In his 1986 book Local Brew, Mike Dunn credits the company with 290 tied houses. These were widely scattered across Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales, with outposts in Shropshire, Derbyshire and West Yorkshire and a substantial cluster in Staffordshire south and east of Stoke-on-Trent. However, nowhere were they numerous enough to say “this is Burtonwood country”. Many were fairly unassuming pubs in inconspicuous locations, although they did have a few prime properties such as the Rake Hall at Stanney in Cheshire and the Manor Farm at Rainhill near St Helens. They also included historic pubs such as the Holly Bush at Salt in Staffordshire, the White Lion at Barthomley in South Cheshire and the Scotch Piper at Lydiate in South-West Lancs. They also owned the Royal Oak in Eccleshall which has recently been ably refurbished by Joules. In the late 70s and early 80s I often used to visit the Tiger’s Head at Norley, an attractive, comfortable country pub between Frodsham and Northwich.
They tended to avoid prominent sites in the centres of major towns and cities, although in central Manchester they did have the Bull’s Head opposite Piccadilly Station and the Union on Princess Street which became famous as a gay venue. In Stockport they had the distinctive two-level Ups and Downs on Wellington Road South, which I don’t think has been open at any time in the 27 years I have lived in the town, and remains as an eyesore to this day, and the long-closed Golden Lion on Hillgate which even when trading was basic and grotty. They also later acquired from Tetley’s the Gladstone/Bishop Blaize, a pub with a characterful unspoilt interior, but which was also allowed to become very run-down and is now closed too.
Possibly a key reason for the company’s lack of profile lay in its beers, a standard mild and bitter which Mike Dunn says “have no great reputation”. They weren’t bad beers, just undistinguished, in the same way as Hyde’s regular beers are (in my view) today. You wouldn’t actively avoid them, but few would go out of their way to find them. They also later introduced a cask version of their Top Hat premium keg bitter but this, while stronger, I wouldn’t say was particularly distinctive either. In the early 80s Burtonwood also gained unwanted publicity through some of their pubs selling keg beers through handpumps.
In the early 1980s they fought and lost a takeover battle with Marston’s for Border Brewery in Wrexham, and Mike Dunn describes them as an ambitious company, but after this they seemed to lose their way and fall into a corporate torpor. There was a steady drip-drip of pub closures and disposals, and the pubs that remained began to look tired and lacking investment. They certainly weren’t actively buying new pubs as some of their competitors were. In 1998 they entered into a bizarre joint venture with Eldridge Pope of Dorchester called the Thomas Hardy Brewing Company. This seemed to usher in a protracted saga of mismanagement, resulting in the Dorchester brewery closing in 2003 and what remained of the Burtonwood pub estate being sold to Marston’s in 2005. Some of their pubs, such as the Bull’s Head mentioned above, are now doing well in Marston’s ownership.
The Burtonwood beer brands disappeared, but the brewery continued in operation doing contract brewing, producing, for example, Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter. According to the 2013 Good Beer Guide, it is still going today, although no longer producing any cask beer. But the substantial family brewing and pub-owning concern of which it was once a core part has now become no more than a fading memory.