the House of Commons on the police of the metropolis, that it did so by ‘using methods on the borders of legality and beyond to secure trade’ (Corran, 343). Certainly Henry Meux had drive and an ability to surmount setback. On his death his brewery ranked fifth in terms of output among London breweries. As he had acquired the Horseshoe brewery only thirty years earlier this was an impressive achievement against the intense competition throughout from half a dozen established breweries each turning out over 100,000 barrels annually. His marriage in November 1814 to Elizabeth Mary (d. 1851), daughter of Thomas Smith of Castlebar House, Middlesex, took place shortly after the Tottenham Court Road catastrophe.

In September 1831 Henry Meux was granted a baronetcy on the patronage of his relative the lord chancellor, Lord Brougham. To match his title he bought in the late 1830s the historic Theobalds Park estate in Hertfordshire, near Cheshunt and Waltham Cross. Its glory days as a royal residence were long past. The original house, built by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, became a favourite house of James I, who exchanged it for Hatfield House, but it had been almost entirely dismantled during the Commonwealth. Sir Henry Meux's purchase was a modestly sized structure of the late 1760s with a surrounding estate of some 2700 acres. Enjoying country life for little more than a couple of years, he died at Theobalds Park on 7 April 1841, leaving a family of four children, the 23-year-old second baronet and three daughters.

The purchase of Theobalds underlined the first baronet's vision of his family's social advancement. The dynasties of big London breweries were famously wealthy. Some, like the Whitbreads, possessed large landed estates, but in general they stuck to the task of running their immensely profitable enterprises. The Meuxs did not. Two of Sir Henry's daughters, with portions of £20,000 each, married into the aristocracy, one to the heir of the earl of Essex of nearby Cassiobury Park, while the son and successor to the baronetcy, Sir Henry Meux, second baronet (bap. 1817, d. 1883), had an early and distinct aversion to business. Born at North Cray, Kent, he was baptized at St Giles's, Holborn, London, on 28 December 1817. He was educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford (BA, 1838), and groomed for the life of a country gentleman. Always a man of few words, he possessed a hot temper. He was passionate about three things: horses, shooting, and what his contemporaries described as ‘the pleasures of the table’. His attendance at the brewery appears to have been confined to four occasions a year when the quarterly rests were taken to monitor the brewery's product and sales and to distribute profits. In the 1850s the brewery was run by three men: two partners, Berridge and Marjoribanks, and Sir Henry's brother-in-law, William Arabin, who was retained on a salary of £1200 to keep an eye on his majority interest, reckoned to be worth half a million pounds.

By far the most forceful of the trio was the wealthy and wily Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks (1820–1894), a director of the East India Company and MP for Berwick upon Tweed almost continuously from 1853 until 1881, when he was created Lord Tweedmouth. Under Marjoribanks's direction the brewery ticked along in the wake of its larger rivals, who, to accommodate the shift in beer tastes away from porter, began to brew pale and mild ales. Meux was the last major London brewery to stick solely to porter production, delaying any attempt to brew other beers until the early 1870s. When, almost two decades later, Alfred Barnard compiled his entry on Meux in his four-volume Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland he left the distinct impression that, although it brewed 200,000 barrels a year and employed 250 men and 70 horses, the Horseshoe brewery did not match its principal rivals either in output or in the state of the brewery. It was, even for a London brewery, cramped in its site and outdated in its equipment.

Yet the brewery's profits brought the second baronet great riches. This was revealed to the world by a sensational commission of lunacy case in the summer of 1858. The commission came about through two events. First, Sir Henry Meux, who had represented Hertfordshire in the Conservative interest since 1847, was pressed by a number of leading Conservatives in the county, including the marquess of Salisbury and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, who had already noticed his strange, taciturn behaviour, to stand down at the general election of 1857. They seem to have assumed his consent, but he repudiated any arrangement and to their chagrin was returned unopposed, despite barely being able to string half a dozen words together (and he formally retained the seat until 1859).

More sensational was the decision of his sisters to contest a codicil Meux had recently made to his will. On 19 January 1856 he had married, at the British embassy in Paris, Louisa Caroline, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the impecunious Lord Ernest Bruce (later third marquess of Ailesbury). A son and heir, Henry Bruce Meux [see below], was born later that year. Sir Henry's health seems then to have sharply deteriorated. At a shoot in Cambridgeshire just before Christmas 1856 no fewer than six members of the party reputedly sustained wounds from Meux's gun. It was in early July 1857 that he altered the terms of the will he had made shortly after the birth of his son. He now added a codicil by which, should the son die and there were no further children, the whole of his £700,000 estate, generating an income of some £40,000 a year, would pass on his own death to his young widow absolutely. The earlier arrangement was that she would receive a generous £15,000 jointure for life. The codicil effectively removed his sisters from their reversionary interest, had that of Lady Meux remained for life only.

In June 1858, during the nine days of the lunacy hearing, reported in the press, the details of Sir Henry's life and riches were revealed. Succeeding to a £200,000 share in the brewery, this had grown to ‘upwards of £600,000’. The attorney-general, representing the Meuxs, maintained Sir Henry ‘always lived very, very far within his income’ (The Times, 11 June 1858). The evidence did little to support his claim. Theobalds was run by at least two dozen servants grandly headed by a groom of the chambers and a French cook; Sir Henry had recently completed a £15,000 lease of a house in Belgrave Square; the purchase of the vast Knoydart estate in north-west Scotland had only come adrift because he could not get possession for three years, thus scuppering his intention immediately to convert it into a deer forest. The Bruces (the parents-in-law and wife of Sir Henry) came badly out of the affair as a determined trio of gold diggers. But two of Sir Henry's sisters and their husbands fared little better. Sir William Bowyer-Smijth, eleventh baronet, husband of the second daughter, had borrowed substantial sums interest-free to underwrite his building schemes; the third daughter, Lady Malden, who had kept house for her brother before his marriage, had decamped from Theobalds with several waggon loads of furniture, a set of Sèvres china, and over £2000 in cash.

A formidable team of lawyers was engaged by the parties; many eminent doctors gave irreconcilable evidence; a number of servants attested to Sir Henry Meux's increasingly strange behaviour since his marriage. All hinged on whether he was insane on 3 July 1857, the day he completed the codicil. Counsel for his sisters maintained this state had been reached several months before: those for Lady Meux and the Bruces countered with the claim that he had suffered a paralytic stroke while shooting in Scotland on 23 September 1857 (at dinner he claimed to have shot 57 deer earlier in the day), but until that moment had been perfectly able to execute any business placed before him. The jury, sensibly The Times opined (21 June 1858), decided that Henry Meux was indeed insane, but ‘could not come to any agreement as to the particular time when the insanity first showed itself’ (The Times, 18 June 1858).

The lack of a decision did not matter. Sir Henry Meux, against all the predictions made by the medical men in 1858 (he was probably suffering from syphilis), survived for another twenty-five years. Totally incapacitated, he had been cared for by his sister Elizabeth, wife of Richard Arabin, and an army of servants and attendants in London and at East Sheen House, Surrey. Lady Meux fled to the continent and, often fuelled by drink and always by self-pity, lived a rackety life, mainly in Paris, until her death there on 6 December 1894. Crucially her only son survived to manhood. Moreover, Sir Henry Meux's great fortune had not been very seriously depleted: on his death at his London home, 36 Grosvenor Square, on 1 January 1883, he left an estate valued at over £600,000.

His son and heir, Henry Bruce Meux, third baronet (1856–1900), was born at 41 Brook Street, London, on 21 November 1856 and, following his father's insanity and mother's absence abroad, was left to the care of trustees who had him educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1875. When he came of age in November 1877 the world appeared to be at his feet: he had an income of £28,000 a year and immediately bought, at the top of the market, the 12,000 acre Dauntsey estate near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. After his leaving Cambridge without a degree at Easter 1878 there was no period of training in the brewery. Instead, having left his yacht in Rouen, he was ‘running wild with … low people’ in Paris (Surtees, 116). Three months later he contracted a disastrous marriage, which caused him to abandon any thoughts of the parliamentary career for which he appeared previously to have been destined.

Anticipating the wave of marriages between members of the nobility and actresses in the 1880s, Henry Bruce Meux was married, without the knowledge of his family, on 27 October 1878 at All Souls', Langham Place, London. The precise identity of his wife, Valerie Susie Meux, Lady Meux (1852–1910), was a matter of conjecture as she was reticent about both her age and her family background. Contemporary rumour indicated her seniority in years (though her death certificate exaggerated her age) and dubious personal history. Recent research has revealed her to have been born Susan Langdon, on 27 February 1852, at the hamlet of Crockernwell, Drewsteignton, Devon (where she was baptized on 4 June 1852), the second daughter in the family of four daughters and two sons of William Langdon (1824/5–1861), a butcher and victualler (he was described as ‘gentleman’ on her marriage certificate) in the village, and his wife, Lydia Jane née Ellis (b. 1826/7). Her father died in 1861 leaving a young family of six children. She followed her brothers to London and as a voluptuous beauty quickly made her mark. But it was not on the stage, where her appearances were limited to a season's engagement in a pantomime at the Surrey Music Hall, London. Latterly she had become the mistress of a Corporal Reece of the Life Guards and took his name, being known as Val Reece. She seems to have met Henry Meux at the Casino de Venise in Holborn, where she was possibly engaged as a hostess. The gossip magazine Truth reckoned ‘Miss Reece had landed the biggest fish which has floated in the matrimonial water for some time’ (14 Nov 1878, quoted in Galassi and Burnham, 159).

The 1881 census reveals the Meuxs living at Dauntsey with nine servants, her age falsified to match her husband. He showered her with diamonds (the bill for one St James's Street jeweller alone came to £13,859, a court case revealed) and she famously sat for three full-length portraits by Whistler in 1881—a £1500 commission he was eager to undertake after his bankruptcy of two years earlier—wearing her diamonds in one, A Study in Black. The portraits were powerful images of wealth and bravura that did little to bolster her reputation. As she told Margaret McMillan, briefly her secretary, a decade later, men, some of them distinguished, dined with her and her husband at their house in Park Lane, or stayed at Theobalds, Dauntsey, or the estate they rented each year in Scotland, ‘but not their women. I am outside’ (Galassi and Burnham, 161).

Henry Bruce Meux slipped quietly into the shadow of his overwhelming wife, though he took some part in the social life of Wiltshire in the 1880s. They hunted; she carried out her duties in the village. He served as high sheriff of Wiltshire in 1886, was an officer in the Royal Wiltshire yeomanry, and, with an interest in the excavation of tumuli, was president of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society for three years. Theobalds was opened up again and the house greatly extended with a tower, giant conservatory, a Turkish bath, and, to cater for the craze of the 1880s, a roller skating rink. Sir Christopher Wren's great Temple Bar, dismantled from its site in London to allow street widening, was re-erected to form the main entrance to the house in 1888. Theobalds was filled with raffish guests each weekend. But in the midst of all the jollity and extravagance Sir Henry, aided by drink, withdrew into his own world during the last decade of his life.

After the death of his father the third baronet had been effectively excluded from all management of the brewery when the terms of its partnership were renegotiated and on its becoming a public company in 1888. The brewery, like other London breweries that had paid, with big debenture issues, wildly excessive prices in the scramble to buy public houses in the late 1880s and 1890s, did less well after the turn of the century. Others struggled in comparison with the boom years, but Meux's problems were in a class of their own. The brewery badly needed moving to a new, less confined site and its public houses badly needed modernization. Any initiative was circumscribed by the concentration of share ownership in the hands of the Meuxs and Lord Tweedmouth.

In fact the Meuxs' wealth was barely dented, at least before 1900, in spite of the company's ordinary shares returning small dividends or, in many years, none at all. On the death of his wayward mother in 1894 Sir Henry received her £15,000 jointure and estate (valued at nearly £43,000); he held a massive half share in the brewery; and his estates totalled 15,110 acres and produced a gross rental of £23,507 in 1883. Even when the rents of the latter declined after the mid-1880s he remained a very rich great landowner. On his death at Theobalds on 11 January 1900 he left an estate valued at nearly £700,000.

As the Meuxs' marriage was childless, this fortune was inherited by Lady Meux. Now one of the wealthiest women in Britain, she lived the life of a rich widow to the full even after the brewery's affairs became so dire in 1905 as to necessitate a drastic reduction in its share capital. Then her income was seriously dented. She sold much of the land at Dauntsey, but not the house. She also had houses in London and Brighton and a château fifteen miles from Paris. At her stud at Theobalds she bred the 1901 Derby winner Volodyovski, although he turned out to be a most indifferent sire when retired to stud after winning no further race. Lady Meux died at the Coburg Hotel, Grosvenor Square, London, of cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy, on 20 December 1910, and was buried in the Meux family vault at Cheshunt parish church, leaving an estate valued at just over £200,000. Intelligent and bold, she was reckoned ‘acute in business affairs, taking the keenest interest in the management and improvement of her estate’ (The Times, 21 Dec 1910).

Certainly her will, dated 25 January 1910, was as remarkable as her life. The major part of her estate passed to Admiral Sir Hedworth Lambton [see ], third son of the second earl of Durham, on condition that he changed his name to Meux. Lady Meux had funded at the cost of £20,000 six naval guns used in the defence of Ladysmith during the South African War. On his return from South Africa Sir Hedworth had called on Lady Meux to describe their use and afterwards showed an interest in her racing affairs. He became the principal beneficiary of her estate, largely to the exclusion of members of her late husband's family who, she complained, had never accepted her as his wife. But others were not neglected. £20,000 was set aside in vague terms for her own family (some had long ago emigrated to New Zealand with her assistance). The long list of smaller bequests was largely confined to names from Debrett. Her dozen dogs were each provided with 5s. a week for their upkeep, a generous sum in 1910 when Hertfordshire agricultural labourers were paid little more than twice the amount for six days' work.

Lady Meux's collection of Egyptian artefacts was left to the British Museum. Begun on her honeymoon to Egypt in 1877, the collection had been much extended with the advice of Sir Wallis Budge, keeper of oriental antiquities at the museum. She had built a museum for the collection at Theobalds of which Budge produced a catalogue (1893; 2nd edn, 1896). But the British Museum could not agree to the terms of the bequest and the collection was sold the following year. Budge also edited and translated, with beautiful coloured facsimiles, two privately printed volumes (1898, 1900) of her collection of five early Christian illustrated manuscripts from Ethiopia. The most notable collection of such material in private possession, the manuscripts had been acquired by a British officer after the capture of Magdala in 1868 and were purchased by Lady Meux in 1897. Moved by the reverence shown to them by Prince Ras Makonnen when, accompanied by three Ethiopian bishops, he visited Theobalds in 1902, she made provision in her will for the manuscripts' return to Emperor Menelik of Abyssinia. This intention was thwarted by Menelik's death in 1913 and by objections that the manuscripts should not leave the country (they were eventually dispersed).

The Meux name continued beyond its use by the childless Sir Hedworth who died in 1929. The brewery at last moved to Nine Elms Lane, Wandsworth, in 1921. The company, Friary Meux Ltd from 1956, was bought, in the midst of the post-1960 mergers of brewing companies, by Allied Breweries in 1964. Brewing ceased at the Horseshoe brewery two years later.

R. G. Wilson

Sources  

A. Barnard, The noted breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, 4 vols. (1889–91), vol. 3, pp. 155–67 · P. Mathias, The brewing industry in England, 1700–1830 (1959) · T. R. Gourvish and R. G. Wilson, The British brewing industry, 1830–1980 (1994) · T. H. Corran, ‘James Deady, Henry Meux and the Griffin brewery: fraud in an early ninteenth-century business’, Business History, 23 (1981), 327–45 · Debrett's Peerage (1839) · Burke, Peerage (1894) · IGIGM, old ser., 82 (1812), 595; old ser., 83 (1813), 92; old ser., 84 (1814), 389–90; new ser., 16 (1841), 203 · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · Brewer's Guardian (2 Jan 1883), 13 · Brewer's Journal (15 Jan 1883), 15 · Venn, Alum. Cant. · b. cert. [Lady Meux] · m. cert. [Lady Meux] · census returns, 1861, 1881 · The Times (9 June 1858); (10 June 1858); (11 June 1858); (12 June 1858); (14 June 1858); (15 June 1858); (16 June 1858); (17 June 1858); (18 June 1858); (21 June 1858); (21 Dec 1910); (11 Jan 1911); (12 Jan 1911); (7 Feb 1911) · VCH Wiltshire, 14.68–9 · VCH Hertfordshire, 1.359; 3.447–50 · F. M. L. Thompson, English landed society in the nineteenth century (1963), pp. 297–8, 301, 319 · J. Bateman, The great landowners of Great Britain and Ireland, 4th edn (1883), p. 308 · V. Surtees, The actress and the brewer's wife: two Victorian vignettes (1997) · S. G. Galassi and H. M. Burnham, ‘Lady Henry Bruce Meux and Lady Archibald Campbell’, Whistler, women and fashion, ed. M. F. MacDonald and others (2003) · W. R. Dawson and E. P. Uphill, Who was who in Egyptology, 3rd edn, rev. M. L. Bierbrier (1995) · R. Pankhurst, ‘The library of Emperor Tewodoros II at Mäqdäla (Magdala)’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 36 (1973), 15–42 · H. H. Janes, The red barrel: a history of Watney Mann [1963] · L. Richmond and A. Turton, The brewing industry: a guide to historical records (1990)

Archives  

U. Glas. L., Whistler papers, corresp. with Lady Meux


Likenesses  

photograph, 1880–89 (Lady Meux), Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire · J. Whistler, oils, 1881 (Lady Meux), Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii · J. Whistler, oils, 1882 (Lady Meux), Frick Collection, New York · W. Giller, mezzotint (Sir Henry Meux; after J. Holmes), NPG, BM · photograph (Sir Henry Bruce Meux, third baronet with Susie Valerie Meux, Lady Meux) [see illus.] · portrait (Sir Henry Meux), repro. in Barnard, Noted breweries, 3.156 · steel engraving (Sir Henry Meux), NPG

Wealth at death  

£605,291 16s. 3d.—Sir Henry Meux, second baronet: probate, 20 Feb 1883, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £696,823 7s. 6d.—Sir Henry Bruce Meux, third baronet: resworn probate, Dec 1901, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £204,150 18s. 7d.—Valerie Susie Meux, Lady Meux: probate, 17 Jan 1911, CGPLA Eng. & Wales