Home » People » Robert Cain

Robert Cain (1826-1907)

Robert Cain was born on April 29, 1826 on Spike Island, which is in the entrance to Cork Harbour on the south coast of Ireland. His father James Cain was a soldier in the 88th Regiment of the British Army, known as the 88th Foot “Connaught Rangers.” After his father left the army because of ill health the family moved to Liverpool and Robert went to sea on the Palm oil ships working the West African coast. Palm oil had replaced slaves as Liverpool’s primary trade with that part of Africa and the conditions were hostile and unpleasant. Many sailors died in minor battles and skirmishes, or from Malaria; it was known as the “white man’s graveyard.”

Robert Cain survived his time at sea and arrived in Liverpool in the late 1840s to set himself up as a brewer. He married Ann Newall, the daughter of a shoemaker in 1847 and in 1850 the couple began brewing on Limekiln Lane in the Scotland Road/Vauxhall area of the city. Within a few years the quality of Cain’s brews was such that he expanded the operation, moving to a small brewery on nearby Wilton Street. By 1858 the brewery needed to expand again and supported by his growing collection of pubs Cain bought Hindley’s brewery on Stanhope Street, Toxteth, where the current Cain’s brewery now stands.

The Stanhope Street brewery, which Cain named the Mersey Brewery, was much larger than Cain’s previous breweries and included a great deal of brewing equipment. Over the following decades Cain updated and developed the site, pulling down nearby court-style slum housing to expand. By the 1880s, when Cain and his large family (he had 11 children) were living in a mansion on Aigburth Road, the brewery was one of the largest in the city. Cain himself was an important figure in the powerful Constitutional Association and had considerable influence on local politics. He recruited brewery workers to campaign on behalf of Conservative candidates for the Council and became known as “King of the Toxteths.” He was generally well-liked and respected by his workers and the Cain family were well known in the area of Aigburth and St. Michaels.

Like other Victorian gentlemen Cain enjoyed having his portrait painted and was a patron of the arts. He sat for the well-known Liverpool artist William Daniels for at least two portraits and was also painted by George Hall Neale, a Manx painter who lived and worked in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century. Cain was also a collector of rare plants and was especially fond of orchids.

By 1896, when the company became Robert Cain and Sons Ltd, Cain was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the city. Cain’s “Superior Ales and Stouts” were available across Liverpool. After the death of his wife he moved to an even larger house near Hoylake and was followed by most of his children, who lived in their own flamboyant mansions nearby. As the twentieth century began Cain began to move control of the business to his sons Charles and William, who later became noted philanthopists, supporting medical charities, including the Women’s Hospital and the Bluecoat Hospital, as well as providing money for aircraft during World War I. William Cain donated his house at Hoylake, known as Wilton Grange, to the nation as a convalescent home for injured officers. Both sons became baronets and Charles Cain became Lord Brocket in 1933.

Robert Cain fell ill in late 1906 and after six months of declining health he died at home on July 19, 1907 during a heatwave. His lavish funeral on July 23 took place on a day of thunderstorms and torrential rain, but despite the bad weather a crowd of three thousand attended and had to be restrained by the police at the gates of St James’s. Official mourners included aldermen, city dignitaries and businessmen, including the brewer Daniel Higson, whose company would later buy Cain’s brewery and operate it for almost 70 years. Also in attendance was Cain’s friend George Hall Neale. Interestingly Cain’s father James, who died in poverty in 1871, and with whom Cain had very little contact after the 1840s, is also buried separately at St. James’s.

© Chris Routledge