So They Brewed Their Own Beer — The Northern Clubs Federation

People drinking in a northern club.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about working men’s clubs and the breweries established to supply them and we thought we ought to flag an apparently little-known book on the subject.

So They Brewed Their Own Beer by Ted Elkins was published in 1970 and tells the story of the rise of the Northern Clubs Federation. Elkins was a journalist from the North East of England whose career started in the 1950s and as a freelance PR man he wrote a few official company and organisational histories relating to brewing and hospitality.

Cover of So They Brewed Their Own Beer.

STBTOB opens on 24 May 1919 at the Social Club in Prudhoe, a village on Tyneside, where the founders of what would become the Federation Brewery met for the first time to discuss the idea. Elkins, possibly scrambling to reach word count, or perhaps just to make the job more fun, lays it on a bit thick:

These were new men, bruised and bloodied in mind and limb by the carnage of slaughter and survival. They came back [from war] with a sense of comradeship, buoyant in triumph, each humbly aware of his obligation to his fellow man, the need to right the wrongs of a world irrevocably changed by the torment of war.

This leads to what in dramatic terms you might call an extended flashback, to the founding of the working men’s club movement in the mid-19th century, before circling back to 1918-19 and the revolt against profiteering brewers (as the clubmen saw them) which led to the founding of club-owned breweries in Leeds, Coventry, Llantrissant and Huddersfield.

The leader of the North East’s own brewery project was a miner, George Middleton, “a face-worker at Mickley Colliery”:

He was energetically involved in local politics and had already established himself as a stalwart of the club movement. As a boy he left Mickley village school to embark on a life of self-education, reading avariciously… Stocky and blue-eyed, George Middleton flourished a healthy moustache and a resolute approach. He was friendly, even-tempered and immersed in social work… Like his contemporaries in clubdom… he had seen too much of the war-time malpractice meted out to clubs by the private brewers.

He worked with a young accountant, Rupert Tetlow, recently demobbed, to draw up the joint co-operative framework under which the new brewery would operate, soon after that meeting on 24 May 1919.

They key calculation behind this scheme, and that of other club breweries, was the number of casks of beer a brewery would need to sell to affiliated clubs each week to, first, stay afloat and, secondly, ideally, return a profit. Elkins quotes a 1919 report from a visit to the Leeds club brewery in the form of a Q&A:

What is the maximum output possible to the brewery?
Answer: One hundred barrels per week.
What is the minimum required to make the brewery solvent?
Answer: thirty barrels.
Then am I right in understanding that you can live on 30 barrels and will grow rich on 100 barrels weekly?
Answer: Yes.
Then three of four large clubs in any locality could easily and profitably free themselves of private brewers?
Answer: Yes.

In December 1919, as Elkins recounts, a number of clubs in the North East decided to get together and buy the disused Smart’s Brewery at Alnwick for £10,000, where it was understood that the on-site well produced water perfect for brewing beers with the “Scottish flavour” then popular in the region.

Albert Sewell.

But when the Fed’s first brewer, Albert Sewell, went to inspect the brewery after its purchase it became apparent that it was a disaster area: “We knew immediately we would never brew a drop of beer in the place… It was hopeless.” The plant had been used as a munitions factory during World War I and was essentially a wreck. Unable to back out of the deal the management all but wrote off this initial failed investment and started looking for another, better premises, settling on a premises in Hedley Street, Newcastle. It cost £5,000 and came with everything except casks, which were then in short supply due to the lingering effects of the war on the supply of Russian oak.

The first Federation beer was brewed in April 1921. Based on market research carried out by Rupert Tetlow it was formulated by Albert Sewell as a clone of the most popular beer in the region’s clubs, “Duddingston’s”, a pale ale:

Sewell set about brewing a similar [beer] in looks and taste. He achieved the required brew… A man of medium build, Sewell had no diplomas or qualifications other than the magic which produced the brew. A Tynesider with a gruff Geordie accent, little education and guilty of an occasional humorous malapropism, he won the admiration of all — working without an assistant and yet consistently producing the same quality brew, when wavering could have meant ruination.

The shortage of casks was the primary brake on expansion, limiting the brewery to producing 50 barrels a week when it could easily have brewed and sold far more. Eventually, after several years successful trading and with casks easier to come by, a second brew was introduced, Burton Mild Ale at 6d a pint, and then a third, India Pale Ale at 7d a pint, in the late 1920s. In 1930 the Fed purchased a third brewery at Hanover Square, Newcastle, which it then set about expanding and extending.

After his detailed account of these foundational years Elkins story picks up pace, rattling through the 1930s and World War II, introducing new character, and dishing out stats and facts on the way. What becomes clear is that the Fed quickly grew into a very substantial concern with plenty of money sloshing about, wood-panelled boardrooms, colossal egos, and in all that more or less indistinguishable, at least in cosmetic terms, from the private breweries its founders had set out to overthrow.

The final stretch of the book is typical official history, boasting about new facilities and talking up the bigwigs of present and recent management, but students of pub and club history will find plenty to enjoy in detailed accounts of how new state-of-the-art clubs were designed in the post-war period. Leslie Hutchison, who became the Fed’s Chief Executive in 1960, had strong views about how clubs ought to look and feel in the era of the Northern clubs boom:

His idea of an ideal type of club is one which is divided into three sections. It must have a good efficient bar for men only; the area of the club which makes the profit to cover the outlay. He also prefers to see a games annexe rather than darts flying over the heads of drinkers at the bar. The club must also have a comfortable lounge, suitably furnished for a man and his wife to relax and rink and talk without disturbances from bingo games or music being relayed from a ‘third section’ — the concert lounge.

A Federation brewery tank lorry.

On the beer front the 1960s saw Federation clubs switch from cask to tank beer:

As far as any brewery is concerned storage and transportation is more efficient with tanks compared to casks, and the back-ache has been taken from the industry… With casks, once the beer had reached the cellar it was in the hands of the club steward who could make or mar it. If for some reason he was not feeling happy about the Federation brewery he could do his worst. Whereas with tank beer the brewery has a greater measure of control. Foremen go around the clubs testing the beer from the tanks. Very little beer is returned to the brewery at all.

In the final stretch (again, possibly by way of padding out the volume) Elkins allows several individual clubs to tell their own stories, from their founding in the Victorian and Edwardian eras to the 1960s when most were booming, expanding, and finding new customers beyond the typical industrial worker. There is one particularly interesting account of a new club that opened on a post-war overspill estate in Gateshead in 1964, and its determined founder:

John Mulholland [is] a jovial Geordie dynamo of a man whose energies at 60 would put to shame many a would-be tycoon half his age… [A] supervisor in the Sigmund Pump engineering plant on the Team Valley Industrial Estate at Gateshead… [he] was quite happy to settle for a quiet pint and a chat in some conveniently situation local pub near his home. But as he watched the first of the many moving into their new homes he couldn’t help thinking they might easily remain strangers unless they had some focal point where the men could meet and chat and give their womenfolk too a welcome change of atmosphere in friendly surroundings…

The book is also loaded with black-and-white photographs of buildings, people and brewing kit, as well as scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations with a certain period appeal. Disorganised it might be, and a little ripe in its prose here and there, but if you’re interested in clubs and 20th century drinking culture, it’s probably an essential purchase.

6 thoughts on “So They Brewed Their Own Beer — The Northern Clubs Federation”

  1. In the seventies I occasionally frequented a bar in Bradford called the Champagne-a-go-go. It was a dive but opened late. They served Fed Special Keg, there were signs about the place-“Fed Special Keg, as served in the House of Commons”

    Seems they didn’t just cater for the thirsty working classes.

  2. Used to play darts in the NUR No5 Club in Deane Road Liverpool. It was Fed tied and sold their beers. Strong Brown Ale was a bit deadly, but we supped it because it was a novelty, cheap and got you pissed.

    Used to pass the “new” Federation Brewery at Dunston a lot for work. The last North East home of Newcastle Brown before it went to Tadcaster. Closed with the demise of Scottish and Newcastle. Or rather just before if I recall correctly. Think it went after the Tyne Brewery and around the same time as Holyrood closed.

    Fed’s Diet Lager – a Holsten lookalike – was common in the free trade.

  3. The Coventry brewery was just along the road from where I used to work, although it was just a depot by then. Last thing I heard, the building was raided in connection with modern slavery. No idea where the Leeds one was.
    Fed reintroduced cask beers in the mid to late 80s, and it was OK. Most clubs then were serving pretty poor keg rubbish, but my dad was a member of one that served Vaux beers in Leeds, pretty much the only local outlet.

  4. Fed beers were ubiquitous in the mid-70s at least – in the bars at Castle Leazes Halls of Residence, in the Union Society, and in the University’s own Long Bar in the Lower Refectory – in Newcastle.

    It was of course available at the CIU-affiliated Manors Social Club, Carliol Square, Newcastle NE1 6UQ where I was a member courtesy of knowing the Fountains who owned and ran Mobile Photo Service where several student friends worked in vacations, or because they dropped out. Sadly the Manors is long, long gone, though the building was still there when I looked and photo’d a week or so ago. Squatted in around 2000/2001, it then became some sort of club / lap-dancing bar.

    I ought to have pix from around then – but where are they now?

    Fed Special was what I used to drink – and in the Halls JCRs it was around 12p a pint, 16p in the Union.

    And we used to get their cans as carry-outs ….

    You could go to the brewery shop in Forth Street (this photo from 1968 is seven or so years before my time https://www.flickr.com/photos/newcastlelibraries/4078744460) and buy ‘draught’ wine – pretty damn cheap and if memory serves it was marginally better than the Don Cortez range available from S&N.

  5. Northern Clubs was keg, or tank, until the 1980s but in 1974, not long before they closed, I drank cask beers from the Yorkshire and the South Wales Clubs Breweries.

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