What’s a brewster? No, you’re wrong …

Or at least you’re not as right as you think you are. I, too, used to believe that “brewster” meant, exclusively, a female brewer, until a discussion recently on the excellent wordorigins site about the word spinster. Someone put up the Oxford English Dictionary entry on the –ster suffix which revealed that it wasn’t as simple as I had thought:

In northern M(iddle) E(nglish), perh. owing to the frequent adoption by men of trades like weaving, baking, tailoring, etc., the suffix [-ster] came very early to be used, indiscriminately with -ER, as an agential ending irrespective of gender…
It is probable that “-ster” was often preferred to “-er” as more unambiguously referring to the holder of a professional function, as distinguished from the doer of an occasional act. In Scotland, baxter and webster survived as masculines down to the 19th c. …
In the south the suffix continued to be predominantly feminine throughout the M(iddle) E(nglish) period. The Old English formations, baxter, seamster, tapster, were in southern English usually feminine before 1500 … also spinster, which alone of the group has survived (though with change of sense) solely as a feminine…

In other words, if you see “brewster” in a Southern English context in the Middle Ages, it probably means a female brewer, but in the North of England and Scotland it could be female, it might just as likely be a male.

 The geographical spread of “Brewster” and “Brewer” as surnames seems to confirm this North-South divide for brewster/brewer. Another excellent site, National Trust Names, which tracks the frequency of surnames in different parts of the country, reveals that Brewster, even in the late 19th century, was very much an East of England name, from Essex up to the East Riding, with a small concentration in Aberdeen/Highlands/Fife. Brewer, in contrast, was very much West Country and South Central England, with a small concentration in South West Essex but no real presence north of about Oxford, except for small areas of Lancashire and Lincolnshire,

In apparent confirmation that this is telling us something meaningful about “–ster” versus “–er”, Baker as a surname  in 1881 is, similarly to Brewer, solidly concentrated in the south of England, while the surname Baxter is, yes, huge in Scotland, and down the eastern side of England as far as Suffolk.

Webber and Webster (both meaning weaver) are just the same – Webber strongest in the West Country, Webster in Scotland and the North of England, but no presence in the South. So in surname-forming times (mainly the 13th and 14th centuries) it does look as if the “-er” form of the agent suffix was preferred in the south, particularly the south west, and the “-ster” form in the north, the east and Scotland

What this means for brewing historians is that we can’t take references to “brewsters”, particularly northern and Scottish references, as being solely concerning female operatives. Sometimes this can be important: if you’re looking at, say, borough by-laws that only mention restrictions on “brewsters” you might think there weren’t any male ale-makers about, when in fact “brewsters” was meant to cover both sexes.

This also explains better the expression “brewster sessions”, the name given to the (former) annual meeting of licensing magistrates in every district that renewed pubs’ licenses to sell alcohol by retail. It always puzzled me why the “feminine” word was used – but if “brewster” covers both sexes, then that makes more sense.

Incidentally, another great website, yournotme.com says today there are about 9,500 people with the surname Brewer in the UK, and 4,500 Brewsters. And 3,251 Drinkwaters … (hello Ian …)

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15 thoughts on “What’s a brewster? No, you’re wrong …

  1. I am in agreement with your above brief and would like to share my thoughts with you based on my reasoning and supported by those of others.

    Data on the surname “Brewster”

    In prolonged research I found references stating the origin of the Brewster surname as: Scottish (from female brewers)…..

    Note: “BREWSTER. A Brewster is a female Brewer, so for the name to have been continued in the male line, it must have been conferred upon the good lady’s sons. There’s an outside chance that it could mean embroideress, but which would you prefer?
    I doubt many Brewster surnames were gained in this manner.”
    Also references to the origin being Norman and/or English
    English/Norman – Occupational
    Bailey – “bailiff”
    Baron – “works for the baron”
    Booker – “seller or maker of books”
    Brewster – “one who brews ale”

    I have encountered the name… Thomas le Breuester in the county of Lanark, Scotland – rendered homage in 1296.
    Also………………………………… Roger Breuestere – listed in Suffolk, England in 1221
    I would think these names to be Norman.
    As to the reference to an English origin…. One reference stated that the term Brewer was common in the South of England.
    I have run across many references to the origin of the name being Saxon, and it was most common in early years in areas where the Saxons were well established… Suffolk and lowland Scotland for instances.
    To recap I believe the name as applied by Saxons to male Brewers, was “Brewster”, and since we had the Saxon influence strongly in Normandy, Scotland and parts of England… we can safely assume it has a Saxon origin.
    The name “Brewer” common in the Western and Southern parts of England is likely of a different ethnic origin. Celtic???

    Don Brewster

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  2. Years ago, while staying in a B&B in Crieff, Scotland I discovered a “Lowland Scots Dictionary” which stated that the surname Brewster with its ‘ster’ suffix was the equivalent of the English Brewer, the suffix having been supplied by the Viking raiders pre-1000 AD. Apparently there are many personal and/or place names similarly altered in areas of Viking incursion and settlement, one in particular being Caithness. I suggest that the original spellings were never intended to reflect gender, but are merely words from two similar languages which describe the same craft – that of brewing ale.

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    • Unfortunately, James, the Oxford English Dictionary disagrees with you, and your Lowland Scots Dictionary, saying about the suffix “ster”

      “Corresponding to MLG. -(e)ster, (M)Du. and mod.Fris. -ster, it represents a WGer. type -strjn-, forming feminine agent-nouns … In northern ME., however, perh. owing to the frequent adoption by men of trades like weaving, baking, tailoring, etc., the suffix came very early to be used, indiscriminately with -ER1, as an agential ending irrespective of gender.”

      In other words, your surname is strictly English, and the Vikings had nothing to do with it.

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  3. I am of the Scottish Brewster line, and have done much research on the name.
    The preponderous of evidence leaves me with the conviction that while the “ster” might have been used to denote female brewers in some cases,
    the name “BREWSTER” came from Saxon, or Germanic sources, and in the UK, coincided with areas of greatest concentration of such racial descendants.

    The name Brewer is most commonly found in areas of different racial origin,
    mainly celtic.

    In the beginning, I had difficulty trying to imagine many female brewers so proud of their trades as to have their children’s name changed. It didn’t seem logical.

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  4. Well, I am a Brewster, having descended from William Brewster, of Mayflower fame. He was from a little village close to the border with Scotland: Scrooby. The number of Brewsters in that region gives credence to the arguments that Brewster came, at least in the North of England, from the Saxons or Germanic groups.

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    • My father’s name is Brewster and his family is a decent from the Brewsters that came from the Mayflower too. Do you have any other information on the Brewster family?

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      • Not a lot, unfortunately. Though I just came across a copy of the Brewster Geneology from the Mayflower up through 1907, I think. If you’re interested, I can send you the link.

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        • Also of Mayflower descent, specifically William>Jonathan; 13th generation. Which son are you related to? Maybe able to provide some information.

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  10. Within the Fraser clan – Brewster’s are highly regarded, as the highest award you can be given is to be allowed to wear the clans hunting tartan the Fraser clan awarded their hunting tartan to the Brewster’s

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