What happened to the once powerful West Country brewers Starkey, Knight & Ford offers a snapshot of the story of British beer in the century before the ‘real ale revolution’: small local brewers acquired their rivals and grew until, when they were nice and fat, even bigger predators appeared to swallow them whole.
In 1840, George Knight, a 38-year-old maltster of Bridgwater, Somerset, decided to cut out the middle-men and begin brewing himself. At around the same time, at North Petherton, a village between Bridgwater and Taunton, Thomas Starkey was semi-retired from farming, malting and brewing, and preparing to hand (or at least sell) the business to his 31-year-old son, also called Thomas.
When he took on the company after 1845, Thomas Jr had expansion plans and soon bought up another brewery in Taunton. He left Bridgwater alone, however, and, for forty years, Starkey’s and Knight’s each had their own turf and stuck to it.
In 1885, George Knight died, and his sons, George Jr and Henry, took over. Local brewery historian David Williams has suggested that it was at about this time that the famous galloping or prancing horse trademark appeared**, beginning its life as a stag and replacing a rather obvious image of an armoured knight. (A friend of ours once described it as the happiest horse she’d ever seen.)
Meanwhile, Thomas Starkey finally turned his attention to Bridgwater. Though Somerset is best-known as an agricultural centre, Bridgwater is an industrial town. It had a small but busy port, crammed with timber ships from Russia, Finland, Canada, Ireland, and elsewhere; iron foundries; and brick and tile works. There were plenty of dry throats in need of ale.
In November 1887, through some wheeling and dealing, the two companies merged, creating Starkey, Knight & Co. Ltd, with an estate of thirty pubs. With their capital combined, they were able to build a state-of-the-art new brewery at Northgate in Bridgwater. Wilfred J. Hurley, who worked for the company from 1921 until 1966, and who knew the brewery buildings well, speculated in his short memoir of 1981 that the old Knight buildings were retained: ‘Certainly the part which adjoined the road was much older than the main brewery.’
The expansion didn’t stop there. In 1895, they took over yet another brewery, Ford’s of Tiverton, and gained another forty pubs. It was a prestigious name and a smart acquisition as this from the Brewing Trade Review, 1 March 1895, makes clear:
The business was founded by Mr. Thomas Ford in 1852, when he only employed one workman and kept one cart. The brewery is now the largest west of Bristol. It covers several acres and is lit by electric light. There are branches and agencies at Plymouth, Sidmouth, Exeter, Torquay, Southmolton, and Truro.
And so Starkey, Knight & Ford was born. Though the company continued to acquire small family breweries across the region, this was the last new partnership, and the last change of name. At least for a while.
For the next sixty-odd years, S.K. & F., as the company sometimes styled itself, did quite well. In 1910, Thomas Starkey, 70-years-old, blind and unwell, retired, handing over the hot seat to Harry Banes Walker, who Wilfred Hurley recalled as ‘a good boss and sportsman’. He was a keen horseman and sometimes rode to the Bridgwater brewery in the years before the war. He was also known for one peculiar habit: carrying a half-packet of his preferred brand of toilet paper in an inside pocket of his suit.
S.K. & F. had pubs from Cornwall to Wales and the quality of the beer it produced seems to have been generally acknowledged, though, of course, contemporary PR exercises muddy the water, and we can’t know for sure. At any rate, in 1912, at a dinner for employees, Tom Pook, manager of the North Devon district, quoted ‘old’ Mr Starkey: ‘Do not ever forget the name of Starkey, Knight and Ford outside a house [pub] is a guarantee of a good article to be sold within… I have always made that my one aim and one object, whilst I have been in business – that the public shall have an article that they can always appreciate and always approve of.’ (North Devon Journal, 1 February 1912.)
After World War I, from 1920 onward, the brewery won a string of industry prizes, and began to describe itself in advertisements as ‘medal-winning’ or ‘prize-winning’. The one-word slogan ‘Unapproachable’ had been in use since at least 1919 and, in this period, the brewery seemed to live up to it.
It might have helped that Old Vatted (‘Old Fathead’) was being bought in from a Scottish brewery and that bottled S. K. Ale was pepped up with the secret addition of Bass, sent from Burton to the West Country for bottling and distribution. (More gossip from Wilfred Hurley’s memoir.) The Taunton brewery, where only mineral water was produced after about 1906, had a spring particularly rich in gypsum, and that water was (as we understand it) blended with ‘town water’ at Bridgwater and Tiverton to give it a Burton-like quality.
In World War II, like many other breweries, S.K. & F. was required to ‘make the beer go further’ which was achieved by restricting its strength (watering it down), and reducing the range, dropping BB (bitter), and brewing only XX (mild) and BA (best bitter). The war also prompted an early example of the kind of ‘local is best’ rhetoric we’re now used to: whereas in the late nineteen-thirties, Starkey’s had relied on Californian malt, as well as hops from Oregon and Czechoslovakia, the war had forced them to get used to using only English barley and hops, and they made a firm commitment to continue to do so.
Running out of Steam
A dead rat was found floating in a beer vat at Messrs. Starkey, Knight and Ford’s Tiverton brewery on Sunday morning… Yesterday, watched by Customs and Excise officials, 1,600 gallons of beer went down the drain.
Western Morning News, 1 June 1948.
The company seemed to survived the war largely unscathed and continued to announce impressive profits. It made another big acquisition in 1957, taking over the Burnham [on Sea] Brewery run by the Holt family, and bumping its estate of pubs up to around 400. It also launched ‘trendy’ new beers in 1958 – a draught IPA and bottled ‘Black Horse’.
Then, in September 1959, something unusual happened: the company announced a decline in profits and had to make apologies to its shareholders, blaming poor weather in the summer of that year for declining sales, and promising to make cuts to fund investments in new technology, such as a new bottling line at Tiverton. Reading between the lines, S.K. & F. was struggling to keep up, and was vulnerable. Its empire stretched from across the West Country, and ‘Starkey’s’ was a household name in the region, but it simply didn’t have what it took to ‘go national’. The gap between big and small players was widening with alarming speed.
So, in January 1960, the directors of Starkey’s signed a pact with national brewing giant Whitbread.
(1) Whitbreads with a view to a closer association between Whitbreads and Starkeys and with the object of increasing the trading profits of both companies have agreed to give Starkeys such technical commercial financial and other advice and assistance as they are able and which Starkeys may from time to time require.
(2) Whitbreads are brewers of (inter alia) a stout known as and marketed under the name of Mackeson Stout… and Starkey’s have agreed in consideration of the services to be provided by Whitbreads as aforesaid and of the provisions herein contained for the brewing by Starkeys of ale for Whitbreads to offer Mackeson for sale in Starkey’s licensed premises…
The deal was that Starkey’s would brew Whitbread’s ‘Best Ale’ to supply Whitbread pubs in the West Country, and sell Mackeson’s in their own pubs, while Whitbread gave them a much-needed cash injection and helped them to modernise. We’re not lawyers but, honestly, we’d have been wary of signing a contract that uses vague terms like ‘reasonably’ as much as this one does. It’s blindingly obvious, with hindsight, that Starkey’s didn’t have much to bargain with in this arrangement, whereas Whitbread could choose to demand more and give less almost as they saw fit.
By October 1962, the companies had agreed to merge, though Starkey’s board, for so long the predators in the West Country brewing scene, must have been aware that a small player merges with a big one in the sense that an insect merges with the sole of someone’s shoe. The letter from the Chairman to shareholders has a rather mournful tone and makes clear that Starkey’s hand has been forced: Whitbread had been quietly acquiring shares in S.K. & F. since 1959; labour and building costs were unmanageable without Whitbread’s investment; and, anyway, a small company could no longer hope to compete in the face of the trend towards ‘larger units in order to obtain the advantages of the rationalisation of distribution and sales’.
Nonetheless, carefully crafted press releases and internal staff memos emphasised the commercial opportunities which would be available to both parties, and, crucially, that S.K. & F. would retain its identity.
When this offer is accepted Starkey, Knight & Ford will retain their identity as a company, and will continue to brew and bottle certain Whitbread beers in addition to their own… Whitbread’s will naturally look after the interests of the staff and employees of both companies.
And yet, in the following month, the Northgate Brewery in Bridgwater was closed as operations were concentrated in Tiverton. The building stood empty until 1964 when it was finally demolished. Bridgwater no longer had a brewery.
And Whitbread kept pushing. Inevitably, perhaps, S.K. & F. branded beers began to pop out of existence – who would drink Starkey’s ‘Starkeg’, advertised in a small advert in the back pages of local newspapers, when they could have Whitbread’s nationally advertised alternative? The logos began to appear side-by-side, Starkey’s name overshadowed by Whitbread’s, until, at last, in 1970, the prancing horse was taken to the knackers’ yard for good. Whitbread at first proposed renaming S.K. & F. simply ‘Whitbread’, but this was rejected by the Registrar of Companies. Instead, they chose Whitbread Devon. From 1 October 1970, Starkey, Knight & Ford ceased to exist.
More than forty years later, there are few reminders of even mighty Whitbread, let alone S.K & F. If you find yourself traveling through Somerset and Devon, however, keep your eyes peeled for the sign of the black horse, which is still to be seen, wrought in iron or carved in stone, prancing across the faces of buildings here and there.
** 21/03/2014 Writing in the Winter 2014 edition of the newsletter of the Brewery History Society, David Dines pointed out that a showcard for Ford’s of Tiverton, auctioned in April 2012, showed the black horse logo, so it clearly pre-dated the formation of SK&F.
- Records of Starkey, Knight & Ford and Whitbread; clippings; transcripts; labels; and letters, held at the Somerset Heritage Centre.
- A history of S.K. & F compiled by Nick Redman, Whitbread Archivist, in 1991.
- A history of S.K. & F which appeared in the Whitbread staff magazine in January 1964.
- Brewing Industry: A Guide to Historical Records, edited by L. M. Richmond and Alison Turton, 1990.
- Various local newspapers.
- Birth records at Ancestry.co.uk.