History: SA Brain – a name who went beyond beer

17 April 2016

Pt 3 of our series on Victorian Grangetown’s first councillors looks at a name which is known to many still in Cardiff and beyond.

The name “SA Brain” is well known in Cardiff as the name of a pint of beer, after the brewer of the same name.

The eponymous Samuel Arthur Brain, as well as being co-founder of the brewery in 1882, was also a Conservative councillor for Grangetown from 1885 and played a crucial role in founding the area’s library.

Councillor Brain took a keen interest in the education of the area’s population. He personally helped to support a reading room in Clive Street. As chairman of the town’s branch library committee, in 1901 he oversaw the opening of a number of lending libraries in Cardiff. The second of six to open, on September 15th, was the one on the opposite side of the road to the old reading room.

Designed by EM Bruce-Vaughan, the red-brick building was noted for its natural light and ventilation and regarded as a model likely to be “widely adopted.” It was built by contractors D Thomas and Sons for a cost of £3,501 including freehold.

It appears Brain helped pay for 3,000 of the 5,000 books in the library, chosen by the chief librarian John Ballinger (who himself did extraordinary work with the town’s library service and schools, and was later the first head of the National Library of Wales and knighted).

Previously, Brain had “privately subscribed heavily” to supplement the grant from the rates to maintain the reading room. But the Cardiff Weekly Times reported that he made clear that “the inhabitants of Grangetown were not to associate charity with the library, it was their own, bought out of the public purse.”

The six branches, which also included Splott, Canton, Roath, Docks and Cathays, were to “place sound literature within the reach of all.”

Brain, in the absence of the mayor, opened the library by applying for membership and borrowing its first book. He then received a golden key in return and treated the guests to lunch.

He lived in Penarth with his wife Frances and three daughters. But he had no big political ambitions further than serving as a councillor, rejecting approaches to run for higher offices. He was known for his versatility, his grasp of finances – “attractively urbane, his style argumentative and delivery effective” as one profile put it.

He was a keen cricketer – two cousins played the game for Gloucestershire – a musician and also a shot, serving as captain in the 2nd Glamorgan Volunteers Artillery.

He got into brewing in 1876 through Frances, whose father John Thomas ran a small concern, The Old Brewery in St Mary Street but had been ill for a number of years after suffering a stroke. His father-in-law died in 1877 and Brain built up the business with his uncle.

His greatest legacy is now the pint of beer which bears his name – but although Brain himself liked an occasional tot of whisky, he drank little.

He died suddenly in 1903 of a blood clot to the brain, aged only 53. He had been on his way to the south of France when he first started feeling unwell and returned home on doctor’s orders. A crowd estimated at 15,000 people lined the streets at his funeral. Special trains had to be arranged. He left £140,000 in his will.

“No more popular representative of the public life of Cardiff ever lived than Alderman SA Brain,” said his obituary in the Evening Express. It praised his affability and being able to appreciate the arguments of even those he disagreed with. Characteristics which enabled him to retain his seat as a councillor “in such a Radical ward as Grangetown.”

See also ‘Admiral Jenkins’ – Grangetown’s first elected councillor

How Grangetown broke free from Canton


Article tags

Share this article

Comment on this article