The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s

Reg Norkett and the staff of the Architect's Department

The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.

We found the photo in the autumn 1957 edition of the Hopleaf Gazette as shared by Raymond Simonds on his website — a wonderful trove of archive material from his family’s brewery. It accompanies a brief profile of the Architects’ Department which mentions Reg Norkett’s name in passing.

Without any great expectations we Googled him and found his address on the website of a professional organisation for architects; we wrote him a letter and have since exchanged a few emails. What follows is a lightly edited version of his responses to our questions with a little commentary from us here and there.

First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?

I was born in Reading in 1936, educated at Redlands Primary School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Reading Blue Coat School at Sonning near Reading as a boarder from 1948 to 1953.

During my time at school I realised I was interested in a career in the building/construction industry as, e.g. a surveyor or architect. I managed to obtain the required number of O levels to commence professional training and was initially employed in the Borough Architects Deparment at Reading Borough Council, as Junior Assistant in the Clerk of Works Section. I commenced training in part-time study for a National Certificate in Building at the local Technical College.

However I was keen to be involved in the Design and preparation of drawings and so on, which I discussed with the Borough Architect. He  approached the Chief Architect at H&G Simonds, Mr Reginald Southall, who is shown in one of the photographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you forwarded.

I was offered a junior position in the Architects Department, joining the company in 1954, and commencing study part-time at the Oxford School of Architecture.

We wanted to know a bit about the company and its culture…

All the Professional Staff were male, as shown in the photographs, in addition to which there were two secretaries and the Chief Architect’s PA. A number of the staff had served during World War II in various construction units.

The Offices were located in an old converted and extended cottage/pub in Bridge Street on a site that was formally part of the South Berkshire Brewery, which had been acquired by H&G Simonds some years before.

The relationship with the ‘bosses’ was very different than today with a mutual respect. (Or am I showing my age?) Department heads and directors, for example, were referred to as ‘Sir’. In my experience, however, they were generally approachable, fair and supportive to a junior starting on his career. Study time was permitted, as was use of the Drawing Office for the preparation of college work after normal closing time.

My colleagues were was also very helpful and supportive, showing interest in my study work, with help and assistance being offered when requested, and keen to listen and give of their experiences. I cannot comment on other departments but H&GS always seemed a happy place to work, with many long serving staff.

Daily duties were varied and became more involved as one became more experienced. Generally the Department was divided into two teams, as indicated in the photographs, with the junior trainees carrying out general tasks such as the filing of drawings, which were rolled onto wooden cores with numbers on the end for each job, the numbers being logged in a central register. The rolls were then stored in a large walk-in fireproof safe (the door of which is just visible at the end  of the Office in the first photo). Drawings and information for on-going projects were stored in plan chests in the office.

SOURCE: Grace’s Guide to British Industry.

Another task would be to take copies of the original drawings, which were produced on tracing paper in either ink or pencil, by a process known as Dyeline, which briefly passed the original transparent tracing paper placed on top of sensitised paper across a strong light which bleached out the area not covered by ink or pencil lines. This paper was then passed through a chemical developer resulting in the lines being developed. This was carried out in a separate room, the Print Room. As juniors this was a good place to meet, have a chat, read the paper etc. and relax for half an hour or so before returning to one’s drawing board.

As one became more experienced responsibility increased and one started to produce basic detail drawings; learn to apply water colours to detailed prints; accompany senior colleagues on surveys of existing pubs or clubs. Much of this work is described in the article in the Hop Leaf Gazette. When surveying and taking levels of external areas such as car parks, gardens, orchards and so on at old country pubs, one soon became very wary of unknown drains and cess pits.

The Architects Department was primarily concerned with new projects, major re-furbishment of existing premises, modernisation, and major works at the various breweries (Plymouth, Bristol, Newport) and the large distribution centres. It also assisted with major maintenance projects for the Surveyors Department, providing design and tender drawings outside of routine maintenance, again all very much as described in the article.

A 1950s pub, half-constructed.
The Happy Prospect, Reading. SOURCE: Reading Museum.
We asked Mr Norkett how he and his colleagues felt about the new style of pub which emerged in the 1950s — a particular area of interest for us.

There was a different mind-set for this change which in H&GS case was gradual and very much targeted to suit the new surrounding housing estates and their environment. Generally the designs of H&GS could be considered conservative, but not bland. I am sure that there will be records, photos and reports in various local papers covering new openings. Examples I can call to mind which I was involved with would be:

  • Reading – The Happy Prospect, Southcote Estate; The Tavern, Whitley Estate
  • Burghfield – The Bantam
  • Swindon – The Steam Engine (in commemoration of a GWR steam engine)
We asked how his career developed at Simonds, and what he did next…

Following eight years at H&GS, having served two years National Service in the Royal Engineers, I moved on to join a multi-discipline consultancy at around the same time that H&GS were taken over by, or merged with, Courage, prior to the acquisition by initially the Hanson Group, and then Scottish & Newcastle Brewery. During these years, in the Courage era, a new Brewery was developed at Worton Grange on the outskirts of Reading. The old H&GS site is now a retail and office complex.

And prompted some more general reflections on company culture…

As part of the recreational facilities of H&GS the company owned a large sports ground providing pitches for hockey, football, cricket, along with tennis courts and bowling greens. There was a club (licensed, of course), changing rooms and so on – the envy of many local sports clubs. There was also a company sports day with teams and staff attending from all the many branches and areas of the company entering the many various events both novelty (barrel rolling) and more traditional, such as sprinting and inter-departmental relays. I was fortunate to be a member of a very successful football team, and also the cricket side, for a number of years. The grounds have now all gone and is a housing estate

Tavern advertisement, 1957.
SOURCE: The Hopleaf Gazette, autumn 1957, via http://simondsfamily.me.uk
Finally, we asked him about beer – did he drink it himself?

Yes, I was Beer drinker, and still enjoy the odd pint now and again. The Brewery allowed the staff two pints of ‘allowance beer’ a day (although there was some doubt over where it came from). I was under age initially and had to settle for tea. At Christmas all staff received a dozen cans of beer, once cans had been introduced –this was always Tavern Ale. I preferred Directors Bitter or similar. Other names I recall as being popular were IPA, SB (Simonds Best), Velvet Milk Stout, and various special brews as commemoration beers. I am sure there were others but they are lost in the mists of time.

One thought on “The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s”

  1. Wonderful stuff folks 😊
    I wonder if Reg or Raymond would know of any brewing staff who might be able to give their side too? I’d love to hear that.

    Some of the details remind me of my couple of years just down the road at Brakspear’s (1998-2000).

    Our young-ish, new-ish head brewer told me that some of the older staff initially called him “Mister Peter” which he found too deferential & formal, “Peter” was fine.

    The daily beer ration had only ceased a year or two before & IIRC was more generous than Simond’s (as much beer as you could drink as long as you weren’t driving a dray – motorised, not horse drawn).

    I think Brakspear’s owned about 110 pubs, many of which were pretty old & beautiful, but not always well-maintained or well-frequented. Before we got so busy that we were brewing twice almost every day (c.1000 bbls/week) the brewing team would try to take a weekly lunchtime drive out to a few of the best pubs in the estate.

    Much of the Henley brewery site is now a branch of a boutique hotel chain, with the ignominious name of Hotel du Vin. In sweeter news, the new owners of the Brakspear pub co. have opened a small brewery at the beautiful Bull pub on Bell Street.

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