Pinning down the Big Six

Window with the Bass logo, Kennington, South London.

We’ve been grap­pling with a prob­lem this week­end: com­men­tary on the British beer indus­try makes fre­quent ref­er­ence to the Big Six, a set of colos­sal brew­ing com­pa­nies emerg­ing from the takeover mania of the nine­teen-fifties and six­ties. Some­times, though, it’s the Big Five, the Big Sev­en, or even the Big Eight; and the com­pa­nies mak­ing up the Big Six in 1960 merge with oth­ers, grow and change names, which makes it hard to keep track.

In try­ing to tell a sto­ry, this is a pain.

Should we explain every name change as it hap­pens, pos­si­bly con­fus­ing the read­er and slow­ing down the nar­ra­tive? Rely on foot­notes? Or, as we’ve seen peo­ple do when writ­ing about, say, the Roy­al Air Force, or Archibald ‘Cary Grant’ Leach, refer to them through­out by one name for the sake of clar­i­ty at the expense of accu­ra­cy? (With an explana­to­ry note, of course.) We’re inclined towards the lat­ter approach, but still think­ing.

Any­way, for your infor­ma­tion, in the oh-so-2002 Schot­t’s Mis­cel­lany style, here’s our best attempt to explain the Big Six.

UPDATED: Tan­dle­man high­light­ed that we’d picked a bad source for our 1960 list, so we’ve found a bet­ter one from 1959 and changed the first sec­tion below.

UPDATED AGAIN: based on Mar­tyn’s sug­ges­tions below. (We’ll also try to iden­ti­fy news­pa­per sources for each of the mergers/changes.)

The Big Six in 1959#
Ind Coope and Tay­lor Walk­er, Wat­ney Mann, Courage and Bar­clay, Bass Rat­cliffe Gret­ton, Whit­bread, Scot­tish Brew­ers.
Brew­ery mergers/takeovers 1960–67
Courage Bar­clay + Simonds = Courage Bar­clay & Simonds (1960)
Scot­tish Brew­ers + New­cas­tle Brew­eries = Scot­tish and New­cas­tle (1960)
Bass + Mitchells & But­lers = Bass Mitchells & But­lers (1961)
Ind Coope/Taylor Walk­er + Ansells+Tetley Walk­er = Ind Coope Tet­ley Ansell (1961)
Ind Coope Tet­ley Ansell = Allied Brew­eries (1963)
Char­ring­ton Unit­ed + Bass Mitchells & But­lers = Bass Char­ring­ton (1967)
The Big Six in 1967##
Bass Char­ring­ton, Allied Brew­eries, Whit­bread, Wat­ney Mann, Scot­tish and New­cas­tle, Courage Bar­clay & Simonds.
Brew­ery mergers/takeovers/name changes after 1967
Courage Bar­clay & Simonds = Courage (1970)
Wat­ney Mann + Tru­man Han­bury & Bux­ton (owned by Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan Hotels) = Wat­ney Mann & Tru­man (part of Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan) (1973)
Allied + J. Lyons = Allied Lyons (1978)
Bass Char­ring­ton = Bass (1983)
The Big Six in 1989###
Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan, Scot­tish & New­cas­tle, Whit­bread.
The Big Sev­en
As above, but with Guin­ness.
  • # ‘Towards Larg­er Units in the Brew­ery Trade’, The Times, 19 Feb­ru­ary 1960, p.17. ‘What the Brew­ery Merg­er Means’, The Finan­cial Times, 4 June 1959, p.11.
  • ## Beer: a report on the sup­ply of beer, Monop­o­lies Com­mis­sion, 1969, table IV, p.5.
  • ### The Supp­ply of Beer, Monop­o­lies and Merg­ers Com­mis­sion, March 1989, Appen­dix 2.3, p.238.

25 thoughts on “Pinning down the Big Six”

  1. At one point CAMRA tried to add Greenalls to make a “big eight” but, while they may have had as many tied pubs as S & N, they were way behind in terms of beer pro­duc­tion. It’s also inter­est­ing (and I grew up in Greenall Whit­ley Land) how lit­tle now remains of a once pow­er­ful com­pa­ny. It’s almost as if it nev­er exist­ed.

    1. The four founders seem to have par­tic­u­lar­ly hat­ed Greenal­l’s – won­der if that influ­enced the lat­er push to include them amongst the ‘bad guys’? We came across a few mid-1980s CAMRA newslet­ters which cer­tain­ly did include them in a ‘Big X’ list.

      1. Well, tak­ing over Simp­kiss and pour­ing the last brew down the drain, and demol­ish­ing Tom­my Duck­’s in Man­ches­ter overnight with­out plan­ning per­mis­sion, were pret­ty nasty things to do.

        And the beer improved once they closed their own brew­ery and had it brewed by Tet­ley’s 😮

  2. Tan­dle­man – thanks – we’ll have a dig for a source (the FT will have some stats) and update.

    Steve – we should prob­a­bly have kept going. Maybe we’ll bring it up to date in a future revi­sion.

  3. Inevitably some feckin’ pedant (ie me) is going to come along and say: “It’s a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than that”.

    Ind Coope Tet­ley Ansell Ltd was set up in June 1961, but did­n’t change its name to Allied Brew­eries until March or April 1963.

    Two impor­tant merg­ers on the way to Bass Char­ring­ton were those between Bass and Mitchells & But­lers of Birm­ing­ham in 1961 to make Bass Mitchells & But­lers, and Char­ring­ton and the large­ly North­ern and Scot­tish-based Unit­ed Brew­eries (which was the con­cern set up by the Cana­di­an EP “Eddie” Tay­lor to pro­mote his Car­ling’s Black Label [sic – and sick] lager) to make Char­ring­ton Unit­ed in 1962. Thus the merg­er of 1967 was between the two com­pa­nies Char­ring­ton Unit­ed and Bass Mitchells & But­lers.

    The hotel com­pa­ny Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan acquired Tru­man Han­bury & Bux­ton in 1971 after a tremen­dous bat­tle with Wat­ney Mann, and then Grand Met took Wat­ney’s over as well, in 1972, merg­ing the two in 1973 as Wat­ney Mann and Tru­man, which was the brew­ing divi­sion of Grand Met­ro­pol­i­tan.

    Your new look is very nice, but the “enter a web­site” space in the com­ments sec­tion does­n’t seem to like urls with­out “www” in them – so very 2005.

    1. Any thoughts on how to han­dle this with­out dis­rupt­ing the nar­ra­tive?

      PS. New look!?

      1. Um – yeah, don’t know what hap­pened, but your blog looked com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent the last time I came to it 40 min­utes ago, and has now revert­ed back to its usu­al style … [cue spooky X‑files type music, please]

  4. The first Big Six seems to include Guin­ness – I’m assum­ing this is a typo, not a com­pa­ny called “Guin­ness, Courage and Bar­clay” (although noth­ing would sur­prise me, any­thing before about 1969 is Here Be Drag­ons for me).

    1. Yep, typo. Thanks. (That’s the cor­rect place for Guin­ness in the run­ning order, based on net assets, but peo­ple tend­ed not to include Guin­ness in the Big Six because, we think, they had no tied hous­es.)

  5. 1989 is nice and sim­ple and thats when we had the MMC . Has Guin­ness ever owned pubs in this coun­try?
    I think Judge Dread also had a Big 6 , 7 and 8 also

  6. That’s an impres­sive degree of sta­bil­i­ty over 30 years – no won­der peo­ple thought that Some­thing must be Done. Bit of a shame that Some­thing turned out to be the Beer Orders.

    1. Which is help­ful for our pur­pos­es – a con­stant strand of ‘DNA’ run­ning through most com­pa­nies from 1963 until the 1990s makes it a lit­tle eas­i­er to write about them.

  7. Beer orders were a bit of a mess but com­pa­nies like Bass saw it as a big restric­tion in that they had to sell pubs and not expand which lead them to sell the brew­eries and pubs com­plete­ly. Although not a fan of Punch etc it did lead to more dif­fer­ent beers being avail­able now, if Bass and Whit­bread etc still had a mas­sive estate where would all the micro brew­eries sell their beer?

    1. I think we would still have seen a large-scale sell-off of the low­er-end pubs by the Big Six, and also a growth of “Tap & Spile” type ale­house con­cepts. It’s even pos­si­ble that one or more might have com­plete­ly spilt their brew­ing and pub own­ing arms. If it’s no longer pos­si­ble for your pubs to most­ly sell your own prod­ucts, then the syn­er­gy between the two starts to dis­ap­pear.

  8. Inter­est­ing that there is a lit­tle bit of nos­tal­gia in some quar­ters towards the Big Six in regards to how they ran the inter­grat­ed brewing/pub mod­el.

      1. Oh, indeed: that’s because Punch and Enter­prise are basi­cal­ly about income streams, and the secu­ri­ti­sa­tion there­of, where the two most impor­tant income streams are rent, and beer bought cheap (from the brew­er) and sold (to the ten­ant) dear. The actu­al sus­tain­abil­i­ty of any indi­vid­ual pub does­n’t mat­ter much, because (1) you’re always churn­ing your bot­tom-end pubs any­way, and using income from those sales and fresh loans based on secu­ri­tis­ing your income streams to buy more high­er-end pubs, and (2) there’s a con­stant stream of suck­ers want­i­ng to run their own pub you can use as can­non-fod­der and not care too much what hap­pens to them.

        Now, that last bit start­ed to become less true as the pub­cos began to realise that con­stant­ly turn­ing over ten­ants WAS cost­ing them mon­ey. And the huge amounts of debt the pub­cos built up on the back of over-opti­mistic fore­casts of future income that took no regard of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a reces­sion is now a seri­ous prob­lem.

        But the Big Six were prob­a­bly less oppres­sive towards their ten­ants in so far as they did­n’t have the con­stant press­ing need for income to ser­vice huge debts, and they recog­nised the need to main­tain the cred­i­bil­i­ty of their own brand names, which were, after all, on the out­side of the pub as well as on the beers inside.

        All the same, the inte­grat­ed brewer/pub mod­el was, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, entire­ly arti­fi­cial, a cre­ation of the lim­it­ed sup­ply of on-trade out­lets caused by the restric­tions of the licens­ing sys­tem, and it fell apart remark­ably quick­ly: with­in a cou­ple of years. But anoth­er eight or 10 years fur­ther on, of course, and the orig­i­nal­ly large num­ber of small pub­cos had coa­lesced into two or three giants, whcih was an even­tu­al­i­ty I can guar­an­tee you nobody fore­saw at the time of the Beer Orders. In fact I’ve just looked out a 4,500-word piece I wrote for the Morn­ing Adver­tis­er in 2004, to mark the 15th anniver­sary iof the beer orders, and here’s the father of the man who, by coin­ci­dence, has just been appoint­ed to run Mitchells & But­ler, the pub­co rem­nant of Bass:

        Charles Dar­by, who was man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Bass Tav­erns divi­sion at the Bass group, Britain’s biggest brew­er and sec­ond-biggest pub own­er in 1989, says today [ie 2004 – MC]: “I don’t think we ever envis­aged a pub com­pa­ny grow­ing that large – we thought maybe 2,000 pubs would be the lim­it – and I don’t think the politi­cians and the civ­il ser­vants ever envis­aged pub own­er­ship being con­cen­trat­ed in so few hands again. All they want­ed to do was to free the tie to the big brew­ers.”

        I think at Bass we were a fair­ly enlight­ened oper­a­tor in rela­tion to our ten­ants, we charged what we regard­ed as a fair rent, and the beer prices were by and large the same as for the free trade. Under the pub­cos the whole pur­chas­ing scene changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly, and the ten­ants lost out in a big way.”

        And here’s Iain Low of Cam­ra, who would have had a great deal to do with that organ­i­sa­tion’s input into the MMC report that sparked the beer orders, again speak­ing in 2004:

        Naive­ly, Loe says, Cam­ra and oth­er cam­paign­ers thought that the inde­pen­dent brew­ers would buy up chunks of new­ly-freed big brew­ers’ pubs. Those that did buy “big wodges”, how­ev­er, such as Devenish, the for­mer West Coun­try brew­er, “are no longer with us.” Above all, ‘nobody fore­saw the switch from one com­plex monop­oly to anoth­er, with the big brew­ers keep­ing their mas­sive mar­ket share by offer­ing deep dis­counts to big pub com­pa­nies.’ ”

        And here’s the con­clu­sion to that piece from 2004:

        Could the rise of the pub­cos have been stopped? Their tri­umph was actu­al­ly pre­dict­ed as long ago as 1950, by a right-wing econ­o­mist called Arthur Sel­don. He fore­saw that the grow­ing nation­al brew­ers with heav­i­ly adver­tised brands would destroy the local monop­oly of the small brew­er, and place him under intense com­pet­i­tive pres­sure. ‘Such com­pe­ti­tion,’ Sel­don wrote per­cep­tive­ly, ‘may lead some small brew­ers to sell out to the larg­er; oth­ers may attempt to make their hous­es prof­itable by turn­ing them­selves into … chains of “free” hous­es and sell­ing the beer in great­est demand.’

        What would then hap­pen, Sel­don pre­dict­ed, was that ‘Beer would then be sup­plied by a small­er num­ber of spe­cial­ist brew­ers who had dis­posed of their hous­es. The indus­try would then tend to sep­a­rate into its two parts [pub own­ers and brew­ers] as the eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in which the licens­ing sys­tem led to their inte­gra­tion fad­ed away. The con­tro­ver­sial “tied house” sys­tem might in time come to be recog­nised as a phase aris­ing from the pecu­liar social and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions of the 19th cen­tu­ry.’

        So, Beer Orders or not, we would still be even­tu­al­ly look­ing at a sit­u­a­tion where brew­ers with no pubs of their own sup­plied spe­cial­ist pub com­pa­nies. Maybe Lord Young need nev­er have both­ered. But at least he gave us wider choice, and the great­est num­ber of oper­at­ing brew­eries since Sel­don made his pre­dic­tions.”

        And THAT, of course, is still true, with knobs on: when I wrote that piece there were only some 450 new brew­eries, a fig­ure that has, I don’t need to remind you, more than dou­bled in eight years. With­out the Beer Orders (which were scrapped in 2002), THAT would nev­er have hap­pened.

        1. Inter­est­ing ques­tion – which pro­vides more real choice for the con­sumer?

          (a) 800 com­pa­nies in the mar­ket, but the top 4 con­trol­ling 90%
          (b) 400 com­pa­nies in the mar­ket, but the top 4 con­trol­ling 75%
          © 200 com­pa­nies in the mar­ket, but the top 4 con­trol­ling 50%

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