The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s

Reg Norkett and the staff of the Architect's Department

The photo above is from 1957 and the young man at the drawing board is Reg Norkett, who we managed to track down.

We found the pho­to in the autumn 1957 edi­tion of the Hopleaf Gazette as shared by Ray­mond Simonds on his web­site – a won­der­ful trove of archive mate­r­i­al from his family’s brew­ery. It accom­pa­nies a brief pro­file of the Archi­tects’ Depart­ment which men­tions Reg Norkett’s name in pass­ing.

With­out any great expec­ta­tions we Googled him and found his address on the web­site of a pro­fes­sion­al organ­i­sa­tion for archi­tects; we wrote him a let­ter and have since exchanged a few emails. What fol­lows is a light­ly edit­ed ver­sion of his respons­es to our ques­tions with a lit­tle com­men­tary from us here and there.

First, we asked Mr Norkett for some general background – where was he from, and how did he end up at Simonds?

I was born in Read­ing in 1936, edu­cat­ed at Red­lands Pri­ma­ry School – then Junior school – which was the local school. I then went to Read­ing Blue Coat School at Son­ning near Read­ing as a board­er from 1948 to 1953.

Dur­ing my time at school I realised I was inter­est­ed in a career in the building/construction indus­try as, e.g. a sur­vey­or or archi­tect. I man­aged to obtain the required num­ber of O lev­els to com­mence pro­fes­sion­al train­ing and was ini­tial­ly employed in the Bor­ough Archi­tects Depar­ment at Read­ing Bor­ough Coun­cil, as Junior Assis­tant in the Clerk of Works Sec­tion. I com­menced train­ing in part-time study for a Nation­al Cer­tifi­cate in Build­ing at the local Tech­ni­cal Col­lege.

How­ev­er I was keen to be involved in the Design and prepa­ra­tion of draw­ings and so on, which I dis­cussed with the Bor­ough Archi­tect. He  approached the Chief Archi­tect at H&G Simonds, Mr Regi­nald Southall, who is shown in one of the pho­tographs in the Hop Leaf Gazette which you for­ward­ed.

I was offered a junior posi­tion in the Archi­tects Depart­ment, join­ing the com­pa­ny in 1954, and com­menc­ing study part-time at the Oxford School of Archi­tec­ture.

We wanted to know a bit about the company and its culture…

All the Pro­fes­sion­al Staff were male, as shown in the pho­tographs, in addi­tion to which there were two sec­re­taries and the Chief Architect’s PA. A num­ber of the staff had served dur­ing World War II in var­i­ous con­struc­tion units.

The Offices were locat­ed in an old con­vert­ed and extend­ed cottage/pub in Bridge Street on a site that was for­mal­ly part of the South Berk­shire Brew­ery, which had been acquired by H&G Simonds some years before.

The rela­tion­ship with the ‘boss­es’ was very dif­fer­ent than today with a mutu­al respect. (Or am I show­ing my age?) Depart­ment heads and direc­tors, for exam­ple, were referred to as ‘Sir’. In my expe­ri­ence, how­ev­er, they were gen­er­al­ly approach­able, fair and sup­port­ive to a junior start­ing on his career. Study time was per­mit­ted, as was use of the Draw­ing Office for the prepa­ra­tion of col­lege work after nor­mal clos­ing time.

My col­leagues were was also very help­ful and sup­port­ive, show­ing inter­est in my study work, with help and assis­tance being offered when request­ed, and keen to lis­ten and give of their expe­ri­ences. I can­not com­ment on oth­er depart­ments but H&GS always seemed a hap­py place to work, with many long serv­ing staff.

Dai­ly duties were var­ied and became more involved as one became more expe­ri­enced. Gen­er­al­ly the Depart­ment was divid­ed into two teams, as indi­cat­ed in the pho­tographs, with the junior trainees car­ry­ing out gen­er­al tasks such as the fil­ing of draw­ings, which were rolled onto wood­en cores with num­bers on the end for each job, the num­bers being logged in a cen­tral reg­is­ter. The rolls were then stored in a large walk-in fire­proof safe (the door of which is just vis­i­ble at the end  of the Office in the first pho­to). Draw­ings and infor­ma­tion for on-going projects were stored in plan chests in the office.

SOURCE: Grace’s Guide to British Indus­try.

Anoth­er task would be to take copies of the orig­i­nal draw­ings, which were pro­duced on trac­ing paper in either ink or pen­cil, by a process known as Dye­line, which briefly passed the orig­i­nal trans­par­ent trac­ing paper placed on top of sen­si­tised paper across a strong light which bleached out the area not cov­ered by ink or pen­cil lines. This paper was then passed through a chem­i­cal devel­op­er result­ing in the lines being devel­oped. This was car­ried out in a sep­a­rate room, the Print Room. As juniors this was a good place to meet, have a chat, read the paper etc. and relax for half an hour or so before return­ing to one’s draw­ing board.

As one became more expe­ri­enced respon­si­bil­i­ty increased and one start­ed to pro­duce basic detail draw­ings; learn to apply water colours to detailed prints; accom­pa­ny senior col­leagues on sur­veys of exist­ing pubs or clubs. Much of this work is described in the arti­cle in the Hop Leaf Gazette. When sur­vey­ing and tak­ing lev­els of exter­nal areas such as car parks, gar­dens, orchards and so on at old coun­try pubs, one soon became very wary of unknown drains and cess pits.

The Archi­tects Depart­ment was pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with new projects, major re-fur­bish­ment of exist­ing premis­es, mod­erni­sa­tion, and major works at the var­i­ous brew­eries (Ply­mouth, Bris­tol, New­port) and the large dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­tres. It also assist­ed with major main­te­nance projects for the Sur­vey­ors Depart­ment, pro­vid­ing design and ten­der draw­ings out­side of rou­tine main­te­nance, again all very much as described in the arti­cle.

A 1950s pub, half-constructed.
The Hap­py Prospect, Read­ing. SOURCE: Read­ing Muse­um.
We asked Mr Norkett how he and his colleagues felt about the new style of pub which emerged in the 1950s – a particular area of interest for us.

There was a dif­fer­ent mind-set for this change which in H&GS case was grad­ual and very much tar­get­ed to suit the new sur­round­ing hous­ing estates and their envi­ron­ment. Gen­er­al­ly the designs of H&GS could be con­sid­ered con­ser­v­a­tive, but not bland. I am sure that there will be records, pho­tos and reports in var­i­ous local papers cov­er­ing new open­ings. Exam­ples I can call to mind which I was involved with would be:

  • Read­ing – The Hap­py Prospect, South­cote Estate; The Tav­ern, Whit­ley Estate
  • Burgh­field – The Ban­tam
  • Swin­don – The Steam Engine (in com­mem­o­ra­tion of a GWR steam engine)
We asked how his career developed at Simonds, and what he did next…

Fol­low­ing eight years at H&GS, hav­ing served two years Nation­al Ser­vice in the Roy­al Engi­neers, I moved on to join a mul­ti-dis­ci­pline con­sul­tan­cy at around the same time that H&GS were tak­en over by, or merged with, Courage, pri­or to the acqui­si­tion by ini­tial­ly the Han­son Group, and then Scot­tish & New­cas­tle Brew­ery. Dur­ing these years, in the Courage era, a new Brew­ery was devel­oped at Wor­ton Grange on the out­skirts of Read­ing. The old H&GS site is now a retail and office com­plex.

And prompted some more general reflections on company culture…

As part of the recre­ation­al facil­i­ties of H&GS the com­pa­ny owned a large sports ground pro­vid­ing pitch­es for hock­ey, foot­ball, crick­et, along with ten­nis courts and bowl­ing greens. There was a club (licensed, of course), chang­ing rooms and so on – the envy of many local sports clubs. There was also a com­pa­ny sports day with teams and staff attend­ing from all the many branch­es and areas of the com­pa­ny enter­ing the many var­i­ous events both nov­el­ty (bar­rel rolling) and more tra­di­tion­al, such as sprint­ing and inter-depart­men­tal relays. I was for­tu­nate to be a mem­ber of a very suc­cess­ful foot­ball team, and also the crick­et side, for a num­ber of years. The grounds have now all gone and is a hous­ing estate

Tavern advertisement, 1957.
SOURCE: The Hopleaf Gazette, autumn 1957, via http://simondsfamily.me.uk
Finally, we asked him about beer – did he drink it himself?

Yes, I was Beer drinker, and still enjoy the odd pint now and again. The Brew­ery allowed the staff two pints of ‘allowance beer’ a day (although there was some doubt over where it came from). I was under age ini­tial­ly and had to set­tle for tea. At Christ­mas all staff received a dozen cans of beer, once cans had been intro­duced –this was always Tav­ern Ale. I pre­ferred Direc­tors Bit­ter or sim­i­lar. Oth­er names I recall as being pop­u­lar were IPA, SB (Simonds Best), Vel­vet Milk Stout, and var­i­ous spe­cial brews as com­mem­o­ra­tion beers. I am sure there were oth­ers but they are lost in the mists of time.

One thought on “The Life of a Brewery Architect in the 1950s”

  1. Won­der­ful stuff folks 😊
    I won­der if Reg or Ray­mond would know of any brew­ing staff who might be able to give their side too? I’d love to hear that.

    Some of the details remind me of my cou­ple of years just down the road at Brakspear’s (1998–2000).

    Our young-ish, new-ish head brew­er told me that some of the old­er staff ini­tial­ly called him “Mis­ter Peter” which he found too def­er­en­tial & for­mal, “Peter” was fine.

    The dai­ly beer ration had only ceased a year or two before & IIRC was more gen­er­ous than Simond’s (as much beer as you could drink as long as you weren’t dri­ving a dray – motorised, not horse drawn).

    I think Brakspear’s owned about 110 pubs, many of which were pret­ty old & beau­ti­ful, but not always well-main­tained or well-fre­quent­ed. Before we got so busy that we were brew­ing twice almost every day (c.1000 bbls/week) the brew­ing team would try to take a week­ly lunchtime dri­ve out to a few of the best pubs in the estate.

    Much of the Hen­ley brew­ery site is now a branch of a bou­tique hotel chain, with the igno­min­ious name of Hotel du Vin. In sweet­er news, the new own­ers of the Brak­s­pear pub co. have opened a small brew­ery at the beau­ti­ful Bull pub on Bell Street.

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