Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin

An advert for CAMRA from 1976

The monthly newspaper What’s Brewing has been the semi-public face of the Campaign for Real Ale since the early 1970s; but the Branch Bulletin, intended to be private, tells the same story without any PR gloss.

We were lucky enough to come into possession of a near-complete set of these newsletters, sent from CAMRA HQ to local branches, thanks to Sue Hart, a veteran of The Ring and a long-time CAMRA activist.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks digging and digesting which gave us the urge to go back to our 2014 book, Brew Britannia, and 2017’s 20th Century Pub and fill in some gaps with new information.

Pub preservation

In 20th Century pub, we wrote about the birth of the pub preservation movement as the rhetoric of Christopher Hutt’s 1973 book The Death of the English Pub turned into practical action.

We focused on the Pub Preservation Group and the work of Jenny Greenhalgh, Peter Lerner and crew, from the late 1970s onward, but here’s evidence that the work began in earnest a little earlier.

The earliest of the branch newsletters we have, from May 1975, includes a paper by Mike Dempsey of the East London Branch, a lawyer by profession, setting out what looks like the basis of much of the pub preservation activity that followed.

The paper establishes how the listing system works, how it might apply to pubs and how CAMRA members might go about using the system to prevent brewers (and especially the Big Six) from demolishing or altering pub buildings.

Here’s his concluding argument:

Pyrrhic Victories
The fact that you may have succeeded in having a building included on the statutory list does not mean that your battles are over. The first thing that the owner of the pub will do when he learns of the Secretary of State’s decision is to apply to the local authority for Listed Building Consent to carry out the works which he intended to carry out in the first place. This means that you have got to put in hand the suggestions made in paragraph 4 above, and make sure that representations are submitted to the local Council at the appropriate time. Do not, therefore, be lulled into complacency as a result of your initial successes. You will only have succeeded when the pub reopens for business, unspoiled and preferably serving real beer, but there are, of course, many pubs which are worthy of preservation even if their beer is not. In these cases, the beer will have to be the subject of your next campaign.

You might also notice there the seed of a later conflict within CAMRA: is a pub worth saving if it doesn’t serve good beer, and isn’t ‘nice’?

In the next newsletter, there was more of the same, but with a particular emphasis on the protection of traditional pub layouts and public bars in particular.

In this piece, Dempsey explored the legal implications of the decision by the Lord Chief Justice to uphold the right of local justices to block refurbishment of the Romans Hotel at Southwick near Brighton.

Dempsey’s advice was for CAMRA members to actively support the preservation of public bars, where there was local demand, by writing to justices with objections when planning was under review. He also suggested that groups of CAMRA members might want to attend hearings in person so that “justices might appreciate the extent of local concern – while being careful, of course, not to make any disturbances in the courts themselves”.

(There’s more on the behaviour of CAMRA members below.)

Another parallel thread is around the preservation of village pubs in particular. Again inspired by Chris Hutt, the National Executive entered into a partnership with the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) to challenge the Big Six national brewers on their habit of closing, or renovating beyond recognition, village inns.

While the CPRE sent a survey to the brewers in February 1975, CAMRA’s job (as expressed in June 1975) was to use its extensive branch network to get on-the-ground intel about the state of country pubs – how many had closed? How had they changed under the ownership of Watney’s and Whitbread?

They were disappointed with the response but, as you’ll learn if you keep reading, that was par for the course.

Close-up of the CAMRA logo from the 1984 Good Beer Guide.
Good Beer Guide

We’ve written in various places about how CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide (GBG) came into existence but there’s some interesting political detail in these newsletters.

First, in June 1975, there’s a note on preparations for the publication of the 1976 GBG, which reveals the logistical challenge of ensuring fair coverage of the country:

It has been decided that the 1976 Good Beer Guide should be about 50 per cent bigger than the 1975 guide so that we can fill in parts of the country which were poorly covered last time… The allocations listed below are now being suggested. The number of pubs has been calculated by allowing 18 pubs per page, minus the area taken up by the county map and an area which will be taken up by comments describing the beer drinker’s prospects in each county.

“There is some leeway” GBG editor and CAMRA co-founder Michael Hardman’s note suggests, inviting prompt, to-the-point comments. As you’ll see below, under ‘Management versus members’, the responses weren’t always as constructive as Mr Hardman might have hoped they would be.

In October 1975, there’s a little glimpse into CAMRA’s PR-savvy approach with members being reminded not to leak information about the local newspapers about which pubs from their branch would be in the GBG. Apart from the fact that they could get dropped at the last minute, or edited out for space, “any publicity at this stage could blunt the impact of our press and TV campaign”.

In July 1976, as prep for the 1977 GBG was underway, head office issued guidance for branches on how to choose pubs for inclusion. Lots of this, we suspect, will win approving nods from Martin Taylor:

The overriding criterion for a pub to be selected for the Good Beer Guide must be that it serves real ale in good condition. There is no excuse whatsoever for including a pub that does not keep its beer well – even if it is the only place serving Henderson’s Prize Light Mild for 127 miles, or if it offers a choice of 13 draught brews.

These points, on future-proofing, struck us as particularly interesting, with fresh relevance in the age of the micropub and craft beer bar:

viii) Has the pub been serving high-quality real ale for more than six months? (Established real ale pubs should not be left out in favour of recent trendy conversions selling inferior beer.)

ix) Is the pub likely to be selling high-quality ale at the end of 1977? (In other words, is a change of landlord imminent or does the brewery have a policy of phasing out traditional beer?)

Festivals

Our piece on the first of CAMRA’s national beer festivals relied on correspondence and interviews with those who remembered the event. These newsletters give us glimpses into conversations taking place in the moment, such as this from July 1975:

Eric Spragett reported on a meeting that he and others had had with Greater London Council officials at the Covent Garden Flower Market, with a view to holding a beer festival there. It was decided that a four-day event should be arranged and that Eric Spragett, John Bishopp and Chris Bruton should form a committee to run the festival, co-opting other people with the necessary skills. Entry to the festival would be free.

By August 1975, the Covent Garden Festival was scheduled and had been announced. The branch newsletter included a note from Spragett, CAMRA’s commercial manager, calling for volunteers: “If we cannot staff and manage a five-day festival, there is no likelihood whatsoever of CAMRA being able to hold a national ten-day festival as has been proposed in the past.”

Ten days of GBBF! Can you imagine?

A note in the June 1976 newsletter contains a useful summary of CAMRA’s overall policy on beer festivals or, as they were the known, “Beer exhibitions”:

Beer festivals are no longer an excuse for a multitude of CAMRA members gathering together to sample the delights of particular brews. They should be used to educate the public in real ale, particularly brews available in the area where the festival is being held… [Giving] the festival a local flavour should be borne in mind. The prominence of local brews, with perhaps one special attraction, prevents all CAMRA festivals becoming rather similar.

One thing we’ve often wondered is why there was no national beer festival in 1976, given the success of 1975’s. The answer, it seems, is that the organising committee couldn’t find a venue. Here’s a brief note from August 1976:

Thoughts of holding a national beer festival in 1976 have been abandoned due to the lack of a suitable site in London. Work has already started on the mounting of a 1977 festival but the two prime sites under consideration have now proven to be unavailable.

Cartoon: CAMRA members in a pub.
John Simpson’s cartoon depicting badly-behaved CAMRA members, from What’s Brewing, April 1975.
CAMRA’s image

In Brew Britannia, we wrote about CAMRA’s struggle to tackle an increasing perception of its membership as boorish bores, bothering publicans and constantly drunk.

The Branch Bulletin, as you might imagine, has some juicy stuff on this. For example, in November 1975, advice to branches on brewery visits included this stern telling off:

An extract from the newsletter.

On the same topic, in June 1976, there was this note from Christian Muteau on the behaviour of CAMRA members during brewery tours:

One of my members asked me recently why our branch no longer arranged brewery trips – “for a free booze up”. Poor man… I don’t normally tongue-lash people, but he certainly got it – and that made me think. Did his attitude reflect that of a majority of CAMRA members towards brewery trips? I certainly hope not… I have witnessed on brewery trips… people becoming obscenely drunk, fighting drunk, unconscious at the brewery, on the coach or in the pub on the way home. I have heard others making it plain to the brewery representatives that they are not very interested in looking round the brewery, only in swilling down as much free ale as possible in the sampling room… My concerns is for the image of CAMRA in the brewers’ eyes. If, as so often happens, all they see of CAMRA is a bunch of drunken louts attacking the free beer in the sampling room, we will suffer as a consequence.

The march at Stone, 3 November, 1973.
The march at Stone, 3 November, 1973, with Christopher Hutt at dead centre.
Maintaining the momentum

Another key theme in Brew Britannia was the struggle CAMRA faced at the end of the 1970s as many who had joined in the heat of the anti-Watney’s moment felt the battle had been won.

Here’s a neat encapsulation of the mood from the branch bulletin for February 1976, from NE member Andrew Cunningham:

All are agreed that CAMRA is currently suffering from an element of complacency and apathy, both within the Campaign and outside. This reflects in lost branch attendance, loss of the campaigning spur, a weaker What’s Brewing and a general feeling of inertia and self-satisfaction, tinged with uneasiness. Initial limited successes have dulled the rapier and disguised the fact that much remains to be done and is being done at present.

By May 1976, a resolution had been reached: CAMRA would spend less time and effort on commercial activity and more on active campaigning:

The decision follows a report from Campaign Administrator Dave Gamston and Editor of Publications Michael Hardman, who argued that too much “mind space” was being taken up by the commercial side of the campaign… The first effect that the report had was that Commercial Manager Eric Spragett, who left the staff at the end of February, was not replaced… CAMRA’s product range is now to be restricted to ties, lapel badges, a new-style tee shirt and the CAMRA mirrors.

One milestone, announced in October 1976, was the introduction of ‘brewery liaison officers’. Some breweries were getting contacted by multiple people; others were being forgotten about altogether.

The first brewery to get a dedicated liaison was Greene King, by way of a pilot scheme. It worked for them and so this system got rolled out nationally.

DRINK REAL ALE, JOIN CAMRA HERE
Management versus members

One thing we’ve picked up on over the years is the tension between CAMRA’s head office and National Executive (NE) and members on the ground. Early branch newsletters expose this quite starkly: as outsiders, we’re struck by how nagging and just downright bloody rude some of these head office memos are.

In general, there’s hardly an issue that doesn’t have a note on how disappointed head office is with the response from branches to one call to action or another.

“The response to the news that What’s Brewing can now be sold to the public by branches has been poor”, says a note from July 1975: “Only eleven out of 117 branches placed orders for bulk supplies of the newspaper and this situation must improve if the venture is to be continued.”

Reading between the lines, What’s Brewing was Michael Hardman’s pet project but members weren’t especially interested in acting as an unpaid distribution network.

In the same issue, there’s rather sarky response to the call for comments on allocations for the Good Beer Guide a month before:

Mention must be made here of the band of mathematicians who have been discovered in the Campaign following the last Branch bulletin. At least a dozen branch officials complained that the number of pubs listed alongside each county did not produce the percentage increases given in brackets. In every case their arithmetical arguments were ruined by the fact that they had not bothered to read the text…

In February 1976, members got a proper ticking off because publication of the GBG was going to be delayed as a result of branches failing to get signed-off proofs back to CAMRA within the allotted ten days. Late returning branches were even named and shamed:

The worst performances were achieved by Pelsall, Sussex-Surrey Borders (22 days), Rochdale, Oldham & Bury (23), Bexley (24), South Downs (28), Stourbridge (29), Aberystwyth (30), South Manchester and Ripon (still not returned).

There was a follow-up to this in March 1976 – still snarky but perhaps also a touch self-deprecating:

Someone else’s fault
The Pelsall & Mid-Staffordshire branch has complained about the bollocking issued in last month’s Branch Bulletin over the late return of proofs for the 1976 Good Beer Guide. Branch chairman Bob Nichols has produced a certificate of posting to show that the branch put the proofs in the mail six days after they were received. The bollocking is now transferred to the Post Office who took 14 days to get the proofs from Pelsall the St Albans.

Perhaps realising that the constant stream of tellings-off and grumbling wasn’t exactly inspiring to front-line campaigners, from September 1976, it was decided to included success stories in each issue of the bulletin:

A branch in the North broadcasts regularly on its local radio. Details of how this was achieved could prove useful. A branch in the South-East is now writing a regular column in its local paper – again details would be appreciated by other branches.

You can read more about that radio show here.

But everything boiled over in December 1976 when almost two full pages of the bulletin were dedicated to a vigorous defence of CAMRA head office:

The administration of the Campaign continues to provoke criticism from branches and members, much of it positive, informed and entirely justified. The feeling that nothing has improved since the outcry at this year’s Brighton AGM means that the mood is absolutely wrong for anyone involved in CAMRA’s central organisation to make facile excuses for faulty administration… It is not easy, however, and perhaps impossible, always to get the situation in proper perspective…

What the piece really brings out is how difficult it must have been to administer a large membership organisation without computers, with only an ‘Addressograph’ to handle much of the outward mailing.

Forty-five years later, it feels as if this them-and-us feeling between branches and HQ is still a live issue.

Detail from a Whitbread Tankard beer mat.

Whitbread: Public Enemy #1

As we set out in Brew Britannia, for most of the first stretch of CAMRA’s existence, the ‘main adversary’ was Watney’s and especially its flagship product, Red.

A key moment we missed was the formal decision to make Whitbread the main target from January 1977 onward, as explained by CAMRA co-founder Graham Lees in a piece for the Branch Bulletin:

The National Executive decision to promote an all-out national campaign against Whitbread stems from a number of reasons, not least of which is the company’s stubborn refusal to accept the proven fact that there is a countrywide demand for cask-conditioned beer… The National Executive will give every help and encouragement to branches and individuals who want to take issue with Whitbread.

This might warrant a blog post or article of its own at some point but, in brief, other objections included:

  • The marketing of Trophy as a national brand despite being brewed to different recipes across the country.
  • Whitbread’s habit of buying stakes in smaller local breweries.
  • Its refusal to acknowledge and talk to CAMRA.
Scratching the surface

The above is based on looking only at bulletins from 1975-77 – there’s plenty more to come.

In the meantime, if you have recollections of any of the above, as a CAMRA member, publican or brewer, comment below.

And if you want to get rid of any old beer, pub or brewing related papers from your loft, drop us a line.

2 thoughts on “Brew Britannia: new evidence in the case – CAMRA Branch Bulletin”

  1. The more things change…

    I always wonder when CAMRA became more about beer festivals and beer ticking, rather than about encouraging breweries to serve good beer in their pubs and directing people to the best.

    Excellent read.

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