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Capital History: Henry Brading’s Union Brewery, Est. 1865

By Ashley Newall on May 10, 2022

Much has been written about what became of H.F. Brading’s Victorian-era brewery come the 20th century, particularly regarding infamous Ottawa-born magnate E.P. Taylor, who parlayed it into a gigantic beer empire. Then there’s the small matter of the SECRET BEER TUNNEL under Lebreton Flats, built around 1945. I won’t be talking about any of that: This is the largely untold story of the man who started it all, Henry Fisher Brading (1836-1903), and his original Union Brewery.

Henry Fisher Brading, 1881. On his Navy attestation papers, he’s listed as 5’6 & ½“ tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. (Original photo by Notman & Sandham via McCord Museum – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Henry was born in Enfield, Middlesex (now part of Greater London), in England. “As a young man, he served in the British navy and was in action at the siege of Sebastopol, in the Crimea. For his part in that memorable victory, he received a medal.” (Ottawa Citizen – Sept. 7, 1903)

Brading arrived in Canada in 1860 and married Clarence née Lacourse in Quebec City that same year. He’d made his way to Ottawa by 1861, and was working as a miller by 1863.

”Lumber Yard from Christ Church Hill, Ottawa,” 1875. Union Brewery on Wellington St. near Pooley’s Bridge – camera viewing north-westerly, capturing Lebreton Flats. (Caption and original photo via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

In 1865, he launched the Union Brewery with partners Ernest William Israel and John E. Atwood. There were other breweries established in Ottawa prior, most notably John Rochester’s Victoria Brewery, est. 1829, and George Stirling’s Dominion Brewery, est. 1851, neither of which survived into the 20th century. From the start, Union “was faced with stiff competition, but the excellence of (Brading’s) product was such that sales steadily increased and one by one the competition dropped off.” (Ottawa Journal, April 10, 1928)

”The lumber district,” ca. 1890s. Union Brewery on Wellington St., Lebreton Flats in the background. (Original photo via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

“[I]n 1865, the city was buzzing with the talk of Confederation. At that time, the settlement was little more than a lumber town on the banks of the Ottawa River.” The ‘three wise men,’ as I shall call them, set up their brewery on Wellington St., west of Bay St. (where Wellington and Sparks St. used to converge). “[T]hey were (…) near the fringe of the city and could take advantage of rural markets and the particularly thirsty lumberjacks and log drivers.” (“Ontario Beer” by Alan McLeod, 2014)

“Looking (north-easterly) from further south-west at Sparks-Wellington intersection,” 1938. (Caption and original photo via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

“Looking west on Sparks, mid-block between Bay and Wellington,” 1938. (Caption and original photo via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

“The first Brewmaster, Mr. William Paris, was trained in England, and his successor, Mr. Tom Berry, was for 20 years with one of the most famous English breweries. He brought to Brading’s the secret of brewing the real old English Ale.” (Ottawa Journal, Nov. 2, 1925)

In 1866, the company was charged for “selling liquor by the glass not having a license to do so.” It was further noted that the brewery was “in the habit of selling ale by the dozen, though that was not included in the charge.” (Ottawa Citizen, June 4, 1866) This would not be the last such infraction on Henry’s watch.

In March 1867, Israel retired and sold back his part of the company, at which time it was re-assured that Atwood would be staying on. At this point, the venture was renamed H.F. Brading & Co., but the brewery itself retained the name Union. By 1880, Atwood was also bought out, leaving Brading as the sole proprietor. (When exactly Atwood exited is unclear—curiously, there’s no sign of him in Ottawa after 1867.)

Brading’s ad from “The Duke of Cornwall’s Own Rifles: A Regimental History,” 1903.

Long before there was a tunnel, there was a cave! The main entrance was located by Pooley’s Bridge, evidently on the east wall of the gorge (at least I’m presuming so: It’s either been covered up or filled in—I looked), and it stretched easterly under the “Wellington St. cliff” towards Christ Church Cathedral on Sparks. (While a grey brick structure on the cliff face appears to conceal another entrance to the cave, I can confirm it absolutely does not.)

“No. 4 of a Series: The Story of Brading’s Ale.” (Ottawa Journal – April 23, 1926)

I’ll let Brading’s themselves do the talking on this subject, from a heritage ad campaign…

(Ottawa Journal – April 23, 1926)

Henry was outdoorsy, making regular excursions into the Gatineau Hills to fish with his pals. And surprisingly, the salty brewer with the gruff exterior had a soft side: he imported specially bred collies (from the UK) and entered them in dog shows!

As of the 1890s, Brading was issuing an annual calendar featuring pretty women. The ladies were no doubt fully frocked (and then some), but I should think that ‘ol Henry was ahead of his time using this now well-worn marketing strategy: long before “Bud Girls,” there were ‘Brading’s Beauties.’

(Ottawa Citizen – Dec. 21, 1894) The author of this blurb has confused their local breweries – the Victoria Brewery was the one founded by John Rochester in 1829. It was swallowed up by consortium-in-the-making “Canadian Breweries Ltd.,” led by Montreal’s H.A. Ekers, in 1899.

“In April of 1900, the sister cities of Ottawa and Hull were ravaged by a great fire. Brading’s buildings were surrounded by lumber yards and in danger of complete destruction. (Henry) responded swiftly by enlisting the aid of the loyal lumberjacks who formed a bucket brigade. With water handed up from (the gully behind the brewery, most likely), they doused the embers that threatened the property and saved his brewery.” (“Brewed in Canada” by Allen Winn Sneath, 2001) This accounting has not been verified, however it, er, holds water…

(Ottawa Citizen – May 1, 1900)

The fire indeed reached the opposite side of the gully/gorge behind Brading’s. A contributor to many causes, Henry soon donated $100 (about $3000 in today’s money) to the Ottawa and Hull Fire Relief Fund.

Shortly after Henry’s death in 1903, Brading’s was taken up by a partnership which included his son, Harry. In 1914, the company was renamed “The Brading Breweries Ltd.” Then, in 1929, it was reported, “Owing to the construction of a new bottling plant at the Brading Breweries factory, […] the old red frame (Union Brewery) buildings which have been one of the landmarks of Ottawa for nearly 70 years, now are being pulled down by the wreckers.” (Ottawa Journal – Oct. 25, 1929) The Union Brewery era had come to an end.

The Brading Breweries Ltd. (Wellington St., Ottawa), 1938. (Original photo via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

“In 1923, (…) Colonel Plunket B. Taylor (a veteran of WWI and the North-West Rebellion) became president of Brading’s. A year later, his son Edward Plunkett (E.P. Taylor) was named as a director of the company… [T]he federal government (ultimately) expropriated the (Wellington St.) property as part of the beautification plans for the nation’s capital.” (“Brewed in Canada” by Allen Winn Sneath, 2001) That’s right, folks—the infamous Greber Plan strikes again! The brewery on the original site evidently stopped brewing Brading’s beer in 1944, and then brewed O’Keefe’s beer until 1956 at which time it ceased operations altogether. The buildings were demolished in 1960.

The Brading Breweries Ltd., 1938. The new brewery complex in its entirety was built between 1927–30, spearheaded by E.P. Taylor. Original photo via Library and Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

The brand began to be phased out in the late 1950s, no thanks to E.P. Taylor (who took over in 1944, although he’d already been running amok with the mergers starting in 1930). In 1970, Brading’s ceased to be an entity. For now-owners of the mothballed brand, Molson Coors Canada, “the (signature Brading’s ale) recipe itself is a trade secret from which brewmasters apparently still draw inspiration.” (Ottawa Citizen – July 23, 2014)

Brading’s Ale ad. Photo series by Ottawa’s Yousuf Karsh. Source: Maclean’s, Feb. 15, 1958.

You can find many more of Brading’s images that didn’t fit in this story on Ashley Newall’s blog. You can follow Capital History Ottawa on Twitter and Instagram.