The following is a straight transcript of a phone conversation with Edd, a native Lancastrian.
First, can you say a bit about yourself? What’s your background?
I’m 40-years-old. I’ve always been interested in beer – how it’s kept, how it’s brewed – and I was fortunate a few years ago to find a bit of unpaid work, if you know what I mean, with a local brewery, and out of that I developed a bit of knowledge.
I’ve also always had an interest in history – brewing history and local history in general.
I heard on the grapevine that the company that owned the rights to Magee & Marshall were going into liquidation. From 1853 to 1958 it was in family ownership, then from 1958 to 1970 it was owned and operated by Greenall’s group. The brewery shut down in 1970 but the brand and company was owned by Greenalls PLC up until 1999 when it became De Vere Group, and later Ereved Group Holdings. I did a bit of digging and found that the Magee & Marshall company was still active. I thought, right, if I can get it for the right price, I will, and took ownership in March this year.
‘I was very interested to read about Magee Marshalls Brewery on your blog as both my husband and I worked there in the 1960s.’
This is the kind of thing that gets us a little excited. After some back and forth by email, here’s Anne’s story, with some small edits for style and flow.
B&B: First, what’s your background? Are you a native Boltonian?
I was born in Bolton in September 1943 and was educated at St Paul’s, the local primary, Bolton School (thanks to the 11 Plus), Salford Technical College, where I took my A levels, and Salford University, where I took an integrated course in Microbiology, Parasitology, Entomology and Biochemistry.
B&B: How did you get into microbiology and the brewing industry?
I worked in the Co-Op Technical Research Labs in Manchester while I was doing my course at Salford. Then, in 1966, I answered an advertisement for a microbiologist at Magee’s. I was interviewed by Malcolm Donald and given the job. I always felt destined to work in a brewery. Brewing is in the blood of some of the Settle family.
Anne has written extensively about her family history and at this point directed us to several articles and papers she sent us by post. Here’s a summary: William (W.T.) Settle was born in 1868. His parents, Rachel Settle and Robert Booth, were not married at the time. It was Robert Booth and his wife who established The Rose & Crown in Bolton as a homebrew house; when his wife died, Rachel married him, and took over running of the brewery. When he was 13-years-old, William effectively became head brewer, and took over the firm completely in 1891 when his mother died. Under William’s leadership, the brewery expanded, gaining a small estate of seven pubs – The Rose & Crown, Rope & Anchor, Red Lion, Skenin’ Door, British Oak, Alfred the Great, and The Britannia. After a dispute with a half-brother, the beers ceased to be Booth’s Ales and became Settle’s. Anne’s father, also called William, was born in 1910 and took over day-to-day running of the brewery from 1931, having graduated from Manchester Brewing School. Another branch of the family were bakers and W.T. Settle invested in that business, ensuring that its Fullomeat pies were also sold in Rose & Crown Brewery pubs. In 1951, W.T. Settle died and for a brief moment, the younger William became co-owner with his sister Ivy. Unfortunately, Ivy wanted to sell up, and so the Rose & Crown Brewery and its pubs were bought by Dutton’s for £30,000 and the brewery closed. William never brewed again.
Yet another brewery that closed in the mid-20th century is making a comeback.
We heard this news from an unusual source: a librarian in Bolton. He told us, matter-of-factly, that some of the company records for Magee Marshall, which operated in Bolton from 1853 to 1970, are currently unavailable because they had been acquired along with the trademark by someone who is starting a brewery.
At first, Truman’s re-launched with a straightforward, darkish bitter called ‘Runner’, brewed in Essex and using an inauthentic yeast. This led to accusations that it was merely a logo being slapped on off-the-shelf product… This is the kind of question all revived breweries must face: is this really Truman’s? Or is it a mere opportunistic tribute act?
Magee Marshall is a particularly interesting case because, if the papers we were able to read in Bolton are anything to go by, its beer wasn’t universally admired. It was nicknamed ‘crickets’ piss’ according to one note in the Mass Observation papers that lay behind the famous book; in another document, a pub landlord is recorded as saying, ‘A man who can drink Magee’s mild must be able to feed on rats.’ So we’ll give this new enterprise some leeway in regards to authenticity.
Bringing back these old names, trampled under foot by the Big Six half a century ago, is, we think, something of a noble cause, regardless of motivation. We’d certainly have enjoyed the time-travelling thrill of ordering pints of Magee’s at the Hen & Chickens last week if it had been available. (And if Henry Hall had been on the wireless, even better.)
Is this post a good idea? Our review is late by either four years (the edition we have was published by Faber in 2009) or seventy (it was first published in 1943). The thing is, it’s made us so giddy with excitement and amusement that we’ve got to tell someone, and you, loyal reader, are in the frame.
‘Mass Observation’ was a social research group founded in 1936 founded by an anthropologist called Tom Harrisson, along with filmmaker Humphrey Jennings and poet Charles Madge. It ran, in its first incarnation, until the nineteen-sixties, and the ‘Worktown’ study was its first major piece of work. It saw Harrisson and a team of observers (some locals, others from academia) descend on the Lancashire town and, for three years from 1937, watch and record everything, however apparently inconsequential.
If you were to attempt to recreate the experience of visiting a pub in Bolton in 1937, this book would give you everything you could possibly need. Pub architecture, the drinks on offer, the clothing and manners of the customers, the behaviour of the bar staff, and the nature of conversations in the saloon, lounge and taproom are all recounted. Graphs and tables tell you how much people of each ‘type’ drank in a session, on each day of the week, in what measures, and at what pace. (63.8 per cent of drinks were consumed in between 6 and 10 minutes on a Sunday.)
There is also information on how much they smoked, and what they did with the fag ends; as well as how often they spat, where, and to what reaction from their friends — ‘He is called a “filthy bugger”’.
The various pubs are analysed and mapped — what’s the difference between the saloon, lounge and taproom? How many pubs have music rooms? What’s a ‘vault’? There are even statistics given for the distribution of pot plants.
Though at first it seems absurd — where will the obsession with minutiae end? — it eventually leads to an almost hypnotic sense of ‘virtual reality’.
Mass Observation had some of the trappings of a scientific study and had pretensions of objectivity. The fact is, though, that the personalities and prejudices of the editors, writers and observers comes through quite clearly. This often results in funny lines, either intentional or otherwise. This ‘observation’ (anecdote) is not only amusing in itself, but also because the writer is so coy about it:
Navvy type of person aged about 35, says ‘If I get three pints down me I can…’ (What he said is the sort of thing considered ‘unprintable’. It amounted to the fact that when he went home he was able to have sexual intercourse with his wife with the maximum of efficiency, and when he woke up in the morning he was able to repeat the process with the utmost satisfaction.)
Those under observation also often express themselves wittily or at least pithily: ‘You can do almost anything you bloody well like in the vault, short of shitting on the place.’ Entire pages are given over to illustrations of stream-of-consciousness, rambling banter, full of free associations and Pythonesque silliness which we recognise from pubs with ‘regulars’ who know each other well.
At one point, in an attempt to measure the social makeup of clientele in certain pubs, the authors use headwear as a proxy, and thus invent ‘the bowler hat index’. That really tickled us. What’s the modern equivalent?
The pint, as we all know, is the one true measure — the only proper way to drink beer — and it has ever been thus. Except that’s not true, and The Pub and the People in fact devotes quite a bit of time to the strange phenomenon of those few oddballs who drinks pints, especially Irish navvies in their dirty, spit-and-sawdust, near-segregated pubs. Most Boltonians in 1937, especially the manliest of men, in fact drank ‘gills‘.
Binge drinking and town centre ‘no go’ areas are a new thing, too, right? Part of the collapse of our society? We already know about 1958and 1927, but the lengthy description in The Pub and the People of a weekend in Bolton reads like an episode of Cops With Cameras in a period setting. (Bobbies with Cinematographs?)
Passing down the street observer saw a man of 30 running across the road, through the entrance of this pub, up the steps and shouting. The next second the sound of breaking glass. The man then comes tumbling down the steps with another man on top of him. They begin to fight in the middle of the street… [Later] a sergeant with a stick and P.C. came up… ‘What’s the matter? What’s it all about? Now then, come on there, get out of it, get out of it!‘.
The pretentious bit
(OK — the more pretentious bit.) There are times when the observers’ prose reflects the poetry of its time. Some passages could pass for a lost bit of T.S. Eliot, such as this list of ‘things people do in pubs’:
There are lots of moments where an otherwise clinical description is enlivened by a startling piece of imagery or turn of phrase, which perhaps devalue the text as ‘observation’, but make it much more pleasant to read.
We’re not sure why this book isn’t talked about more. Anyone with an interest in the history of beer and pubs in Britain ought to read it, but don’t let that ‘ought’ make you think it’s an ordeal: it’s engrossing, compelling and amusing, despite the academic framing.
The Mass Observation book The Pub and the People continues to offer eye-opening nuggets which suggest that beer and pubs aren’t so different now to how they were nearly eighty years ago.
1. Some landlords prided themselves on buying from small, local producers
The landlord here says he gets his beer from a small brewery in Derby Street. He doesn’t care for large breweries, he says: “It’s all done with chemicals”… beer from big breweries goes off in no time…
And why was this particular landlord so fussy? Because he’d identified a new market.
2. There were a small number of beer geeks
Most pub-goers simply drink the cheapest available beer, while a minority exist for whom quality is most important.
This statement is backed up an account from the same landlord quoted above of the word-of-mouth buzz which surrounded a particularly well-matured barrel of bitter which sat in his cellar for six months before being tapped when a stranger visited the pub.
The stranger said that it was wonderful — ‘like wine’. This man took to calling in regularly for it, until the barrel was finished. It went soon because he told his friends, and they came in for it too.
Did he use Twitter or the Ratebeer forums? Or maybe he wrote about it on his blog?
Another drinker made this statement to the survey team:
There is, I think, many different brands of beer which so far I have not had the Pleasure of Tasting. Those I have, such as: Magee’s, Walker’s, Hamer’s, Cunningham’s, and one or two others, all have a nice Flavour… The Price question I will not Dispute, because I do not Drink Excessively, so I don’t favour any particular Beer.
Idiosyncratic prose style aside, isn’t that a familiar sounding beer geek statement?
Humans, it seems, have a natural tendency to assume that the best of times was just before they arrived on the scene — that things aren’t what they used to be. That’s certainly often true of beer, both specifically (Pilsner Urquell, Hoegaarden, Rooster’s Yankee) and more generally.
We are now wondering how far back the general belief that ‘beer isn’t what is used to be’ can be traced. Here’s the start of the trail:
1978: ‘The tragedy is that a generation of drinkers are being reared on mass-produced fizzy pap… Many have never tasted good, traditional beer…’ Roger Protz in Pulling a Fast One.
1973: ‘It’s all piss and wind, like a barber’s cat.’ Man in a Midlands pub quoted by Christopher Hutt in The Death of the English Pub.
1936: ‘…same wi’t bloody beer, it’s nowt but piss and chemicals…’ Man in a Bolton pub quoted by Mass Observation in The Pub and the People (1943).
Are there earlier examples of this kind of rhetoric? We bet there are. In fact, we reckon that, within about eight weeks of beer being invented, some miserable sod was moaning about how the second batch wasn’t as good as the first.
Another thought, though: apart from those who mourn the near disappearance of mild, and the watering of John Smith’s, are there many around today who think beer quality in Britain is, in general, declining?