This article first appeared in the Campaign for Real Ale’s quarterly magazine BEER in 2015 and is reproduced here with their permission. The original beer mat in the main image was given to us by Trevor Unwin. We’re very grateful to David Davies for the use of his contemporary photographs.
In 1975, the Campaign for Real Ale invented the modern beer festival when it staged a five-day event with more than 50 beers attended by 40,000 thirsty members. Forty years on, we asked those who were there – volunteers, Campaign leaders and drinkers – to share their memories.
Chris Bruton (organiser): A Cambridge branch member suggested a beer festival in the Corn Exchange at an early meeting in 1974. The main credit should go to the late Alan Hill – then a Personnel Manager at Pye in Cambridge. The festival made a significant profit, and the donation to central funds was essential to keep the Campaign afloat during a difficult period.
Chris Holmes (CAMRA chair 1975-76): Because of the success of Cambridge, someone had the bright idea of a bigger festival in London. I’d like to say that we were being very sophisticated and testing the market for a national festival but, really, we just had the opportunity and said, ‘Let’s do it!’
Chris Bruton: By this time CAMRA had employed a Commercial Manager, Eric Spragett, who was a Londoner. The main organising trio was Eric, John Bishopp and me. For some time a huge warehouse at St Katharine Docks was the favoured site but the logistics proved insurmountable. Finally, we found the old Flower Market in Covent Garden.
Chris Holmes: This was in the days of the GLC (Greater London Council) and they were always, for some reason, always very supportive of CAMRA. Covent Garden was very different then, and they were very happy to do anything that would help bring the area to life – to bring people back. The Flower Market had just become empty so they gave us it rent free, which is remarkable. The deal was put together fairly simply – we said we’d take it for a week and that was that.
Chris Bruton: The location was superb and the old stalls upon which the flowers had been displayed for sale were perfect for stillage.
Richard Sanders (volunteer): I was 25 and had been a CAMRA member for about two years. I helped out at the festival for a week from the Saturday lunchtime until the following Saturday afternoon. The site had been provided on the understanding that we clean the place up. It took hours of using high pressure hoses to remove many years of dirt and old flower stalks.
Chris Holmes: The only brewery who said, ‘No – no beer leaves our brewery until it’s paid for!’ was the Home Brewery in Nottingham, where I was living at the time. So, I got on a train from London with a cheque in my hand, went to the brewery, asked to see the MD, and said, ‘There’s your cheque – can we have our beer?’ He said yes.
Richard Sanders: On the Sunday before the festival opened a Mr Pollard of Pollards Brewery arrived in his Mini with a wooden 36 Gallon of his beer. He was one of the new micro brewers who had just started. His beer hadn’t been ordered but we decided that we could sell it.
Gill Keay nee Knight (volunteer): I became a beer drinker when I was at university in Manchester in the late 1960s. Later on, in 1973, my old university friend Denis Palmer signed me up for CAMRA after a visit to Becky’s Dive Bar near Waterloo. I can’t remember exactly how I got roped in to Covent Garden but I suspect that it was by getting to know Eric Spragett through the Cambridge Beer Festival and other CAMRA events in 1973-5. Eric was tall with a long pony tail – that was his trademark – and very jolly.
Chris Bruton: Eric, Michael Hardman [CAMRA co-founder] and HQ staff worked on the publicity. Richard Boston was writing an occasional ‘Boston on Beer’ column in the Guardian on Saturdays in which he regularly mentioned the Campaign and close to the event, he pushed ‘Covent Garden is alive with Real Ale’ more than once.
Denis Palmer (volunteer): The build-up period was hectic with a load of CAMRA members running around the West End like headless chickens, furiously improvising. There was much sweaty panic – it was a very hot summer – and many cross words were spoken, with frequent disruption because of security alerts.
Gill Keay: There were a lot of IRA bomb scares at the time. We were using an office just up the road – there were no mobile phones in those days so we had to have an office with a phone – and, one evening, when we were locking up, we left a briefcase in the street. The alarm went up and the police cordoned off the whole area.
Richard Sanders: John Bishopp had to run round to Bow Street Police Station, offer abject apologies, and explain that his briefcase was not a bomb and please would they not do a controlled explosion on it. As a consequence of the bomb scare, and because London was on high alert, CAMRA had to hire security guards to search all customers’ bags and cases on entering the festival. I remember going out with Eric Spragett to visit a security firm and Eric beating down the price quoted for security.
Chris Bruton: Eric persuaded a Covent Garden landlord to get the necessary licence to sell alcohol on the premises on our behalf, but other local landlords put pressure on the licensee to back out, and so he did. All the beer had been ordered, and it was not all on sale or return. Unless we could get a licence, we knew the Campaign might fold. We approached Fuller’s and Young’s – the only two independent London brewers in 1975 — and Anthony Ansell, the Marketing Director at Fuller’s, agreed to help.
Chris Holmes: On the morning – the very morning – that we were due to open, I had to go to the local magistrate’s court with someone from Fuller’s, and got the licence just in time.
Anthony Gibson: I was the publicity officer for the West London branch of CAMRA and was working in the press office the National Farmers’ Union so I knew all the techniques, and that’s why I was approached to work on publicity for Covent Garden. It was all done in quite a hurry. We were pretty good at publicity in those days, CAMRA, and a lot of people in the media were just beginning to wake up to real ale, so we got a lot of pre-publicity without having to pay for any of it. I think we were just in tune with the spirit of the times.
Chris Holmes: About 20 minutes before we were due to open. We were all standing there, slightly nervous, not sure if anyone was going to come, and someone said, ‘Shall we have a quick look outside?’ We opened the door and saw a queue stretching the all the way round the block. There was a Watney’s pub right next to the entrance, doors open, and this queue of thirsty people, but they didn’t have a single customer.
Denis Palmer: I was honestly tempted for a moment to run away and just enjoy a quiet pint in the pub over the road.
Gill Keay: I remember smartly-dressed city gents queuing round the block in long lines, waiting to get in.
Denis Palmer: I was manning the ticket machines as we threw the doors open for the first session and they all jammed solid in the first few minutes. I spotted a couple of friends from work, signed them up to CAMRA on the spot, and put them to work on the front entrance. They were still there on the last day and, so they claimed, loved every manic minute of it.
Richard Sanders: That first lunchtime session I served JW Lees bitter from 18 gallon wooden kilderkins, and the TV cameras wanted to film me. I was asked to describe the beer and I said, ‘It could not be described as not bitter.’ Most people at the festival on that first day had never tasted northern bitters and it was a bit of shock to those who were used to softer southern beers.
Gill Keay: Lots of beers were in wooden casks. Those casks looked good but were heavy and difficult to handle.
Chris Bruton: Unfortunately the space between the stalls was insufficient to allow for normal bars so the bar staff stood next to the casks. Clearly cash was not an option so we had to use tokens.
Chris Holmes: On day one, I was manning the membership stall, a chap came up in his three-piece suit. I was astonished but I managed to splutter out, ‘You’re Kingsley Amis!’ And he said, ‘Yes, and I think you chaps are doing a wonderful job.’
Steve Barber (volunteer): I was on the Arkell’s stand, behind a high timber barricade. Each side had a serving aperture cut in it with a crude shelf for a bar with hand-pumps. Staff could enter and leave the ‘stockade’ via a bolted gate. It was as if we were expecting an attack from the Vikings! Initially, it was all very civilised but the pace increased until we were pulling beer as fast as we could, with punters shoving empty glasses and money at us through the serving holes. Quite frightening, really.
Richard Sanders: On the first evening I served Home Ales Bitter and I managed to sell a whole 22 gallon container in just over 20 minutes. There was only one size of glass, a half pint straight fluted glass with the logo at the top, and I don’t think I ever turned the tap off except when I had a quick half that a customer brought for me.
Ron Pattinson (drinker): I’d joined CAMRA on my 18th birthday and one of my friends, Martin Young, had joined, too. I think it was him who suggested that we take the train down to London from Newark for the day to attend. It was only the second or third time I’d ever been to London, so it was pretty exciting.
Paul Bailey (drinker): I had only recently turned 20 and I did have a feeling that I was part of something special and exciting, and the excitement grew as we queued to get in. The customers were a mixed bunch but there was little evidence of the T-shirt and sandal brigade that characterised CAMRA during the 1980s and 1990s. As we attended the event on the Friday, there was a good sprinkling of office workers, including quite a few city gents, but I don’t recall there being many women at the festival.
David Davies (photographer): I worked in a nearby photolab and a colleague and I managed to pay a couple of extended lunch breaks at the Beer Ex, enjoying more half pints than we should have done. What I found interesting was the mix of City Gents, Office and manual workers, and I remember the smell of wet wooden barrels and spilt beer.
Keith Flett (drinker): I was 18 and just heading off to University. A beer festival then was an extremely unusual event — radical even. There were beers on offer you hardly saw in London then — Courage Directors, Ruddles County and so on. I think it was my first taste of Directors. I also remember the food being interesting — Stilton and bread, I think.
Gill Keay: My role at Covent Garden was organising food – probably because I was one of the few women involved! My challenge was to set up a preparation and serving area in the Flower Market, and to find staff who didn’t mind buttering a mountain of bread rolls.
Chris Holmes: Eric Spragett had signed a contract with Pork Farms in Nottingham so we had an enormous delivery of pork pies. As far as I can remember, that was the sum total of the catering.
Gill Keay: I’ll never forget the cheeses because they were all different colours. They were Cheddar (yellow), Sage Derby (green), Stilton (blue) and Red Windsor (guess…). They used to get all mixed up on the preparation surfaces. We weren’t very organised.
Richard Sanders: I believe on the second day of opening some money from the front desk where customers bought glasses and tokens went missing. Chris Holmes had been running the membership stall, but after that, he went and sat on the money, so to speak. He had also been looking after the festival licensee from Fullers Brewery and I took over Chris’s duties. My abiding memory of that was Mr Fuller [Antony Ansell] asking if I could stop people urinating in one corner of the hall. The toilets were grim to say the least.
David Harrison (drinker): I was really impressed by the scale and number of breweries. I hadn’t really travelled about much and beers didn’t seem to be traded round the country then, so the sight and taste of beers from up North and the West Country was very exciting.
Paul Bailey: There were beers whose names I had only read about, and now they were presented right in front of me. I wanted to try them all – talk about a kid in a sweet shop!
Ron Pattinson: Oddly, I can remember one of the beers I drank: Yorkshire Clubs Dark Mild. Black as coal and a lovely drink. I think I remember it because the brewery was taken over and closed a few weeks later.
Keith Porter (drinker): Myself and two pals turned up at around 6.30 pm to find long queues around the entrances and lots of people sat on the pavement of The Anglesey. Having given up hope of getting in to the event we decided to go somewhere else but, as we walked away, I noticed an unmarked door with a steward in attendance. I asked him was this an official entrance and he said, well, no not really, but come in anyway. As Saturday went on the hall got noisier and singing broke out.
Chris Bruton: By Saturday, much of the beer was sold out. The public were sitting on the stalls as the empty casks were taken down and a group of West Ham United supporters led a rendition of ‘If you hate Watney’s, clap your hands’.
Denis Palmer: There was a staff party after the last punter but most of us were too stunned to celebrate in any style.
Chris Bruton: My overwhelming memory at the close on Saturday night was of tiredness. I had in the past run five marathons in under three hours, but I’d never been so exhausted.
Chris Holmes: CAMRA was on this incredible roll – membership going up, press coverage – we had the wind in our sails. But when I look back at Covent Garden now I think, how did we get away with it?
Denis Palmer: I walked home across Waterloo Bridge in the early hours thinking. ‘What the hell have we just done?’. Then two years later it was Ally Pally and the Great British Beer Festival and we did it all again, and again…
The above material was gathered from telephone conversations, interviews and emails and has been edited for clarity.
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The Great British Beer Festival, successor to the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, starts next week, running from 9-13 August 2016. (Disclosure: we’ve got free trade day tickets.)