Fameusement British — Watney’s in Belgium, 1969

Article header from a vintage magazine: 'Continental Journey by John Nixon'

The October 1969 edition of Watney’s in-house magazine, The Red Barrel, contains a substantial feature on the British mega-brewery’s operations in Belgium. Here are some highlights.

The author was John Nixon, editor of The Red Barrel, and what took him to Brussels in the summer of 1969 was the presentation of an award for the quality of Belgian-brewed Red Barrel keg bitter. (We think we’ve got that right — the text is a bit vague.) At that ceremony M. Orban of L’Institut Mondial pour la Protection de le Haute Qualite Alimentaire spoke of ‘the progress of an ideal to which men, calling themselves European, have dedicated their best efforts for so many years’. Highly topical in 2017… Can we even say poignant without having someone tick us off?

The feature proper is entitled ‘Continental Journey’ (as above) and is a charming period travelogue with a focus on beer. Mr Nixon observes, first, that Brussels isn’t far away once airport rigmarole is out of the way: ‘[Only] about the same distance from London as is Manchester — what an incredible difference that strip of water makes!’. Then, after a few observations about the terrible driving, the high price of food and drink, and the low cost of renting flats, he gets down to business:

I finished the [first] evening at The Red Lion, one of the first English pubs in Brussels. The house is going incredibly well and as I walked through the door I was greeted by Mine Host Major John Reynolds, his charming wife Pat and a vast chorus of slightly obscene singing from a circle of British Leyland apprentices — exactly what they were doing in the city I didn’t find out as the Reynolds rushed me upstairs to another bar where we could swap news in comfort and my delicate ears would not be affronted by the lyrics of British Rugby songs.

Ah, the British abroad! (See also.) Mr and Mrs Reynolds benefited in business terms but suffered personally as a result of the absence of British-style regulated licensing in Brussels:

They open at 9.00 am and are then continuously engaged until 5 o’clock in the morning. Of course, they have a bevy of carefully selected British and Belgian barmaids to assist, who ‘live in’ above the pub, but Mr and Mrs Reynolds have to work in shifts, sometimes seeing each other only for an hour or so each day or passing on the stairs in the small hours of the morning as one gets up and the other goes to bed!

Le Real, Brussels, 1969.

The next day Mr Nixon was escorted around the city by M. Joary, Watney’s PR man in Belgium, and (supposedly) a former boxing champion, Jean Charles, who was then in charge of sales to cafes in Brussels:

Our first stop was the Cafe Real, situated at the edge of a park and frequented by professional men — lawyers, doctors and business men who work in the area. The establishment is designed to represent a cafe in the Black Forest, Germany. It is panelled throughout in red pinewood, well decorated with chandeliers, flowers, advertisements, Red Barrels and the illuminated fluorescent advertisements which are a feature of nearly all Belgian cafes… You can buy most kinds of food at the Cafe Real… Drinks range from wine through to beer, with simple but unusual items like freshly-squeezed orange juice, which you could not obtain in most British cafes or pubs.

The Swan with staff outside the door.

On the third day of his visit Nixon was taken to various English pubs by M. Willy Hermans of Vandenheuvel’s, the Belgian brewery Watney’s took over in 1968. The Swan in Place des Carabiniers in Schaerbeek was first:

The decor… is Edwardian, with blue carpeting, marble-topped wrought-iron tables, red leather seating and plenty of unusual ornaments, mostly of the large size and genuinely old. It has been open since March.

Back in the city centre, the next stop was The Queen Victoria under the management of M. Pierre Heris. It was a pub ‘designed to appeal to the wealthier business type of customer, very plush and highly polished with gleaming mirrors and a long L-shaped bar’.

Group shot of waitresses and manageress.
Staff of The Cambridge Arms, Leuven, in 1969. Mrs Larose is on the far left.

Then it was time for an out-of-town jaunt, to Leuven, where The Cambridge Arms had just opened, its name a nod to the fact that Leuven too is a university city. (We think this is now Ron Black’s, at 31 Ladeuzeplein.) Mr Nixon declared this his favourite:

Situated on a quiet square, near the university library and with excellent parking facilities, The Cambridge Arms has an unremarkable exterior. But step through the front door and surprise awaits one. The interior starts off fairly narrow, like a long hallway, beautifully decorated in traditional English country pub style and with delightful little alcove seats down one side. This room extends for about 50 feet back and then suddenly broadens into a large square room, similarly furnished and with a splendid bar counter on one side… There are several very attractive waitresses to serve customers and M. Larose, who keeps The Cambridge Arms with his wife, Suz, showed me round the spotless kitchens which are fitted with the latest equipment.

And that’s it for the feature although the back cover of the magazine is also given over to Belgium and provides a colourful finale that just reeks of 1969: ‘The large illuminated advertisement… appears on the wall of the Vandenheuvel Brewery in Brussels… the sign changes every few seconds’.

Vintage Watney's beer advertisements in Brussels, lit up at night.

Between books, magazines and newspaper articles, we’re getting quite a bit of material on British breweries and their attempts to send British beer and the concept of the pub to the Continent. Perhaps we’ll pull it all together into a #beerylongreads post at some point, or maybe we’ll just keep doing it in bits and bobs, like this. In the meantime there’s a bit more on English pubs on the Continent in this 2015 blog post.

4 thoughts on “Fameusement British — Watney’s in Belgium, 1969”

  1. One of the few surviving remnants of the Watney’s brand is the Scotch Ale which is (or was until very recently) still sold in Belgium, and it is very nice indeed.

  2. Love the way you used to find all those retired army Majors running pubs, back in the 60’s. I suppose there was quite a surplus of them back then.

    Also, what about the irony of a British brewery running a Black Forest-style café in Belgium. ‘The progress of an ideal to which men, calling themselves European, have dedicated their best efforts for so many years?” Definitely highly topical in 2017.

    I wonder when, and why, Watney’s pulled out of Belgium.

    1. The thing about majors is that it’s the highest rank you can rise to as an officer without actually getting promoted; it’s the public-school equivalent of joining as a Private and leaving as a Private. So yes, at one time there was quite the demographic bulge of retired Majors.

  3. I first started going to Belgium in hunt of beers in about 1990, and there were still lots of Watney’s Red Barrel signs about, and I think – athough I could be wrong – that the beer itself was still available then – in fact I’m sure there was something about it in What’s Brewing around that sort of time.

    Wikipedia says this: “Watneys Red Barrel [edit]
    Watneys Red Barrel was a bitter which sold highly in the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s.[8][9] It was introduced in 1931 as an export keg beer that could travel for long distances by being made stable through filtering and pasteurising – as such it was the first keg beer.[8] It was renamed to just “Red” in 1971.
    A 3.9% abv pale lager with the name Watneys Red Barrel was sold by the Sleeman Brewery until 1997[10] and a 6.0% beer with the same name is still brewed by Alken-Maes.[11]”

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