Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all?
Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear.
What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.
Over the years, we’ve acquired various bits of Usheriana, such as Houses and Ale, a 1965 guide to their pub empire, which includes a large fold-out map. Here’s a small portion centred on their home base in Wiltshire.
That’s a lot of red dots.
Where did they come from, where did they go?
The basics are easy to learn thanks to the efforts of the Brewery History Society and its detail-obsessed members, via the website and publications.
Usher’s Wiltshire Brewery was founded in 1824 by Thomas Usher. From census and birth records – all online these days, for a fee – we can trace his life story with relative ease. He was born in Lydiard Tregoze, a village near Swindon, in 1791 and married Hannah Messiter in Trowbridge in 1817.
What we don’t know is the name of the brewery they acquired. It wasn’t Watton & Timbrel (or Watten & Timbrell – spellings vary) but might have been Sheppard’s. We do know that it was on Back Street, among the woollen mills, grease works, dye works and bacon factories around the river, and where the railway was soon to emerge.
An official history published in the mid-1970s on the 150th anniversary of the brewery’s founding paints a brief but charming portrait of the founder, to be taken with a pinch of salt in the absence of footnotes:
Thomas Usher, wearing the breeches and stockings of those days, together with the top hat, started his work at around 3 a.m. each morning when he began the day’s brew. He would then think nothing of walking to Bath for business after leaving the brewery at around mid-day. When the Weyhill Fayre came in October he would mount his cob and ride 35-40 miles to Weyhill to buy his Farnham hops for the year.
Thomas and Hannah retired in 1869 leaving the running of the brewery to his biblically-named sons Ephraim, born 1835 and Jacob, born 1838. (A third brother, Simeon, was also a brewer, but died of ‘apoplexy’ at the age of 26, in 1858, while out on a day trip.)
Usher’s incorporated in 1889, becoming Usher’s Wiltshire Brewery Limited, with Jacob Usher as its first chairman.
The story after this is, well, exactly the same as almost every other brewery that made it from the 19th century into 20th.
Usher’s kept growing, taking over other breweries in Trowbridge (J.H. & H. Blake, acquired in 1922) and across Wiltshire, such as Wadley’s of Highworth in 1918, and Harding’s of Bradford-upon-Avon in 1924. Then, after World War II, they began to expand further afield, into Somerset, absorbing Arnold & Hancock of Wiveliscombe and Taunton.
The last Usher involved in the company was Thomas Charles ‘T.C.’ Usher, chairman from 1911 until his death in 1941.
Being unable to access company records – board minutes and so on – we’ve had to scrabble around for evidence of the health of the company in this period. There are some clues to be found in newspapers, though, especially in The Times.
In August 1953, for example, we know Usher’s put up the price of its IPA and Oatmeal stout citing “continually rising costs”. The Brewer’s Society issued a statement saying this wasn’t the beginning of a general trend in the industry, effectively confirming that Usher’s in particular had cashflow trouble. (REF: Times, 13/08/53, p.3.)
Company reports for the period also show a drop in profits, papered over in the 1955 figures by the inclusion of Arnold & Hancock’s profits in the net figure, as is standard practice after a takeover. (REF: Times, 26/11/55, p.11.)
Usher’s reported healthier figures in the years that followed, though hardly astonishing, and during 1957 seems to have got bogged down in a bidding war for Somerset brewery Frome & Lamb. (REF: Times, various.)
Then in 1959, the inevitable happened: a big London brewery came knocking on the door. This time, it wasn’t Whitbread but Watney Mann:
Ushers Wiltshire Brewery have entered into a reciprocal trading agreement with Watney Mann for a period of 10 years. Mr. J.G. Durrant and Mr. Sanders Watney, both directors of Watney Mann, have been appointed to the board of Ushers Wiltshire Brewery. (REF: Times, 02/07/59, p.10.)
If you’ve read a few of these 20th century brewery stories, you’ll know what’s coming next – or, indeed, any 21st century accounts of craft brewers going into ‘partnership’ with multinationals. The big London brewery had a foot in the door and full takeover can’t be far away.
Watney’s was on the march in 1960, scooping up Phipps & Co of Northampton in March, before making a bid for Usher’s in May – more or less exactly 60 years ago, by the way:
Ushers is a medium-sized brewery, which has had a trading agreement with Watney since last July, and it owns some 900 public houses in an area running from the Thames Valley to Devonshire. The main attraction for Watney is that it will gain the brewing capacity – some at present unutilized of the Trowbridge brewery for its own West Country trade. (REF: Times, 07/05/1960.)
This report also confirms our suspicion that Usher’s was doing well, but not quite well enough:
One striking item that emerges is that Watney Mann’s profits (excluding Phipps) in the six months to the end of last March are up by more than 50 per cent… and though Usher’s profits have increased, the proportion is less than in the case of Watney.
Watney wasn’t done there – it would go on to nab Wilson’s of Manchester in August the same year, and more in the years that followed.
All of these regional outposts were immediately set up to condition and package Watney’s flagship national keg bitter, Watney’s Red Barrel. Usher’s gained a large new distribution depot to supply not only Usher’s (Watney) pubs in the South West but also the freehouses, hotels and other venues stocking a product with a national TV ad campaign behind it.
Our collection of 1960s editions of Watney Mann’s in-house magazine The Red Barrel provides a series of vignettes of life at Usher’s in the first phase of Watneyfication. From children’s Christmas parties to slick advertising to brand new computers, it all looks like good news – a provincial brewery from the 19th century dragged into the 20th.
But perhaps there was something symbolic in the demolition of the old brewery chimney in January 1965. Watney’s had decommissioned it immediately after the takeover but left in place. When they did decide to take it down, it was done quietly, the bricks removed one-by-one and lowered down through the stack, rather than with a grand demolition event. For safety reasons, they said, but softly-softly was very much the Watney way. Did people even notice the gradual change on the skyline?
The same approach was taken with Usher’s local identity. In 1964, it was renamed Usher’s Brewery Ltd, losing it’s ‘Wiltshire’; then, in 1970, it became Watney Mann (West). Look at Frank Baillie’s 1973 Beer Drinker’s Companion and you won’t find any Usher’s branded beers listed; look at the CAMRA Good Beer Guide for 1974 and you’ll find only a passing note mentioning ‘little real ale produced’ under the Usher’s name.
This is the crunch moment that contributed to the founding of CAMRA and the birth of the real ale movement – the new homogeneity out in the open, no longer hidden behind facades and local brand names.
And that, in turn, is why Usher’s became Usher’s again a decade later, in 1980: modernism, uniformity and national brands were out; local and distinctive was, at least on paper, back in.
Usher’s continued to exist throughout the 1980s as the face of Watney’s in the West, neither beloved nor remarkable. Nick Roberts recalls the beer being ‘pretty decent’, referring to notes he scribbled in his edition of the 1987 Good Beer Guide:
[The] ’87 GBG… describes [Founder’s Ale] as ‘Full bodied and hoppy’. I’ve written ‘Yes – nice fruity strong bitter, similarities to Royal Oak. Moreish.’ I used to drink it in Salisbury, which was not a beer desert. I must’ve liked it… The Best Bitter gets just ‘OK’, but it wasn’t terrible – too sweet for my taste as a session beer (never minded sweetness in a slightly stronger beer), but not a bad drink – but I would cross the road for the Founders, not for the Best.
Eventually, though, in the wake of the monopoly-busting Beer Orders of 1989, the takeover process went into reverse and the Big Six began to shake off their regional branches, closing them down or selling them off.
This triggered a trend for management buyouts, leading to a slew of breweries that weren’t microbreweries but weren’t nationals either.
In fact, Roger North, chairman and MD of the Usher’s that emerged from a management buyout in 1992, was adamant on that latter point in an interview for CAMRA’s What’s Brewing in January that year:
We want to offer a regional ale portfolio for the tastes of people in this area. You can never have a successful national brand. The breweries that have tried have all more or less failed.
North was a former Watney’s (Grand Metropolitan) executive as were most of the members of his team. His talk of regional identity sounded good but, of course, meant that Usher’s pubs went without guest beers at a time when drinkers were demanding them. If you didn’t want to drink Usher’s new P.A. or Founders, tough luck.
Dave Morton, currently head brewer at Ennerdale Brewery in Cumbria, worked at Usher’s in the 1990s and told us a bit about his experience:
I was there 1998 to 2000 as a lab tech… Brian Yorston was the deputy head brewer and he was just the nicest bloke who had time for everyone… Gary Todd was the head brewer [but] wasn’t a natural people person like Brian… The brewery proper was in the middle of the central island of businesses with a one-way system round it. The bottling line, cask line, labs and tanks that supplied them were over the road with a bridge of pipes connecting them to the brewery. There was a bar on the brewery side of the road that was opened for special occasions such as staff birthdays, every few weeks.
In 2000, after a second management buyout failed, Usher’s finally folded for good.
In a strange, final twist – the bit of the Usher’s story most beer geeks know – the brewing kit itself was rescued and given one last chance in, of all places, North Korea. Simon Osborne’s 2014 account of how the deal went down is a must-read. Here’s his neat summary of where it started:
When Kim Jong-Il decided he wanted a brewery, the call went out to North Korea’s embassy in Switzerland. The diplomats there called Uwe Oehms, a German broker specialising in second-hand breweries. He searched for sites and, in a deal he says was worth 25 million Deutschmarks (about £10m in today’s money – more in 2000), he bought Ushers from Thomas Hardy Brewing, which had acquired it after it folded. The deal made headlines, but Oehms remembers nothing unusual about it. “What is unusual for you is not for me,” he says from his home in Bavaria, after several attempts to reach him (he is not fond of talking about North Korea).
Koryo, which organises tours in North Korea, offers this amusing footnote on its page about the Taedonggang Brewery:
According to North Korean folklore, the women of Trowbridge where Usher’s Brewery was located forced the brewery to close down in protest as the men were apparently always drunk from drinking beer all day.
In Trowbridge, when the brewery went, that was it – a big full stop on the Usher’s story. As Dave Morton recalls:
Usher’s was the town’s second biggest employer after Bowyers [pork sausages] so it was a big blow to the town when the brewery closed. The site was bulldozed and fenced, leaving a horrid scar that sat there for years.
Ideally, at this point we’d recount our wandering around Trowbridge, and perhaps a visit to the museum, but who needs to go anywhere these days anyway when you’ve got Google Street View?
All that’s left of the brewery today is a Victorian facade on Back Street, concealing a modern block of flats. (See page 52.)
There’s a pretty extensive collection of brewery documents at the Wiltshire & Swindon Archives. Maybe one day, when the Event has concluded, we’ll get to go and spend a few days rummaging and find some real stories.