Fameusement British – Watney’s in Belgium, 1969

Article header from a vintage magazine: 'Continental Journey by John Nixon'

The October 1969 edition of Watney’s in-house magazine, The Red Barrel, contains a substantial feature on the British mega-brewery’s operations in Belgium. Here are some highlights.

The author was John Nixon, edi­tor of The Red Bar­rel, and what took him to Brus­sels in the sum­mer of 1969 was the pre­sen­ta­tion of an award for the qual­i­ty of Bel­gian-brewed Red Bar­rel keg bit­ter. (We think we’ve got that right – the text is a bit vague.) At that cer­e­mo­ny M. Orban of L’In­sti­tut Mon­di­al pour la Pro­tec­tion de le Haute Qualite Ali­men­taire spoke of ‘the progress of an ide­al to which men, call­ing them­selves Euro­pean, have ded­i­cat­ed their best efforts for so many years’. High­ly top­i­cal in 2017… Can we even say poignant with­out hav­ing some­one tick us off?

The fea­ture prop­er is enti­tled ‘Con­ti­nen­tal Jour­ney’ (as above) and is a charm­ing peri­od trav­el­ogue with a focus on beer. Mr Nixon observes, first, that Brus­sels isn’t far away once air­port rig­ma­role is out of the way: ‘[Only] about the same dis­tance from Lon­don as is Man­ches­ter – what an incred­i­ble dif­fer­ence that strip of water makes!’. Then, after a few obser­va­tions about the ter­ri­ble dri­ving, the high price of food and drink, and the low cost of rent­ing flats, he gets down to busi­ness:

I fin­ished the [first] evening at The Red Lion, one of the first Eng­lish pubs in Brus­sels. The house is going incred­i­bly well and as I walked through the door I was greet­ed by Mine Host Major John Reynolds, his charm­ing wife Pat and a vast cho­rus of slight­ly obscene singing from a cir­cle of British Ley­land appren­tices – exact­ly what they were doing in the city I did­n’t find out as the Reynolds rushed me upstairs to anoth­er bar where we could swap news in com­fort and my del­i­cate ears would not be affront­ed by the lyrics of British Rug­by songs.

Ah, the British abroad! (See also.) Mr and Mrs Reynolds ben­e­fit­ed in busi­ness terms but suf­fered per­son­al­ly as a result of the absence of British-style reg­u­lat­ed licens­ing in Brus­sels:

They open at 9.00 am and are then con­tin­u­ous­ly engaged until 5 o’clock in the morn­ing. Of course, they have a bevy of care­ful­ly select­ed British and Bel­gian bar­maids to assist, who ‘live in’ above the pub, but Mr and Mrs Reynolds have to work in shifts, some­times see­ing each oth­er only for an hour or so each day or pass­ing on the stairs in the small hours of the morn­ing as one gets up and the oth­er goes to bed!

Le Real, Brussels, 1969.

The next day Mr Nixon was escort­ed around the city by M. Joary, Wat­ney’s PR man in Bel­gium, and (sup­pos­ed­ly) a for­mer box­ing cham­pi­on, Jean Charles, who was then in charge of sales to cafes in Brus­sels:

Our first stop was the Cafe Real, sit­u­at­ed at the edge of a park and fre­quent­ed by pro­fes­sion­al men – lawyers, doc­tors and busi­ness men who work in the area. The estab­lish­ment is designed to rep­re­sent a cafe in the Black For­est, Ger­many. It is pan­elled through­out in red pinewood, well dec­o­rat­ed with chan­de­liers, flow­ers, adver­tise­ments, Red Bar­rels and the illu­mi­nat­ed flu­o­res­cent adver­tise­ments which are a fea­ture of near­ly all Bel­gian cafes… You can buy most kinds of food at the Cafe Real… Drinks range from wine through to beer, with sim­ple but unusu­al items like fresh­ly-squeezed orange juice, which you could not obtain in most British cafes or pubs.

The Swan with staff outside the door.

On the third day of his vis­it Nixon was tak­en to var­i­ous Eng­lish pubs by M. Willy Her­mans of Van­den­heuvel’s, the Bel­gian brew­ery Wat­ney’s took over in 1968. The Swan in Place des Cara­biniers in Schaer­beek was first:

The decor… is Edwar­dian, with blue car­pet­ing, mar­ble-topped wrought-iron tables, red leather seat­ing and plen­ty of unusu­al orna­ments, most­ly of the large size and gen­uine­ly old. It has been open since March.

Back in the city cen­tre, the next stop was The Queen Vic­to­ria under the man­age­ment of M. Pierre Heris. It was a pub ‘designed to appeal to the wealth­i­er busi­ness type of cus­tomer, very plush and high­ly pol­ished with gleam­ing mir­rors and a long L‑shaped bar’.

Group shot of waitresses and manageress.
Staff of The Cam­bridge Arms, Leu­ven, in 1969. Mrs Larose is on the far left.

Then it was time for an out-of-town jaunt, to Leu­ven, where The Cam­bridge Arms had just opened, its name a nod to the fact that Leu­ven too is a uni­ver­si­ty city. (We think this is now Ron Black­’s, at 31 Ladeuzeplein.) Mr Nixon declared this his favourite:

Sit­u­at­ed on a qui­et square, near the uni­ver­si­ty library and with excel­lent park­ing facil­i­ties, The Cam­bridge Arms has an unre­mark­able exte­ri­or. But step through the front door and sur­prise awaits one. The inte­ri­or starts off fair­ly nar­row, like a long hall­way, beau­ti­ful­ly dec­o­rat­ed in tra­di­tion­al Eng­lish coun­try pub style and with delight­ful lit­tle alcove seats down one side. This room extends for about 50 feet back and then sud­den­ly broad­ens into a large square room, sim­i­lar­ly fur­nished and with a splen­did bar counter on one side… There are sev­er­al very attrac­tive wait­ress­es to serve cus­tomers and M. Larose, who keeps The Cam­bridge Arms with his wife, Suz, showed me round the spot­less kitchens which are fit­ted with the lat­est equip­ment.

And that’s it for the fea­ture although the back cov­er of the mag­a­zine is also giv­en over to Bel­gium and pro­vides a colour­ful finale that just reeks of 1969: ‘The large illu­mi­nat­ed adver­tise­ment… appears on the wall of the Van­den­heuv­el Brew­ery in Brus­sels… the sign changes every few sec­onds’.

Vintage Watney's beer advertisements in Brussels, lit up at night.

Between books, mag­a­zines and news­pa­per arti­cles, we’re get­ting quite a bit of mate­r­i­al on British brew­eries and their attempts to send British beer and the con­cept of the pub to the Con­ti­nent. Per­haps we’ll pull it all togeth­er into a #beery­lon­greads post at some point, or maybe we’ll just keep doing it in bits and bobs, like this. In the mean­time there’s a bit more on Eng­lish pubs on the Con­ti­nent in this 2015 blog post.

4 thoughts on “Fameusement British – Watney’s in Belgium, 1969”

  1. One of the few sur­viv­ing rem­nants of the Watney’s brand is the Scotch Ale which is (or was until very recent­ly) still sold in Bel­gium, and it is very nice indeed.

  2. Love the way you used to find all those retired army Majors run­ning pubs, back in the 60’s. I sup­pose there was quite a sur­plus of them back then.

    Also, what about the irony of a British brew­ery run­ning a Black For­est-style café in Bel­gium. ‘The progress of an ide­al to which men, call­ing them­selves Euro­pean, have ded­i­cat­ed their best efforts for so many years?” Def­i­nite­ly high­ly top­i­cal in 2017.

    I won­der when, and why, Watney’s pulled out of Bel­gium.

    1. The thing about majors is that it’s the high­est rank you can rise to as an offi­cer with­out actu­al­ly get­ting pro­mot­ed; it’s the pub­lic-school equiv­a­lent of join­ing as a Pri­vate and leav­ing as a Pri­vate. So yes, at one time there was quite the demo­graph­ic bulge of retired Majors.

  3. I first start­ed going to Bel­gium in hunt of beers in about 1990, and there were still lots of Wat­ney’s Red Bar­rel signs about, and I think – athough I could be wrong – that the beer itself was still avail­able then – in fact I’m sure there was some­thing about it in What’s Brew­ing around that sort of time.

    Wikipedia says this: “Wat­neys Red Bar­rel [edit]
    Wat­neys Red Bar­rel was a bit­ter which sold high­ly in the Unit­ed King­dom dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s.[8][9] It was intro­duced in 1931 as an export keg beer that could trav­el for long dis­tances by being made sta­ble through fil­ter­ing and pas­teuris­ing – as such it was the first keg beer.[8] It was renamed to just “Red” in 1971.
    A 3.9% abv pale lager with the name Wat­neys Red Bar­rel was sold by the Slee­man Brew­ery until 1997[10] and a 6.0% beer with the same name is still brewed by Alken-Maes.[11]”

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