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date: 30 June 2022

Greene familyfree

(per. 1801–1920)

Greene familyfree

(per. 1801–1920)
  • R. G. Wilson

Greene family (per. 1801–1920), brewers, came to prominence with Benjamin Greene (1780–1860), born on 5 April 1780 in Oundle, the youngest child (there were thirteen by two marriages) of Benjamin Greene (1732–1782), draper, and his second wife, Rebecca Ashton (1739–1830). The family throughout the eighteenth century were engaged in the woollen drapery business of the south midlands and possessed impeccable dissenting credentials through their long association with the Howard Congregational Chapel in Bedford. There is no evidence of Benjamin Greene's education beyond his apprenticeship in the late 1790s with the leading London brewing firm of Whitbread. He appears to have settled in Bury St Edmunds in 1801 on forming a partnership with John Clark, brewer, in Guildhall Street. By 1804 the partnership was in difficulties, and early in 1806 Greene entered a new partnership with William Buck (a one-time yarn merchant, leading Suffolk dissenter, and the father-in-law of Thomas Clarkson, the great anti-slavery campaigner) to brew beer in the town's historic Westgate Brewery.

Sales of beer in land-locked, backward Bury were unlikely to take off dramatically before the railways, and output during Greene's management of the brewery (1806–36) probably never exceeded that he declared in 1831—5000 barrels of strong and 2000 of small beer. But Greene was an energetic and unconventional brewer whose abilities and ambitions were never realized in running a small country brewery. By good fortune Greene's neighbour across the brewery yard was a relatively impoverished, rackety, and, most significantly, childless owner of a West Indian plantation, Sir Patrick Blake, second baronet (d. 1818). Greene became one of his executors, obtained the management of his Suffolk and St Kitts estates, and on his widow's death in 1823 was left her Nicola Town plantation on the island. Greene had become a proprietor and slave owner in the West Indies himself. In addition to the Blake properties he managed those of a south Norfolk landowning family (Molyneaux), and there were three more he acquired on his own account. In 1829 his eldest son, the immensely capable Benjamin Buck Greene (1808–1902), was sent out to St Kitts to run all these properties and consolidate the family's good fortune. On his return to England in 1836 he was managing and modernizing no fewer than eighteen estates (together producing one third of the island's sugar exports in the mid-1830s) and enjoying the greatest reputation as a planter.

Meanwhile Benjamin Greene had thrown himself with enormous vigour into representing the interests of the West Indian slave proprietors at a critical juncture of their affairs. To effect this he acquired the Bury and Suffolk Herald in 1828. For six years he ran this ultra-tory provincial newspaper during the heady period surrounding the Reform Act and the abolition of slavery amid mounting controversy, involving himself in no fewer than three libel cases. Utter reaction to these key pieces of legislation was a strange position for a one-time prominent dissenter to occupy and the third case heaped such obloquy upon him that he left Bury in 1836 to found a sugar importing and shipowning firm at 11 Mincing Lane, London, having received compensation for ownership of 225 enslaved people on St Kitts and 6 on Montserrat. He died at Russell Square on 26 November 1860, was buried in Highgate cemetery, and left an estate sworn under £80,000.

Benjamin Greene was twice married: in 1803, to Mary, third daughter of Abraham Maling, yarn merchant of Bury St Edmunds, and in October 1805, a year after Mary's death, to Catherine (1783–1855), daughter of the Revd Thomas Smith (1749–1801), minister of the Howard Chapel in Bedford, and his wife, Elizabeth (1750–1792), only daughter and heir of Zachariah Carleton of London, banker. The second marriage produced seven sons (two dying in infancy) and six daughters. Four of the five sons, all of whom were educated at Bury's renowned Edward VI Grammar School, inherited their father's ability. Besides the eldest, Benjamin Buck Greene (later governor of the Bank of England), John (1810–1867) was a solicitor, prominent in the affairs of Bury and west Suffolk and twice mayor of the town in 1841 and 1852. The career of the third son, Edward, brewer and MP, is discussed below. Charles (1821–1840) succeeded his eldest brother in the management of the St Kitts estates at the tender age of sixteen. It was, however, neither the burdens of his task nor his father's expectations, formidable as both were, which killed him three years later, but fun (he supposedly fathered thirteen illegitimate children) and yellow fever, the traditional toll upon the longevity of West Indian planters. Only the youngest, William (1824–1881), failed in all the tests his father set him, being completely unable to establish himself in any settled occupation. His nine children included Sir William Graham Greene, permanent secretary to the Admiralty and Ministry of Munitions, 1911–18, and Charles Henry Greene (1865–1942), headmaster of Berkhamsted School between 1910 and 1927, the father of Graham Greene (1904–1991), the novelist, and Sir Hugh Carleton Greene (1910–1987).

Edward Greene (1815–1891), Benjamin's third son, was born at the Westgate Brewery House in 1815. Trained in his father's brewery, he completely transformed the business between 1840 and 1870. His success, achieved entirely in the free trade before 1865, was based upon a system of agents and travellers working across East Anglia. Doubtlessly he was aided by the railways after 1845 and rising beer consumption even in agricultural districts between 1830 and 1880. At first producing the traditional heavy, vatted, strong Suffolk ales, after the 1850s he successfully brewed a Burton-type pale ale (the in-vogue beer of Victorian Britain) which he sold cheaply. By the 1870s the output of the Westgate Brewery had increased to more than 40,000 barrels a year, realizing its proprietor in some years an income in excess of £10,000 a year. In 1887, in the wake of Guinness's spectacular capitalization, Edward Greene merged his brewery with that of his pushy neighbour, Frederick William King. The new company, Greene King, was generously valued at £555,000. Ownership was almost entirely confined to eight individuals in the Greene and King families with Edward becoming the first chairman of the new company. His (and F. W. King's) policy of acquiring tied public houses, which went back to the late 1860s, was pursued with an increased vigour. Owning and leasing about 200 on the merger of the two firms, the company possessed no fewer than 460 in 1919.

Edward Greene's interests were predictable enough for a member of his class and calling. He became MP in the Conservative interest for Bury St Edmunds in 1865, representing the town for twenty years before transferring to the Stowmarket division of Suffolk, 1886–91. He was also an active justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant of the county. In parliament, where he spoke quite often at the outset of his career, he was an authority on agriculture (especially horses—he was master of the Suffolk hunt, 1871–5) and housing. A well-built man of middle height, his speeches were delivered in a harsh Suffolk accent. Invariably they possessed a loud evangelical directness. Disraeli reckoned him to be 'the fiercest Protestant in the House' (The Letters of Disraeli to Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, 1928, 2.62). Clearly a figure of some fun among metropolitan parliamentarians he was for thirty years an extremely popular speaker in Suffolk on the themes of farming, progress, the work ethic, and paternalism. All were couched in homely terms and larded with examples taken from his own experiences of business and landowning. He was at this level an effective communicator, appealing across the broadest spectrum of political opinion from Lord Bristol to the humblest agricultural worker. He never lost the common touch in a patently straightforward approach to life.

Agriculture was Edward Greene's other great pursuit after the mid-1850s. In 1865 he set the seal on his election to parliament by renting the Ixworth Abbey estate where he farmed on an extensive scale. Nine years later he bought Nether Hall, Pakenham (which he rebuilt), with 850 acres. He was a bold innovator in experiments with the application of steam-driven ploughs in the 1860s and was a county representative to the national chamber of agriculture after 1867. In 1870 he founded the Ixworth Farmers' Club, which for a generation was the liveliest talking shop for agriculture affairs in East Anglia. He was also chairman of the Bury and Thetford Railway Company, 1865–76. With his experience in business, farming, and parliament there was no greater recognized authority on rural issues in west Suffolk in the 1865–90 period.

In private life Edward Greene's agenda was that of the typically successful brewer. Both his marriages were into families rather better connected than his own. His first wife, Emily Smythies (1820–1848), whom he married in 1840, was the daughter of a Huntingdonshire parson and magistrate, the Revd H. Y. Smythies; his second, Dorothea (1827–1912), daughter of C. Prideaux-Brune, belonged to a Cornish landowning family and was the widow of Rear-Admiral Sir William Hoste, bt (d. 1868). Greene and his first wife had a son and four daughters; his marriage to Lady Hoste, whom he married in 1870 and who retained her title, produced one daughter. When he died on 15 April 1891 at Nether Hall, Pakenham, it was generally reckoned that Edward Greene was among the most successful country brewers of his generation, and his fortune (£360,000) revealed the prosperity enjoyed by Victorian brewers. He was buried in the churchyard at Pakenham.

Greene's only son, Sir (Edward) Walter Greene first baronet (1842–1920), was born at the Westgate Brewery on 14 March 1842. Educated at Rugby School he then travelled on the continent before becoming a brewery pupil at Tamplin's in Brighton. Just before he became of age he was given a partnership in his father's firm. Two years later he married Anne Elizabeth Royds (1842/3–1912), the daughter of a Lichfield prebendary, the Revd C. Smith Royds, and they had two sons and three daughters. Good looking and the apple of his father's eye, Walter had three great (and expensive) interests in life: hunting (he hunted packs of harriers and fox and stag hounds in Suffolk and Worcestershire), driving carriages four-in-hand, and his succession of ever bigger steam yachts. The running of the brewery was, in effect, left to his steely, independent, highly competent first cousin, E. W. Lake (1852–1922). Lake was prominent in Suffolk affairs, mayor of Bury no fewer than six times, and under his guidance for almost half a century the brewery went from strength to strength. By 1920 it owned 460 public houses in East Anglia and was reckoned to be one of the best managed and most profitable breweries in England. The success was largely Edward Lake's.

After his father's death Walter Greene, chairman of Greene King from 1891 to 1920, did no more than attend a weekly directors' meeting, if he was in Suffolk. He drew an income from the brewery not far short of £20,000 in some years before 1914. In 1897 he served office as high sheriff of Suffolk and three years later he was rewarded with the baronetcy his father had been promised shortly before his death. Although nowhere near as effective on the hustings as Edward Greene (Sir Walter's speeches lacked gravity and substance) he was Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds in the parliament of 1900–06. Indeed in that parliament there were two other Greene members besides Sir Walter: his elder son, Raymond Greene (1869–1947), and his first cousin Henry Greene QC (1843–1915), the third son of Benjamin Buck Greene.

Sir Walter was characteristic of many third generation British businessmen. The Bible and Surtees formed the limits of his reading matter; sport and practical jokes were his favourite pursuits. Although dutiful—an avid churchman, colonel of militia, and JP—his convivial life was a prolonged pursuit of pleasure. He was fortunate that Edward Lake was one of the shrewdest brewers of his generation. Sir Walter Greene died at Nether Hall on 27 February 1920 and was buried at Thurston church, Suffolk.

After the GreeneLake regime at Greene King came to an end in 1922 the brewery was run by Edward Lake's eldest son, Major E. L. D. Lake (1881–1946), one of the best-known country brewers of the 1920–45 period. Lacking his father's capacities he nevertheless ran the company well on somewhat military lines and effectively sidelined the next two Eton- and Oxford-educated Greene baronets, Sir Raymond Greene and Sir Edward Greene (1882–1966), although both served (Raymond very briefly) as chairmen of Greene King. Sir Raymond initially had a promising career as MP (for West Cambridgeshire, 1895–1906; North Hackney, 1910–23), as member of London County Council, and as a distinguished soldier in the First World War. But he lacked ambition and, like so many of his generation, his health never fully recovered from the war. When Sir Walter died in 1920 both brothers showed provincial Suffolk a clean pair of heels. Enjoying society, they lived principally in London. On Sir Edward's death in 1966 the baronetcy became extinct. The Greene connection with the brewery was maintained by Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, who, on the strength of his high profile at the BBC, became a director in 1964 (he was chairman, 1971–8); his son, Graham C. Greene, publisher and chairman of the British Museum trustees, has continued the Greene interest since 1979. Like his schoolmaster father and troubled grandfather, Sir Hugh, a great-grandson of the firm's founder, had had nothing to do with brewing. But he and his brother Graham had a long held interest in sampling the beers of different breweries during their holidays. Possessing a deep respect for the industry's traditions Hugh brought a breath of the outside world to the board, although Benjamin and Edward Greene must have shifted uneasily in their graves at the prospect of William Greene's grandson heading their brewery.

The Greenes provide a classic illustration of the upward mobility of countless families engaged in industry and commerce in the century before 1914, a microcosm of a significant slice of our social history in these years. Benjamin Greene and his sons, Edward and Benjamin Buck, were men of ability and achievement bent on establishing their families at the pinnacle of Victorian society. Plantation owning, sugar trading, banking, and, above all, brewing, provided all the mammon-based trappings of nineteenth-century social arrival—country and London houses, steam yachts, expensive educations, membership of the House of Commons, eventually a title. With these advances came a diminution in business application. But the Greene family has a greater interest than this typically British plutocratic evolution of those supremely successful in business, for no brewing dynasty possesses more celebrated literary connections since Graham Greene and Christopher Isherwood were both direct descendants of the founder of Greene King, Benjamin Greene.


  • R. G. Wilson, Greene King: a business and family history (1983)
  • private information (2004) [private family MSS; Greene, Blake, and Molineux-Montgomerie families]
  • Bury and Norwich Post (1828–34)
  • Bury and Norwich Post (17 April 1875)
  • Bury and Norwich Post (21 April 1891)
  • Licensed Victuallers' Gazette and Hotel Courier (March 1875)
  • R. G. Wilson, ‘Greene, Edward’, DBB, vol. 2, pp. 634–8
  • Burke, Gen. GB (1965) [Greene formerly of Harston House]
  • Greene King and Sons PLC, Westgate Brewery, Bury St Edmunds
  • R. G. Wilson and T. R. Gourvish, ‘The profitability of the British brewing industry, 1880–1914’, Business History, 27 (1985), 146–65
  • Bury and Suffolk Herald (1828–34)
  • WWW, 1916–28
  • d. cert. [Anne Elizabeth Greene]
  • Greene pedigree, Coll. Arms
  • Legacies of British Slave-ownership database, [Benjamin Greene]



  • photograph, 1875 (Edward Greene), repro. in Wilson, Greene King, pl. 3
  • photograph, 1910 (Edward Walter Greene), repro. in Wilson, Greene King, pl. 12
  • oils (Benjamin Greene), Greene King & Sons plc, Bury St Edmunds; repro. in Wilson, Greene King, pl. 1
  • oils (Edward Walter Greene), Greene King & Sons plc, Bury St Edmunds

Wealth at Death

under £80,000—Benjamin Greene: family MSS of late Raymond Greene

£356,945 14s. 6d.—Edward Greene: probate, 9 July 1891, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£350,000—Edward Walter Greene: probate, 1920, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds
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D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)
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J. Burke, , 4 vols. (1833–8); new edn as , 3 vols. [1843–9] [many later edns]
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College of Arms, London
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J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)