Starkey, Knight & Ford

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.

Starkey, Knight & Ford horse trademark on a former pub in Bridgwater.

Emerging

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.

Starkey, Knight & Ford trademark: prancing horse.

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.

Brewery workers with beer barrels and hops on a carnival cart.
Bridg­wa­ter brew­ery work­ers c.1895 on a car­ni­val cart called, we think, ‘Som­er­set Beer, Eng­lish hops’.

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.

Unapproachable

1901advert

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.

blackhorseThe 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.

placard1969And 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.

Notes

** 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.

Sources

  • 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.

 

3 thoughts on “Starkey, Knight & Ford”

  1. Tiver­ton-brewed cask “Tro­phy”, which was almost cer­tain­ly rebadged SKF bit­ter, was an extreme­ly fine beer: I enjoyed many pints of it on trips to Devon in the 1970s.

  2. Fun­ny you should men­tion Mack­e­son because only last week I was drink­ing it out in the Caribbean ( main­ly because the only oth­er lager avail­able was the dread­ful Carib lager and the omin­pre­sent Heineken)

    Still sweet but brewed to a 4.9% strength rather than the 2.8% UK ver­sion, if you can find it, it wasn’t too bad par­tic­u­lar­ly served ice cold.

Comments are closed.