The mention in my account of our trip to Huddersfield of the Sportsman pub, which had been built by local brewer Seth Senior in 1930, prompted me to revisit The Brewing Industry 1950-1990 by Anthony Avis. This is a large-format book of 274 pages, privately printed in 1997, of which my copy is Number 158 of a limited print run of 200.
Anthony Avis was born in Norfolk in 1927, and joined the ambitious Hammonds brewery company of Bradford in 1956. Through a sequence of mergers and acquisitions this eventually became part of the mighty Bass Charrington empire, with whom he enjoyed a long career in senior management roles until his retirement in 1987. The book is a combination of an account of his own experiences and wider reflections on the brewing industry in general.
There is indeed a chapter on Seth Senior, who owned a model brewery at Shepley, a few miles south of Huddersfield. The company provided houses in the village for its workforce, and also owned several farms and even a grouse moor. It was taken over by Hammonds in 1946, with an estate of a hundred pubs, upon which the workforce went on strike as a measure of desperation. They were mollified by Harry Bradfer-Lawrence, the chairman of Hammonds, but needless to say the brewery was closed within a few years.
Avis grew up in a pub in Norfolk, so he had a connection with the trade from an early age. He describes the primitive state of many of the rural pubs, and says of the local beers “All the Norwich brewed beers, before and after the last war, were much the same – thin, flat and lifeless; however, they suited, or appeared to suit, the customers.” He qualified as a solicitor, and joined Hammonds as Assistant Company Secretary through a family connection with Bradfer-Lawrence, who was a very dominant figure in the company. He is always referred to in the book by his initials as “HLBL”, something common at the time but which has now largely passed out of common usage. Most of the characters encountered in the book get a similar treatment, so it can be difficult to follow who is who.
He paints a vivid picture of Bradford in the 1950s, when it was a bustling, prosperous city and centre of the wool trade, the streets busy with heavily-laden lorries carrying bales of wool. He also describes how the directors of Hammonds would decamp in a chauffeur-driven Bentley to take their lunch in the dining room of the Alexandra Hotel in the city centre, a scene that really does belong to a vanished world.
Hammonds was a large and ambitious company, and by the end of the 1950s had acquired over 1,000 pubs through a series of takeovers. However, HLBL had by then entered his seventies, and in 1959 the company was taken over by Northern United Breweries. This was a vehicle set up by Canadian entrepreneur E. P. “Eddie” Taylor to promote the sales of Carling Black Label lager in the UK. Over the following years, there was a frantic sequence of brewery takeovers across the North of England, Scotland and South Wales, culminating in 1962 with a merger with the venerable London-based Charrington firm to form a national conglomerate called Charrington United Breweries. This in turn merged with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers in 1967 to create the Bass Charrington behemoth, familiar to drinkers from the first two decades of CAMRA as the biggest and most high-handed of the “Big Six” national brewers.
Although he was still only in his early thirties, Avis played a key role in closing these deals and assimilating the acquired breweries into the corporate fold. The most interesting passages in the book concern his experiences in getting to grips with a variety of companies with very different cultures and idiosyncracies. He says “by this time I am sure I had acquired the reputation of the undertaker’s assistant, sent to measure up the corpse” and describes feeling like the leaders of victors in war having to treat with the defeated.
The miscellany of independent breweries still in existence in the 1950s may encourage nostalgic feeling, but in reality many of them had been allowed to stagnate and were in effect running on empty. It was a time of declining beer sales, with the rise of television being often held to blame, and there was little capital available to upgrade either pubs or brewing plant. Chronic yeast infections were commonplace, and Avis says of one company that its pubs only seemed to be held together by the thick coat of whitewash that was applied every year.
In many cases, the founding families had retreated from any active involvement in the business, leaving the day-to-day running to professional managers, who could either be just interested in economising and keeping the place ticking over, or in some cases treating it as a personal fiefdom and acting as though they owned the place. It must be remembered that all of these takeovers were agreed by the owners – there were no hostile bids. In retrospect, one of the key distinguishing features of those family brewers who retained their independence through the 1950s and 60s must have been been continued family involvement.
Nowhere was this general torpor better exemplified than in Offilers of Derby which, despite being a substantial company with 240 pubs, was “one of the sleepiest breweries I had so far experienced, even in an era of comatose management.” This was where one of the directors had purchased a chain of small hotels in and around the city in order to set up his various lady friends in business. In one brewery, Avis expressed surprise at the large number of different brews produced for the small overall volume, only to be told be the head brewer that they were basically all the same, some darkened by the use of caramel, and some, at a time when there was no requirement to declare alcoholic strength, simply labelled as strong, ordinary or light. Another firm seemed to be unusually cost-efficient, only for it to turn out that the walls of the fermenting vessels were so thin that they bulged when full, meaning that more beer was being produced than was being declared to the exciseman, who was using the nominal dimensions.
Not surprisingly, the general climate in the brewing trade in the 1950s was a pretty boozy one, and it is perhaps hard to appreciate that, back then, per capita alcohol consumption in the UK was only half what it is now. However, at that time the amount of alcohol sold in the off-trade was very small, the proportion of beer in the total was much higher, while drinking amongst women was much lower. This meant that pubs, even though trade slowly declined through the 1950s, were much busier than they are now. Most of the directors and managers learned to cope with the drinking culture, but one who unfortunately didn’t was Tudwal Roberts, the company secretary of the small Barrow-in-Furness brewery of R. F. Case. He had sadly become a hopeless alcoholic, and Avis describes a meeting with him during which, without a word, he got up, opened a drawer in a filing cabinet, took out an open bottle of red wine, poured a glass full, downed it in one, and then returned to his desk as though nothing had happened.
On Tyneside, where Hammonds took over Westoe Breweries of South Shields, he describes how the local preference was for a pint with a foaming head standing proud of the rim, which the drinkers then proceeded to blow off on to the floor, resulting in it being awash with spilt beer by the end of the evening. The echo of this remains in the present-day liking for “bankers” in parts of the North-East. Forther north still, in Scotland things got even worse, where the pubs were “literally drinking holes with no shred of comfort. ...the bleakness had been turned into an art form – bare wooden floors with sawdust, spittoons, zinc counter tops, the customers almost entirely men, outside toilets, and beer slopping everywhere; a silent, brooding atmosphere, as though something was about to happen.”
Avis also recounts a couple of the less successful episodes of Hammonds’ own history. In 1957 they recruited a hot-shot sales manager from outside the industry who decided to do a big sales push on the well-regarded Guards Ale, in the manner of other consumer goods companies. However, he failed to understand that it was a strong barley wine that essentially was only a winter product, and the company ended up being left with six months’ unsold stock.
Then, in the early 1960s, they decided to convert all their pubs in the Bradford area to tank beer, following the successful example of Cornbrook. However, the project was rushed, the equipment was substandard and it was applied to all pubs, including low-barrelage ones to which it was unsuited. Pubs found the beer fobbing uncontrollably and ended up having to beat the tanks with broom handles to dissipate the CO2. The tanks started corroding and leaking, and pubs ended up selling cloudy and infected beer, whereas the whole point of the system was to produce more consistent quality. It took a couple of years before all the problems were resolved, and dealt a lasting blow to the company’s reputation in the area.
Although most of the detail concerns breweries that were acquired by Hammonds and their successors, Avis also describes visits to rival companies. He was particularly impressed by the efficiency and well-ordered plant of Tetley’s in Leeds, then the dominant brewers in the West Riding. He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies”, and says “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”.
|"The last pub that's not a restuarant in England"|
Avis expresses regret that the brewers undermined the traditional tenancy system which had worked so well for decades. Turning over the larger and more successful pubs to management removed the opportunity for a good tenant to progress through the ranks over the years. He also criticises the brewers for pursuing various fads which may have seemed a good idea at the time, but for which there was no customer demand and which served to alienate the existing pubgoing population. This is particularly in relation to the 1960s enthusiasm for “theme pubs”, but it continues to apply to many aspects of the present-day pub experience.
One thing that is missing from the book is much discussion of the branding and marketing of beer and pubs. Avis’ legal background meant that he was mainly interested in deal-making and property management, and so this area tends to be neglected. It would be very interesting to know to what extent the pubs belonging to acquired brewers such as Cornbrook in Manchester and Catterall & Swarbrick in Blackpool were rebranded by CUB, and whether the identities of their beers were changed. Of course, once Bass Charrington came into being, it imposed a ruthless corporate identity scheme across its empire.
Despite being at the heart of the process, Avis does not give any general overview of E. P. Taylor’s acquisition spree which was at its height between 1959 and 1962, nor does he provide any pen portrait of the man himself. Strangely, even though he was responsible for a transformation of the British brewing industry, his Wikipedia entry makes no mention of this whatsoever, instead primarily crediting him with being the inventor of the gated housing development.
|E. P. Taylor and Alan Walker|
In contrast, he has plenty to say about the autocratic Alan Walker, who came from Mitchells & Butlers to become the first chairman of Bass Charrington, and he doesn’t give the impression of having much time for him. While his name seems appropriate for the image of the classless, dynamic businessman of the 1960s, in fact his first name was Horace, so he is generally referred to as HAW in the book. The small photo above shows Taylor on the left and Walker on the right, taken at the time of the merger in 1967. Despite being nine years older, Taylor in fact considerably outlived Walker.
A project by which no doubt Walker hoped to be remembered was the giant Runcorn brewery, which was opened in 1974 to replace a number of smaller breweries in the North-West and Wales. However, it never fulfilled its hopes, being bedevilled by poor industrial relations and serving to disprove the claim that it is possible to brew any beer anywhere. It eventually closed in 1991 after a mere seventeen years of operation, and turned out to be a monument to hubris rather than a lasting memorial.
The most interesting part of the book is the first two-thirds which concerns the various breweries that the author was involved with, either as takeover targets or run by rival firms. The final third covers more general topics ranging from brewery accounting systems through company histories to the use of corporate aviation by the big brewers, which is always interesting, but never grabs the attention to quite the same extent as the earlier part.
Although he was responsible for many hard-nosed business decisions, Anthony Avis comes across from the book as a thoughtful, humane man who genuinely cared for the traditions of the brewing industry. This appears to be an obituary from 2004, so sadly it would seem that he is no longer with us, although he would now be 92. If there is any lesson to be learned from his book, it is that, while many changes may be regrettable, change itself is a constant element in human life. And E. P. Taylor’s lasting memorial is that Carling (now without the Black Label), which he brought here from Canada sixty years ago, has been for many years the best-selling beer in Britain.
Incidentally, as this was a private publication with a limited print run, it doesn’t look as though any copies are readily available from internet sellers, although I believe that there are PDF copies circulating.