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 char­ac­ters, 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 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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