Beer history

Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Middle Class Real Ale

This post contains hits upon a few of our favourite themes in relatively few words: Ian Nairn, class, and the similarities between real ale culture and post-2005 craft beer.

In 1974 the architectural and cultural commentator Ian Nairn wrote an influential article in the Sunday Times which was reckoned at the time to have been partly responsible for the sudden leap in membership of the then young Campaign for Real Ale. That story is covered in Brew Britannia, Chapter Three, ‘CAMRA Rampant’ and the original article, we are assured, is going to be included in Adrian Tierney-Jones’s upcoming anthology of beer writing. (Disclosure: it will also include something by us.) Here’s a sample, though, to give an idea of Nairn’s angle:

[To] extinguish a local flavour, which is what has happened a hundred times in the last ten years, is like abolishing the Beaujolais: after all it’s red and alcoholic, might as well make it in Eurocity to an agreed Common Market recipe. The profits would be enormous, and the peasants wouldn’t know the difference… but the peasants are fighting back.

But here’s something we hadn’t seen until recently: the response from readers of the Sunday Times published a week later, on 7 July 1974. First, there’s an angry publican, Eddie Johnson of Chipping Ongar, saying something that, with a few changes, could be a comment on 21st Century craft beer culture:

Once more the voice of the middle class is raised in righteous indignation and is busily telling the working class what to drink… Would it surprise Ian Nairn to know that many years ago, when keg was first introduced and sold side by side with draught beer from the wood, keg was a runaway best seller? I worked in the London docks at the time, and 27 out of 30 docker bitter drinkers switched to keg… You see beer is a working man’s drink… It’s not to be spoken or written of in trendy, mannered language. It can’t be appreciated sipped out of half-pint dimple mugs by the chaps in their beards and jeans after a hard day’s sitting down the office.

This is part of a conversation that goes round in circles based largely on assertions: the thing I like, that was trendy 15 years ago, is humble, honest and straightforward; the thing they like, that’s just become trendy, is a symptom of snobbery and a symbol of elitism.

The ‘the half-bitter brigade’, Mr Johnson goes on to say, ‘stand in a pub at the bar stopping good punters from reaching it, talk in loud voices about the quality of the “cookin’,” and spend about 30p in three hours.’

And there’s also another nugget of evidence to suggest that the CAMRA stereotype beard and the hipster stereotype beard are the same thing.

(For more on the idea that 1970s outspoken real ale drinkers were regarded as what today would be called ‘hipsters’ in the popular press see also our posts ‘Beer Bellies or Blazers?’ and ‘Cask Ale as Premium Product’, both from 2013.)

Another letter in response to Nairn, from A.S. Roberts of Manchester, was more appreciative, and expressed the wish that his article would spur people to action, specifically:

1. Refuse, under any circumstances, to drink keg or over-carbonated beer, even if it means going without.
2. Join CAMRA in the hope that, given enough members, its voice will become too loud to be ignored.
3. Press for the abolition of liquour licensing (particularly licensed hours), the big breweries’ greatest friend.

But this correspondent was pessimistic:

I wish I could share Mr Nairn’s optimism in believing that this battle can be won, at least in our generation. When a brewery or pub has gone, another does not grow in its place.

The funny thing is that, depending on where you draw the victory line, CAMRA did win this battle within a few more years (Watney’s began to brew cask ale again, real ale became a embedded as a concept), and also new breweries did begin to grow in the place of the lost ones — lots of them. As for pubs, well, maybe not quite so much, not yet.

The final letter was from John Dugdale of the Telford Development Corporation, responding to Nairn’s suggestion that the New Town there ought to revive the expired Wrekin brewery: ‘[We] are investigating the proposal with gusto.’ As far as we can tell, this didn’t come to fruition, but perhaps there’s a story to tell for someone who has time to look at local records.

We’ll have a bit more Ian Nairn himself tomorrow.

16 replies on “Ian Nairn on Beer in the 1970s Pt 1: Middle Class Real Ale”

Especially in 1974, the idea that real ale was a middle-class thing was very much a London phenomenon. In Liverpool and Salford, dockers would have been shifting huge quantities of the stuff.

Can I see some similarities with craft beer in 2006? 😉

I’m going to follow up on this, as I have an interest. Shropshire Archives hold the development corporation records and is working on a joint project with the Libraries to digitise and make available material more widely.

John Dugdale was chairman of the development corporation. The Shropshire Star reported on the pouring of the first skip of concrete to mark the beginning of the first phase of the new Telford Town Centre. Unfortunately the jpeg photo doesn’t seem to be available but they noted in 2006 that ‘Mr Dugdale is on the far left. The date on the back of this print from our archives is March 14, 1972. The first phase of the town centre complex opened in October 1973, and the centre has been repeatedly expanded and developed since then.’

Hansard has a reference to his chairmanship –

This seems to have been overtaken as Donald Chapman former Birmingham Northfield (Labour) MP, also referred to in the exchange, had ousted Dugdale as chairman by 1975

Dugdale became Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire …… and continued to perform various opening ceremonies of roads. So I guess everyone was kept relatively happy in the sinecures and appointments share-out.

I shall be back in Shropshire later this autumn, and plan to get to the new Wrekin Brewery, at the Pheasant in Wellington, across Market Street from the site of the earlier brewery. At the very least I need to check the beer out for possible ordering for next year’s FordFest beer and music festival at Fordhall Organic Farm Market Drayton.

The Wrekin brewery was clearly a substantial enterprise, judging from this aerial photo.

Having dug around for background, I found some via the Broseley Local History Society, a piece on a talk given to them some six or seven years ago. I’ve also been reading editions of Wellingtonia, the Wellington History Group newsletter, so far with interest but nothing as yet related to the Wrekin Brewery- there’s a lot that is absorbing as well as to absorb.

Founded in 1870 by Thomas Taylor in Market Street, the brewery soon outgrew its premises and moved to larger accommodation. After several changes in ownership it was bought at auction in 1921, by Owen Downey (O D) Murphy, who presided over a number of linked businesses straddling soft drinks, bottling beers including Guinness, farms, bottling milk, and eventually supplying wine and spirits, over a wide area. The company expanded successfully with around 140 public houses in the mid-1940s when OD died aged 70 having refused an offer from National Breweries to buy the business.

Trade continued, primarily aimed at the working man, and developed presumably under the direction of his sons who were directors of the company, and reportedly had an estate of around 230 houses, through changes in the 1960s, with the developing demand for continental lagers and an apparent new takeaway market for bottled beers. Wrekin Bitter was introduced, but did not do well (presumably this was not a direct response to the demand for lager), and the company did not invest in its own lager plant. The development of what was to become Telford New Town did not help, as a number of their pubs were demolished, to be replaced by only nine new licensed premises, for which the brewery was in competition with the national brewers and lost out.

Eventually the owners sold out to Greenall Whitley in 1966, who transferred brewing to Wem in 1969, and soon the Wrekin name as well as the premises disappeared, the old brewery finally being demolished in 1975.

I then read that brewing had returned to Wellington, and Market Street, which is very welcome, and under the name of the old business with Ironbridge Brewery now operating as The Wrekin Brewing Company at the Pheasant.

When I’m next in Shropshire (I’ve recently got back from managing the beers and working on set-up and take-down for FordFest at Fordhall Farm) later this autumn I must find time to stop by.

Equally it’s a brewery whose products we should consider for FordFest next year – an early tasting is clearly in order!

It’s unlikely Eddie Johnson of Chipping Ongar is still with us, but one presumes he would have a reaction to the $12-an-8oz-pour hipster beer bars of US metros (or probably British ones now, too). Also love the comment on “a hard day’s sitting down the office”.

Beer is not only a workman’s drink, even then it wasn’t. It belonged to whomever would claim it and anyone had the right to state what he liked and promote it. That letter about middle class is inverted snobism in my opinion.

As to why keg was chosen in that rather unscientific sample, maybe the cask ale served there was in reliably bad condition. Who knows?

If we can’t “tell” the working people what to drink, I suppose we shouldn’t tell them what bread to eat. A good many preferred the modern white loaf to whole grain, for example. If a bread critic wrote to recover an older and better tradition, he or she shouldn’t be fobbed above with the kind of defensive posture I’m responding to here.

Day’s end, something is good, or not, worthwhile to promote, or not. Forget all the preconceptions imposed by class and any circumstance not related to intrinsic merits. That was perhaps Michael Jackson’s greatest achievement.


Sort of at a tangent, but could 1974’s ‘angry publican, Eddie Johnson of Chipping Ongar,’ be THE Eddie Johnson of Old Ford Road, from the Two Puddings aka the Butcher’s Shop the Puddings and at 27 The Broadway Stratford E15, now under concrete, and retiring as the longest serving London licensee (despite his previous) when he left the scene in 2000?

Glad to see this has got you going, Dominic! Look forward to seeing the results of your research.

After several iterations by e-mail with Alison Mussell at the Shropshire Archives, and a search of the Telford Development Corporation archive catalog on-line, and while acknowledging that it was a long shot, two sets of documents looked worth delving in to. The Board minutes from January 1974 to July 1975, and the Chairman’s correspondence file for industry 1971-75.

It was up at 05.00 last Friday and an early departure from Central London, and following a breakfast stop at Warwick Services on the M40 (not a bad fresh griddled egg and bacon bap – the coffee wasn’t up to scratch – it was Harry Ramsden’s), I pitched up in downtown Shrewsbury about 10.00.

The first challenge was easy – parking in Abbey Foregate car park handy, as I thought, for Shirehall from which the confirmation for my appointment and files request had come.

The only available signage was for tourist information, so across English Bridge and up Wyle Cop was the first stroll, to the Square. The helpful people in Visitor Information soon put me right – the Archives were not at Shirehall and yes, wasn’t it confusing!

The intrepid researcher was soon furnished with the right charts, and was in Castle Gates and being registered within minutes. Armed with the essential reader’s ticket I was in the search room and the first of the files in front of me, and an hour or so later, though absorbed and fascinating the material was, the conclusion had to be that the notion of re-establishing a brewery had not reached the Board to consider.

A side exploration – a risk of any such adventure – was from the meeting of June 14th 1975, when the Board discussed a weighty document, Telford Town Centre, Phase Three Leisure Centre April 1975. This one will be worth going back for as Section 4 was a detailed analysis of various elements of the pub sector. There was also considered the Cabaret Club, and elsewhere the Golf Club – clearly an essential facility without which higher and senor management hierarchies would not be tempted to move to Telford to live.

Pages 63-75 were particularly relevant, dealing as they did with the Mall, the first of three projected town centre pubs. This may not have seen the light of day by that name ( is a good read), but there was general background on likely patrons, and projected trading figures. It’ll repay going back for this alone to read and record at more leisure. Incidentally, I also noticed that all the minutes of the meetings of the Licensing Committee are available.

Table C set out visitors to pubs by distance and mode. The source wasn’t clear, and it was made clear that these were averages – perhaps drawn from a national study? – and not necessarily directly applicable.

% 0-2 miles 2-5 m. 5+m.
Foot 42 1 – 43%
Car 25 10 15 50%
Public Transport 3 2 2 7%
70% 13% 17% 100%

Of the 70% who chose pubs within two miles of home, 59% travel 1 mile or less, and 32% a quarter mile or less. The authors said that this reflected the general social nature of pub drinking – it was very much a local activity.

The Chairman’s Industry correspondence contained a fair amount, mainly in connection with prospective companies who might be persuaded to move their operations to the new town, and invitations to luncheons to GKN and others. There was, however, nothing relating to brewing or brewers.

Time was getting on, though I was allowed to look for further files. This was an indulgence, but granted even though the nominal time (1pm) for last requests had passed. Senior archivist Sal (Samantha) Mager had come up to help, since the TDC archive seemed to be her particular area, though so far the work had been on scanning and digitising photographs and video. Some possible boxes identified included Chariman’s Correspondence 1968-75, though this was found to be limited to correspondence between successive chairmen and the Department of the Environment and its predecessor.

Three more boxes came up – Miscellaneous Correspondence 1973-91 contained no papers earlier than 1976; General Manager miscellaneous correspondence 1971-81 was entirely press cuttings, as was GM’s misc. correspondence with chairmans office 1971-85! Clearly the catalogues box descriptions cannot be entirely relied on, and there’s a great project there in waiting to catalog and index thoroughly. There wasn’t time to go through the press cuttings, tempting though it was.

All in Shrewsbury were very helpful, and I will be back to do more before too long.

Oh, and in the event there wasn’t time on this occasion to stop in Wellington, to visit The Wrekin Brewing Company at the Pheasant. That’ll have to wait until December.

I’ll likely send a version of this to Ale Sabrina, the organ of the Shropshire CAMRA branches, and will draw on, if that’s OK, some of the background you provided.



Blimey! Shame nothing came to light on the brewery plans — a bit of spin, in the end, maybe? — but it sounds as if you had fun in the archive anyway.

Not so much spin, tho’ if anything it was clear TDC would have been looking for a brewer to come in to take one of their sites or pre-fabricated buildings rather than going into business in their own right.

The TDC archive is the single largest holding the Shropshire Archives have, and an awful lot of boxes won’t have been looked at other than at most a summary sheet of contents (and then not necessarily that accurate) of each box, that has gone into the catalog.

So, never say never ………… I’ll be back there for a bit more delving mid-December.

Some of the photographic archive is on-line, but little on pubs or brewing, save for former malt house in Newport

Allan Frost, a local Shropshire history of pubs, breweries, etc., source has corrected me on Wrekin Bitter (see above):

“I also seem to recall you mentioning a brew called ‘Wrekin Bitter’ as being a failure which didn’t help. In fact, the brew in question was ‘Wrekin Ritter’, a vain attempt to concoct a lager-style drink described as ‘containing the finest Golding hops and the palest of Shropshire malts’.” He also said that “lager having become all the rage but required a totally different technique and equipment for production which Wrekin Brewery couldn’t justify either on financial grounds availability of physical space. Ritter, by all accounts, was pretty well undrinkable. I know. I worked at the brewery during some of my vacation in 1968 and, whereas the bitter was not a bad brew, the Ritter was something to be avoided.” ‘

Ian Nairn in Hebden Bridge, December 1980 (Sunday Times)

“The people are as genuine and friendly as ever, and the star attraction in the village pub – Timothy Taylor’s ales from Keighley – was not a jukebox or an one-armed bandit but the biggest Old English sheepdog I have ever seen”.

Ian Nairn in Chipping Norton, May 1980 (Sunday Times)

“The White Hart is a good Trust House, the Crown and Cushion is privately owned with the right sort of personal touch (I run a mile from the other sort). This sells Wadsworth’s beer from Devizes; the White Hart sells Hooky.
And thereby hangs a tale. There are in fact three Nortons. Over Norton is a handsome, quiet village, just north of the town. But Hook Norton, four mile away, is quietly extraordinary.
The stone is tawny-brown, rather than yellow-grey. A big village, which has kept all the basic services. -school, shops, garage; no feeling of rural deprivation here. A hilly tangle of lanes, a no-nonsense church with a Norman front carved with all kinds of distinctly pagan symbols. And the source of Hooky.
Tucked away at the end of the village , it is a steam brewery, bubbling and chuntering away to itself. The building is nearly a hundred years old, and amazing confrontation of stone, brick, and half-timber. Conventionally “ugly” but a splendid, lovable monster for all that. Some of the brewing machinery is older than the building. And, oh mateys, it produces a beautiful pint: no head at all, but a resonant flavour which is the antithesis of gassy beer. Not least it gives employment to all sorts and conditions, from the head brewer to the draymen. And that’s the kind of thing that keeps villages alive. It is one of the few villages I would happily live in.”

So far, two breweries that are happily extant. Next, a few that tragically aren’t

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