Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A vanished world

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.

25 comments:

  1. It was never sustainable. Crony capitalism and vested interests and ripping off the punters with shoddy bitter.

    It's much better now the bitter is knocked up by homebrewers self identifying as artisans or craftsmen working out of lock up on industrial estates or under dirty railways arches all producing variants of the same sort of substandard bitter and then flogged as a commodity product in pubs where it sits alongside 15 pumps of similar unknown pish. All sustained by a tax break that if removed would crash the whole edifice. That's the peoples bitter.

    Morally superior to the big automated factory lager most people know and prefer.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Stafford Mudgie26 March 2019 at 12:19

    That’s very interesting.

    Avis “was particularly impressed by the efficiency and well-ordered plant of Tetley’s in Leeds” but the Brewery History website tells us that “In 1961, in a move which brought together three of the ten largest UK brewers, Edward Thompson, chairman of Ind Coope, persuaded two strong but docile regional companies, Tetley Walker and Ansells, to join his dynamic national company”.
    Efficient but docile then !

    He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies” so some things never change.
    Well done, Humphrey.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tetley's had of course merged with Walker's of Warrington shortly before joining Allied Breweries. The brewery itself may have been efficient and well laid-out, but he hints that the same could not be said of the top management.

      "...all had been transformered within eight years, the Colonel dead, his company swept into a rushed, and many might considered an unnecessary, merger, all the Tetley family directors gone..."

      I think the merger was effectively a Walker's takeover.

      Since he wrote, Sam Smith's have transferred pretty much all their tenanted pubs to management, whereas he praised their continued support of the tenanted model. I suppose management suits Humphrey's control-freak nature, but also makes it easier for the brewery to control the price over the bar.

      Delete
    2. The Stafford Mudgie26 March 2019 at 19:49

      You "think the merger was effectively a Walker's takeover" and that is quite likely.
      I understand that in the 1967 merger to create the Bass Charrington behemoth Bass, Mitchells & Butlers was more dominant than Charrington United Breweries and that in the 1961 merger it had been Mitchells and Butlers, not Bass, that had been the most successful company and this is suggested by M&B's massive investment in pubs especially between the wars.
      Ansells, the other half of the Birmingham duopoly we knew, did their massive investment in pubs early last century, as evidenced by most of Digbeth's heritage pubs, but had become "docile" by 1961.

      Delete
    3. Yes, it was very much an M&B takeover of Bass, which Avis describes as a moribund company living on past glories. However, it's an example of the victor company in a takeover eventually assuming the identity of the vanquished. It became Bass Charrington, not M&B Charrington, and eventually just Bass. Avis gives another example in Green's of Luton taking over Flowers of Stratford-on-Avon, and of course more recently that is what happened when Wolves & Dudley took over Marston's.

      Delete
    4. The Stafford Mudgie27 March 2019 at 11:05

      Yes, and the victor company in a takeover assuming the identity of the vanquished was soon the case with Wolverhampton & Dudley and Marston's as the investors involved with fighting off Pubmaster and then taking over Marstons considered Marstons as a more suitable name than Banks's for a potentially national company.

      Delete
  3. Interesting bit of history. I have always had a liking for Bass. And Tetley's bitter back in the 70s. It was pretty much all you could get in Leeds and if kept well with a good turn over it could be a superb pint. Then Theakstons moved in and did up the students union bar. At last some competition in the late 70s.

    ReplyDelete
  4. If any of this piss water was any good it would still be being made and people would still be drinking it.

    It wasn't, so it isn't

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, nothing valuable has ever been destroyed in the entirety of human history.

      Delete
    2. Often the choice was either Tetley's bitter or Tartan in Leeds back then. Tetley's usually won.

      Delete
  5. In reply to IDrinkBitterMe: in Merseyside we had the excellent Higson's Bitter which was well-liked locally. The brewery eventually fell into the hands of Whitbread, was closed and production moved, first to the Hillsborough brewery and then to Castle Eden, by which point it has changed out of all recognition into mediocre slop.

    While I'm sure your comment would have been applied to some breweries, Higson's was a good and popular beer destroyed by Whitbread, probably quite deliberately.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie27 March 2019 at 02:39

      It was Boddingtons of Manchester that acquired Higsons in 1985 just four years before they decided to abandon brewing to focus on its pubs.
      Abandoning brewing to focus on pubs now seems like a good idea in Chiswick ! .

      Delete
    2. It was Whitbread who eventually closed Higson's brewery, although Boddingtons must have been well aware of its likely fate when they sold their brewing operations. In the early years of Boddingtons' ownership, they did invest a fair amount into the Higson's brand, and carried out an attractive resigning of all their pubs, but obviously the climate changed at the top of the company.

      Delete
    3. Once upon a time Real Property was inalienable. That is, it could not be sold, but only inherited. Feudalism had its good points, maybe.

      Delete
  6. Higson's was piss. So was Boddingtons. No loss.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie28 March 2019 at 09:34

      The last thing a vindictive troll wants is agreement but, yes, yeast digests sugars and excretes alcohol so ALL alcoholic drinks, including the two once well respected ones mentioned, are 'piss'.

      Delete
    2. Probably prefers John Smith's ;-)

      Delete
    3. Being pedantic, yeast niter digests or excretes anything, being a fungus. :)

      Delete
    4. The Stafford Mudgie2 April 2019 at 18:31

      I used 'digests' and 'excretes' because in converting carbohydrates to carbon dioxide and alcohol yeast acts more like an animal than a plant.

      Delete
  7. Some penetrating analysis of the merits of those Lancashire beers - I wonder what beers he actually likes. My view was that Boddingtons was pretty well unbeatable in the 1970s, and Higsons was pretty good as well.

    ReplyDelete
  8. A fascinating insight into a long vanished world, and proof if needed, that not all the takeovers and mergers which led to the creation of giants, such as Bass Charrington, were hostile ones.

    The book also provides evidence that not all beer in those post-war years was good, or indeed drinkable, as well as suggesting that many pubs during those decades were not particularly comfortable, or even desirable places to drink in.

    There is a tendency to look back at that pre “Big Six” era through rose-coloured spectacles, and whilst there were a lot more “local” beers back then, plus a lot more pubs, both the brewing industry and the associated pub trade were in obvious need of investment.

    I have a number of similar books in my collection, detailing the history of companies such as Boddingtons, Courage, Greenall Whitley, Scottish & Newcastle, Shepherd Neame, Watneys and Whitbread, but these volumes are very much corporate and officially sanctioned publications. Anthony Avis’s book comes across as a lot more personal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Avis is actually quite scathing about the sanitised version of the past provided by official company histories. While many of these family-owned breweries were quite moribund and ripe for takeover, there was an aspect of "merger mania" around at the time that led many to believe they had to "get on or get out". It didn't look as though there was much future for medium-sized independent firms.

      It's a pity he doesn't have more to say about the actual beers, although he does mention that one or two were well-regarded in their localities, and drinkers were not happy about them being replaced by what they saw as inferior products.

      Delete
  9. Yes, cask Boddingtons was excellent in the 70s and early 80s. I found Higsons a bit of an acquired tastes but worth acquiring.

    ReplyDelete
  10. An often overlooked contributory factor in brewery take overs between 1940 and 1980 was the impact of Inheritance Taxation which was at a high level in this period and where there was no relief,as there was after 1980,for business assets. Breweries generally held a large amount of valuable real estate and frequently,the only way of meeting a large tax bill was to sell the business. This factor may have accounted for as many sales as a desire to 'get on or get out'

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Stafford Mudgie2 April 2019 at 20:22

      John,
      Yes, but selling off a proportion of the tied houses could sometimes be a less drastic alternative to selling up completely, and I think that might have happened with the Donnington Brewery over a generation ago.
      Likewise Batemans sold much of their pub estate to survive when some family members, though not 'Mr George', wanted to sell up and retire on the proceeds.

      Delete

Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. To combat persistent trolling, unregistered comments are liable to be deleted unless I recognise the author. If you intend to make more than the occasional comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.