Friday 27 December 2013

A brief history of electricity

I was recently asked by a correspondent about electric real ale dispense and thought it would be worth turning my response into a blogpost.

My legal drinking memories go back to 1977. At that time, probably at least 40% of all real ale in the UK was dispensed by electric pump, and much more across large swathes of the Midlands and North.

Electric pumps were divided into two main types - the free-flow, which was visually indistinguishable from a keg dispenser, and the metered, which was either of the sliding cylinder "diaphragm" type or had a push-button to dispense a half-pint from a separate nozzle. I am told that some Stones' and Ward's pubs in the Sheffield area had diaphragm pumps dispensing a pint at a time, but I have never seen these. There were one or two other types occasionally seen, such as one with what looked like a revolving vane in a glass sphere which cropped up in some Wilson's pubs.

In my experience, the free-flow pumps were only widely used for real ale in pubs owned by the Bass group, although I have seen them in a few Lees, Holt's and Robinson's pubs. The obvious drawback was that they were outwardly indistinguishable from keg dispensers, which once CAMRA made a major point of promoting real ale could all too easily deter prospective drinkers. A few said "cask conditioned" on the mounting, but this wasn't usual.

Metered dispense was more common, and in particular was widely used by Banks's, Greenall's, Boddington's, Robinson's, Hyde's, Home and Shipstone's, although I have seen it in many other brewers' pubs, even including Gale's down in Hampshire. At first the diaphragm-type pump was much more numerous, but from maybe about the late 80s onwards it came to be increasingly replaced by illuminated bar mountings which were harder to distinguish from keg taps.

I have always associated metered dispense with real ale, but it was also widely used for bright and keg beers, and also for lager and Guinness. In the 1980s I recall my local Hyde's pub, the Nursery, having Harp Lager, Strongbow and even Guinness on meters alongside Mild and Bitter. Metered dispense for non-real beers was very common in clubs. I remember being taken aback once to be served obviously fizzy beer from diaphragm pumps in a Border pub south of Oswestry, so that must have been a rarity.

Two big advantages of metered dispense were that it ensured a full pint, and that it greatly reduced the ability of bar staff to ruin decent beer by an incompetent pulling technique.

From the late 80s onwards it began to slowly disappear - breweries seeing the advantage of at the same time pushing a more obvious image of "real ale" and also being able to use brim-measure glasses and serve less beer per pint. In my view CAMRA mistakenly encouraged this process by presenting handpumped beer as superior and apparently putting image before full measure.

By 2000, metered dispense had become pretty rare and as far as I know has pretty much entirely disappeared now. The last pub I saw it in was Robinson's Queens Arms on Portwood in Stockport which isn't one I regularly pass and tends only to be visited by the local CAMRA branch every two years on a Stagger. The Flying Dutchman retained it for a long time but has now been sold off and is the Fairway free house, of course with handpumps and brim-measure glasses.

I am also told that one or two of the more traditional former Banks's houses still serve their Mild using electric meters, although I haven't seen this myself in recent years.

Personally I miss it as something that added variety to the pub scene and have written about it here. Incidentally, I couldn’t find a single picture of a diaphragm dispenser on Google Images.


  1. I've also looked for diaphragm dispense photos on the internet and never found anything. On Merseyside, the vast majority if not all of Tetley cask ale pubs used electric pumps. Higsons had some also. I also remember Camerons pubs using that method of dispense. Greenalls sold cask and non-cask by that method and so mediocre was their beer that it was hard to tell if it was cask or not. Burtonwood commonly used electric pumps including the the standard and glass sphere type.

  2. Hmm, my recollection is that Tetley's pubs like the Vines and the Philharmonic used handpumps, but I never really ventured much outside the city centre. Also IME rare to see electrically-pumped Tetley's in Yorkshire.

  3. Working pubs in the NE in the mid-70s to 1980, there was (very) limited real ale around. Metered sliding cylinder pumps were quite common in S&N houses, as were free flow metered beers. These last also I think we had in John Smith's (first) flagship pub in Eldon Square - the Cordwainers - actually in Nelson Street However, I don't recall any that were used for real ale. The few pubs that did serve real ale all AFAIR used hand pulls.

  4. I've dug out the Newcastle University Students Information Handbook for 1977/78 - a sole survivor from that era. Beer about town lists the following as serving real ale by electric pump: Bacchus High Bridge (Sam Smiths OBB 1040); Star and Garter Clayton Street (Bass with good darts!); Earl Grey Gosforth High Street (Lorimers Best Scotch Expensive).

  5. I'm sure you are correct about Yorkshire Tetley pubs using handpumps but I this side of the Pennines the electric pump was King. The Vines and Phil converted to handpumps when a number of pubs were re-branded as Peter Walker with the Walker beers. My GBGs are hidden away in the loft but perhaps someone could look up the 1977/78 editions to check the methods of dispense listed. I'd bet that most Merseyside pubs bar Higsons were electric.

  6. 1977 GBG lists 16 pubs for Liverpool City Centre. Only one - Tetley's Lorne - uses electric pumps. The Bull, Eagle Vaults, Feathers, Horseshoe, Roscoe Head and Shakespeare all serve Tetley's on handpump. 5/6 entries for Stockport use handpumps.

  7. I went to Padgate College near Warrington in the 1970s, and I don't recall any pubs there that used handpumps.

  8. For Warrington, the 1977 GBG lists the Manx Arms (Tetley) and Vulcan (Greenalls) using handpumps, and the Hop Pole and Prince of Wales (both Greenalls) on electrics.

    IME most Greenalls pubs with real ale used electrics, but a few, such as the Ring O'Bells at Daresbury, had handpumps. Cask Greenalls was much more common south of the Ship Canal than north of it.

  9. The 1976 GBG lists 18 pubs in Liverpool central all but one (the Lorne)are on handpump.

    The Nottingham area had lots more electric pumps,with most Shippo's,Home and Kimberley houses being on electric pumps.

    A local guide to real in the Derby area for 1979 lists 29 pubs in Ilkeston,all were on electric pump,i drank in these areas at the time and handpumps were very rare to see on the bar.

  10. Googling for pictures of a diaphragm dispenser?

    A change is as good as a rest they say.

  11. Excellent information, thanks for this! Maybe someone who happens to be in a pub where a rare surviving metered dispense unit exists can provide an image.


  12. I can certainly remember the Grapes on Brownlow Hill, Liverpool and Glass Barrel in Birkenhead being metered (both Tetley). The Birkenhead GBG pubs were certainly electric dispense. I'll have to consult friends to come up with s definitive list of other Tetley pubs in the area.
    BTW weren't the sliding cylinder pumps known as 'Metrons'?

  13. There's a photo at - a lot bigger than I remember the S&N pumps in the '70s. Friend Granville in Hull certainly remembers Banks's beers being metered, ditto the tank bright beers at the Union Society in Newcastle, and Tetley Bitter in some pubs in Hull in the late '70s/early '80s.

  14. Cheers Dominic, that's exactly the kind of thing I meant, although the ones I remember were a bit more clean-lined.

  15. Some more contributions - but no pix - at There's a brief reference way down the page on this one

    I thought searching for pix of pub interiors in the '60s and '70s might produce some images - but nothing so far.

  16. And searching threw up this from 2009 :-)

  17. Still no sign of any pix, tho' I have come across recent (June 2013) contributions in a thread on a CAMRA forum:

    'Thirty years ago I produced a CAMRA guide for Staffordshire and nearly half of those real ale pubs used electric pumps, while the 1983 Good Beer Guide listed 82 pubs in West Sussex of which only four had electric pumps, all of them Gales houses. This will be of no surprise to those of us who remember electric pumps to be common in the Midlands and North but rare in the South.
    Electric pumps started being phased out from the Banks’s pubs around here from about 2000 but I too have seen them more recently in Robinson’s houses.'

    'I would say they've pretty much entirely disappeared from Robinson's pubs, although I have seen them within the past year or so in the Anchor in Hazel Grove and the Queens in Stockport. Of course, now they are so rare, most drinkers would automatically assume them to be keg pumps.

    The Nursery in Stockport won CAMRA's National Pub of the Year Award in 2002 when serving Hydes mild and bitter through metered electric pumps, although with seasonal beers on handpump.'

    'A large independent brewery near me used metered electric pumps in just about all their hundreds of pubs from about 1970 till about 2000 and definitely the “sparkler on metered pumps was set so tight that there would be some spillage” to the extent that it certainly wasn’t accidental, and although comments such as “the licensee’s new car was paid for by the tight sparkler” probably could never be verified ( but only one fluid ounce out of every pint from several hogsheads a week in a busy wet-led pub just might add up to a few thousands of pounds each year ). Somehow many CAMRA members, no doubt mostly from parts of the country not familiar with metered electric pumps, naively assumed that oversized glasses would guarantee full pints, and failed to realise that if oversized or lined glasses became law metered pumps would be widely introduced and the handpump as a symbol of cask conditioned ale would be lost. Always accepting electric pumps, I don’t think CAMRA ever “encouraged the replacement of metered dispense into oversize glasses with handpump dispense into brim-measure glasses” but it certainly does now seem to have near enough given up on its ‘Full Pint’ campaign.'

    And of more historical interest, perhaps:

    'My 1923 and 1950 editions of ‘Licensed Houses and their Management’ states “Remember that the law compels you to serve in a Government-stamped glass a pint or a half-pint if such is called for. If an imperial measure is not called for you may serve ‘a glass of beer’ – usually a five-out glass, that is five to the quart” and that “Should a ‘small bitter’ or similar drink be demanded, then any small tankard or suitable glass may be filled and served without any qualms as to possible consequences”.'

  18. Ah - another contribution from a little over 10 years ago ..... but rather a desert still as far as pix are concerned.

  19. 1998 * Saving Electricity *

    2003 * Worst of Both Worlds *

  20. I certainly remember electric pumps from my time in the Greater Manchester ares during the mid 1970's. They were unknown back in Kent, but my first experience of them was in a Banks' pub, somewhere on the A5, when I was still in the sixth form at school. We were on our way to Bangor for a Geology field course, and had pulled in at a coach stop. Most of us headed for the pub opposite, which for most, if not all of us, provided our first experience of Banks' beer, and metered electric pumps.

    During my student days I remember them being in most Boddington's pubs, apart from some of the older, back-street locals, most Robinsons outlets (with the same exceptions as Boddies), and virtually all Greenall Whitley pubs. They were also fairly common in Wilsons' pubs, especially the older, more traditional ones, and it was in some of these that I remember the glass sphere type, (housed in a glass, or was it plastic? cube) which Curmudgeon was referring to.

    I was always a bit suspicious of the "free-flow" type, common in many Bass houses, as they bar mountings were identical to those used for bright and keg beers.

    I was sorry to see the metered ones go; they were quicker than hand pulls, required a lot less effort on the part of the bar staff, and one was guaranteed a full pint! The one drawback was they couldn't be used when the power had failed.

  21. Is this the kind of thing we're looking for?

    Cheers, Rob.

  22. Running a Home Ales pub in the late 80s I had a long running argument with the local camera group after they reported I had no real ale because I only had electric pumps. I've never trusted them since.

  23. Great, thanks for all these comments and the image. I wonder when it was designed, it has a 1950's look to it or possibly older?


  24. G'day ...... I've found a reference - but again thus far no further pix - to Metron, in a piece in CAMRA North Cheshire's summer newsletter.

    Greenall’s Lives On

    "Warrington was known in the early days of CAMRA as a Greenall Whitley desert.

    There was little other choice in the town centre, barring such well known establishments as the Lower Angel, the Lord Rodney and the Manx, all owned by rivals Tetley Walker. Many of the pubs served the Greenall’s Mild and Bitter from tanks, and were thus frowned upon by the fledgling CAMRA membership. Others used the metron system of electric pumps for cask beer, dispensing exactly half a pint per measure, if you were lucky and it hadn’t frothed over! Few retained hand pumps. One bastion of excellence in those days, retaining the hand pumps, and serving excellent quality Greenall’s (yes, you could find it!) was the Victoria Vaults on Mersey St, now sadly confined to history and dust. Another was the Brook on Knutsford Rd, Latchford, which now has a new church built on and around it!"

    The same beer engine pic was posted on twitter earlier this year by Crooke Hall Inn Wigan .... with one reply:

    @BeersManchester 21 Mar

    @crookehallinn Hell yeah! Used to drink in a pub in Salford with one armed landlord. That way he could dispense. #TheStar #OneArmedWallys

    And from One More Won't Kill You - Beer Blog

    "Of course, it wasn’t so simplistic even then. Handpumps were far from universal in the dispense of cask beer. For instance, in many parts of the North and Midlands the Metron electric pump was commonplace but it wasn’t immediately obvious if the beer dispensed was kosher."

  25. Inspired thought? D'oh, why not contact some of the breweries? They all (usually) have some sort of museum of stuff if not a shed with jumble in it.

  26. Curmudgeon said...

    Hmm, my recollection is that Tetley's pubs like the Vines and the Philharmonic used handpumps, but I never really ventured much outside the city centre. Also IME rare to see electrically-pumped Tetley's in Yorkshire.

    I was brought up in a couple of Tetley's pubs for a few years in the late 60's and early 70's. The first one (the Belle Vue in Sheepridge, Huddersfield, which is no longer with us) was converted to the diaphragm type in about '69 IIRC (I was 12/13 so a tricky memory). I remember being fascinated watching it at work, as were many customers.

    We then moved to The Lettered Board in Pickering, that one hadn't been converted and never was.

    ISTR that the customers of the Belle Vue complained that the beer wasn't as good and also they didn't like the larger glass fro some reason.

  27. I've had a very helpful e-mail from Kevin Reilly at Innserve, with the possibility of more to come. I've also - with the pointer to Mills Bros - found a list of patents at

    Further to your enquiry to Carlsberg and subsequent email to Innserve we install and maintain all the beer dispense systems for Carlsberg, Heineken and C&C/Tennents in the UK. The systems you are describing are still in use today for a variety of uses. Some areas of the UK still use metered dispense systems with the Teeside and Tyneside probably been the highest by population in terms of outlets.

    The systems referred to in your blog are as follows:

    1. Metered system which was actually placed on the bar top which was a square box chamber with a diaphragm with a 1/2 pint measured volume was called a Spheromatic. This was driven by an electric pump in the cellar and could be used on cask, keg and tank beer. This was manufactured by Mills Bros of Sheffield.

    2. Metered system referred to in the Cordwainers in Newcastle was actually a Porter Lancastrian MK3 (later updates were mkV & 8) air metered system. This was a cast aluminium section in two pieces which has a stainless steel liners. A diaphragm was in the centre and beer was contained in one side with compressed air at the other side providing the driving force.

    3. The metered system with the piston inside a cylinder chamber came in two forms. One was found in the cellar (Rapidematic) and was driven by an electric pump and the other was manufactured by Gaskell and Chambers and was found on the bar top and was the same as the Spheromatic in how it operated.

    4. The version still in use today is the Cellarmatic and essentially is cellar based usually driven by either an electric pump or a air driven diaphragm pump. This is a sphere with a diaphragm with the dispensed volume being 1/2pt.

    The manufacturers for the Rapidematic and Cellarmatic was originally Mills Bros who became Coldflow and finally were bought by IMI Cornelius.

    I will see if I can dig out some photo's / schematics of the old equipment in the next week or so and if so I will pop them across.

    Many thanks


    Kevin Reilly
    Engineering Manager
    Innserve Ltd

  28. Thanks, Dominic, that's really interesting.

  29. Excellent blog!. I was looking for bravo electric air pumps and I landed your website through google search. I found your blog very interesting.

  30. Whilst more common in the North of England, electric pumps were widely used in the South. Whitbread Fremlins used a push button metered dispense. Shepherd Neame had twelve pubs listed in the c1980 Kent Real Ale Guide as using electric pumps. From my memory I think these were all of the Mills Spheromatic type.


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