Session #133: Hometown Glories

Illustration: HOMETOWN.

This is our contribution to the monthly beer blogging event which is hosted this time by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds who asks us to think about our hometowns and their pubs and beer.

We have two home­towns to think about, of course, both very dif­fer­ent to each oth­er: Ray grew up in a small indus­tri­al town in Som­er­set, Jes­si­ca in east Lon­don. That led us to reflect on what they might have in com­mon and that, we realised, was the long absence of any brew­eries.

The Essex Brewery in 1973.
The Essex Brew­ery in 1973 (cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Hodrien –

Waltham­stow was once home to the Essex Brew­ery, found­ed by the Col­lier broth­ers in 1871 and tak­en over by Tollemache of Ipswich in 1906. The brew­ery oper­at­ed until 1972 after which it was demol­ished but retained a pres­ence in the form of the brew­ery tap pub which trad­ed in one form or anoth­er until rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly when it was con­vert­ed into flats.

A large Victorian pub.
The Brew­ery Tap in 2014.

So for the entire­ty of her child­hood and youth, there were no E17 beers – not one beer brewed in a dis­trict of around 100,000 peo­ple.

The SKF brew­ery in Bridg­wa­ter in 1969. (Via the Brew­ery His­to­ry Soci­ety.)

Bridg­wa­ter was sim­i­lar­ly once home to a large ‘prop­er’ brew­ery, Starkey Knight & Ford, which was tak­en over by Whit­bread in the 1960s and shut down. Ray grew up around pubs with the SKF pranc­ing horse sym­bol on their faces, with his Dad sigh­ing over the lost SKF beers he had enjoyed from the age of 12 (!), and with the site as waste­land, then an unloved swim­ming pool, and final­ly a car park. A town with a pop­u­la­tion of around 30,000 had no brew­ery to call its own, and loy­al­ty to no out­sider brew­ery over any oth­er.

Prancing horse logo.

There might be some con­clu­sions to be drawn from what hap­pened next, though. Things began to change in Waltham­stow when the Sweet William brew­ery at the William IV, just over the bound­ary into Ley­ton, began trad­ing in the year 2000. It closed in 2005 and was reborn as Brodie’s in 2008 – a seri­ous, well-regard­ed brew­ery whose beers actu­al­ly turned up in pubs, and whose bot­tled beers were every­where for a while. (Dis­clo­sure: very ear­ly on in the life of this blog, and their brew­ery, James and Lizzie Brodie sent us a case with one bot­tle of every­thing they made.) As of 2018 there are mul­ti­ple brew­eries in Waltham­stow prop­er includ­ing Wild Card and Pil­lars, as well as sev­er­al on indus­tri­al states in its bor­der­lands. Beer has come back to East 17.

Bridg­wa­ter, mean­while, still has none. There was briefly a Bridg­wa­ter Brew­ery, from 1993 to 1996, but it was actu­al­ly in Goathurst and it’s fair to say its beer wasn’t wide­ly avail­able in town. There are some in the coun­try­side around but (as of Ray’s last sur­vey) not many pubs in town that sell any of their prod­ucts. In fact, we see more beer from Quan­tock at our new local in Bris­tol than we ever have in Bridg­wa­ter.

You can look at this two ways: opti­mists will see small provin­cial towns as the next stop­ping point for the rebrew­er­i­fi­ca­tion (which is a word) process already expe­ri­enced by even the out­er­est (also def­i­nite­ly a word) of out­er Lon­don sub­urbs. Cyn­ics, on the oth­er hand, will sug­gest they’re being bypassed, per­haps mut­ter­ing some­thing about met­ro­pol­i­tan elites as they go.

We can’t help but think that Waltham­stow could sup­port one or two more brew­eries yet, and that Bridg­wa­ter sure­ly has room for at least one, even if like the (cur­rent­ly out of action) Ash­ley Down Brew­ery here in Bris­tol it exists pri­mar­i­ly to sup­ply a sin­gle microp­ub.

Starkey, Knight & Ford

What hap­pened to the once pow­er­ful West Coun­try brew­ers Starkey, Knight & Ford offers a snap­shot of the sto­ry of British beer in the cen­tu­ry before the ‘real ale rev­o­lu­tion’: small local brew­ers acquired their rivals and grew until, when they were nice and fat, even big­ger preda­tors appeared to swal­low them whole.

Starkey, Knight & Ford horse trademark on a former pub in Bridgwater.


In 1840, George Knight, a 38-year-old malt­ster of Bridg­wa­ter, Som­er­set, decid­ed to cut out the mid­dle-men and begin brew­ing him­self. At around the same time, at North Pether­ton, a vil­lage between Bridg­wa­ter and Taunton, Thomas Starkey was semi-retired from farm­ing, malt­ing and brew­ing, and prepar­ing to hand (or at least sell) the busi­ness to his 31-year-old son, also called Thomas.

When he took on the com­pa­ny after 1845, Thomas Jr had expan­sion plans and soon bought up anoth­er brew­ery in Taunton. He left Bridg­wa­ter alone, how­ev­er, and, for forty years, Starkey’s and Knight’s each had their own turf and stuck to it.

Starkey, Knight & Ford trademark: prancing horse.

In 1885, George Knight died, and his sons, George Jr and Hen­ry, took over. Local brew­ery his­to­ri­an David Williams has sug­gest­ed that it was at about this time that the famous gal­lop­ing or pranc­ing horse trade­mark appeared**, begin­ning its life as a stag and replac­ing a rather obvi­ous image of an armoured knight. (A friend of ours once described it as the hap­pi­est horse she’d ever seen.)

Mean­while, Thomas Starkey final­ly turned his atten­tion to Bridg­wa­ter. Though Som­er­set is best-known as an agri­cul­tur­al cen­tre, Bridg­wa­ter is an indus­tri­al town. It had a small but busy port, crammed with tim­ber ships from Rus­sia, Fin­land, Cana­da, Ire­land, and else­where; iron foundries; and brick and tile works. There were plen­ty of dry throats in need of ale.

Brewery workers with beer barrels and hops on a carnival cart.
Bridg­wa­ter brew­ery work­ers c.1895 on a car­ni­val cart called, we think, ‘Som­er­set Beer, Eng­lish hops’.

In Novem­ber 1887, through some wheel­ing and deal­ing, the two com­pa­nies merged, cre­at­ing Starkey, Knight & Co. Ltd, with an estate of thir­ty pubs. With their cap­i­tal com­bined, they were able to build a state-of-the-art new brew­ery at North­gate in Bridg­wa­ter. Wil­fred J. Hur­ley, who worked for the com­pa­ny from 1921 until 1966, and who knew the brew­ery build­ings well, spec­u­lat­ed in his short mem­oir of 1981 that the old Knight build­ings were retained: ‘Cer­tain­ly the part which adjoined the road was much old­er than the main brew­ery.’

The expan­sion didn’t stop there. In 1895, they took over yet anoth­er brew­ery, Ford’s of Tiver­ton, and gained anoth­er forty pubs. It was a pres­ti­gious name and a smart acqui­si­tion as this from the Brew­ing Trade Review, 1 March 1895, makes clear:

The busi­ness was found­ed by Mr. Thomas Ford in 1852, when he only employed one work­man and kept one cart. The brew­ery is now the largest west of Bris­tol. It cov­ers sev­er­al acres and is lit by elec­tric light. There are branch­es and agen­cies at Ply­mouth, Sid­mouth, Exeter, Torquay, South­molton, and Truro.

And so Starkey, Knight & Ford was born. Though the com­pa­ny con­tin­ued to acquire small fam­i­ly brew­eries across the region, this was the last new part­ner­ship, and the last change of name. At least for a while.



For the next six­ty-odd years, S.K. & F., as the com­pa­ny some­times styled itself, did quite well. In 1910, Thomas Starkey, 70-years-old, blind and unwell, retired, hand­ing over the hot seat to Har­ry Banes Walk­er, who Wil­fred Hur­ley recalled as ‘a good boss and sports­man’. He was a keen horse­man and some­times rode to the Bridg­wa­ter brew­ery in the years before the war. He was also known for one pecu­liar habit: car­ry­ing a half-pack­et of his pre­ferred brand of toi­let paper in an inside pock­et of his suit.

S.K. & F. had pubs from Corn­wall to Wales and the qual­i­ty of the beer it pro­duced seems to have been gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged, though, of course, con­tem­po­rary PR exer­cis­es mud­dy the water, and we can’t know for sure. At any rate, in 1912, at a din­ner for employ­ees, Tom Pook, man­ag­er of the North Devon dis­trict, quot­ed ‘old’ Mr Starkey: ‘Do not ever for­get the name of Starkey, Knight and Ford out­side a house [pub] is a guar­an­tee of a good arti­cle to be sold with­in… I have always made that my one aim and one object, whilst I have been in busi­ness – that the pub­lic shall have an arti­cle that they can always appre­ci­ate and always approve of.’ (North Devon Jour­nal, 1 Feb­ru­ary 1912.)

After World War I, from 1920 onward, the brew­ery won a string of indus­try prizes, and began to describe itself in adver­tise­ments as ‘medal-win­ning’ or ‘prize-win­ning’. The one-word slo­gan ‘Unap­proach­able’ had been in use since at least 1919 and, in this peri­od, the brew­ery seemed to live up to it.

It might have helped that Old Vat­ted (‘Old Fat­head’) was being bought in from a Scot­tish brew­ery and that bot­tled S. K. Ale was pepped up with the secret addi­tion of Bass, sent from Bur­ton to the West Coun­try for bot­tling and dis­tri­b­u­tion. (More gos­sip from Wil­fred Hurley’s mem­oir.) The Taunton brew­ery, where only min­er­al water was pro­duced after about 1906, had a spring par­tic­u­lar­ly rich in gyp­sum, and that water was (as we under­stand it) blend­ed with ‘town water’ at Bridg­wa­ter and Tiver­ton to give it a Bur­ton-like qual­i­ty.

In World War II, like many oth­er brew­eries, S.K. & F. was required to ‘make the beer go fur­ther’ which was achieved by restrict­ing its strength (water­ing it down), and reduc­ing the range, drop­ping BB (bit­ter), and brew­ing only XX (mild) and BA (best bit­ter). The war also prompt­ed an ear­ly exam­ple of the kind of ‘local is best’ rhetoric we’re now used to: where­as in the late nine­teen-thir­ties, Starkey’s had relied on Cal­i­forn­ian malt, as well as hops from Ore­gon and Czecho­slo­va­kia, the war had forced them to get used to using only Eng­lish bar­ley and hops, and they made a firm com­mit­ment to con­tin­ue to do so.

Running out of Steam

A dead rat was found float­ing in a beer vat at Messrs. Starkey, Knight and Ford’s Tiver­ton brew­ery on Sun­day morn­ing… Yes­ter­day, watched by Cus­toms and Excise offi­cials, 1,600 gal­lons of beer went down the drain.

West­ern Morn­ing News, 1 June 1948.

blackhorseThe com­pa­ny seemed to sur­vived the war large­ly unscathed and con­tin­ued to announce impres­sive prof­its. It made anoth­er big acqui­si­tion in 1957, tak­ing over the Burn­ham [on Sea] Brew­ery run by the Holt fam­i­ly, and bump­ing its estate of pubs up to around 400. It also launched ‘trendy’ new beers in 1958 – a draught IPA and bot­tled ‘Black Horse’.

Then, in Sep­tem­ber 1959, some­thing unusu­al hap­pened: the com­pa­ny announced a decline in prof­its and had to make apolo­gies to its share­hold­ers, blam­ing poor weath­er in the sum­mer of that year for declin­ing sales, and promis­ing to make cuts to fund invest­ments in new tech­nol­o­gy, such as a new bot­tling line at Tiver­ton. Read­ing between the lines, S.K. & F. was strug­gling to keep up, and was vul­ner­a­ble. Its empire stretched from across the West Coun­try, and ‘Starkey’s’ was a house­hold name in the region, but it sim­ply didn’t have what it took to ‘go nation­al’. The gap between big and small play­ers was widen­ing with alarm­ing speed.

So, in Jan­u­ary 1960, the direc­tors of Starkey’s signed a pact with nation­al brew­ing giant Whit­bread.

(1) Whit­breads with a view to a clos­er asso­ci­a­tion between Whit­breads and Starkeys and with the object of increas­ing the trad­ing prof­its of both com­pa­nies have agreed to give Starkeys such tech­ni­cal com­mer­cial finan­cial and oth­er advice and assis­tance as they are able and which Starkeys may from time to time require.

(2) Whit­breads are brew­ers of (inter alia) a stout known as and mar­ket­ed under the name of Mack­e­son Stout… and Starkey’s have agreed in con­sid­er­a­tion of the ser­vices to be pro­vid­ed by Whit­breads as afore­said and of the pro­vi­sions here­in con­tained for the brew­ing by Starkeys of ale for Whit­breads to offer Mack­e­son for sale in Starkey’s licensed premis­es…

The deal was that Starkey’s would brew Whitbread’s ‘Best Ale’ to sup­ply Whit­bread pubs in the West Coun­try, and sell Mackeson’s in their own pubs, while Whit­bread gave them a much-need­ed cash injec­tion and helped them to mod­ernise. We’re not lawyers but, hon­est­ly, we’d have been wary of sign­ing a con­tract that uses vague terms like ‘rea­son­ably’ as much as this one does. It’s blind­ing­ly obvi­ous, with hind­sight, that Starkey’s didn’t have much to bar­gain with in this arrange­ment, where­as Whit­bread could choose to demand more and give less almost as they saw fit.

By Octo­ber 1962, the com­pa­nies had agreed to merge, though Starkey’s board, for so long the preda­tors in the West Coun­try brew­ing scene, must have been aware that a small play­er merges with a big one in the sense that an insect merges with the sole of someone’s shoe. The let­ter from the Chair­man to share­hold­ers has a rather mourn­ful tone and makes clear that Starkey’s hand has been forced: Whit­bread had been qui­et­ly acquir­ing shares in S.K. & F. since 1959; labour and build­ing costs were unman­age­able with­out Whitbread’s invest­ment; and, any­way, a small com­pa­ny could no longer hope to com­pete in the face of the trend towards ‘larg­er units in order to obtain the advan­tages of the ratio­nal­i­sa­tion of  dis­tri­b­u­tion and sales’.

Nonethe­less, care­ful­ly craft­ed press releas­es and inter­nal staff mem­os empha­sised the com­mer­cial oppor­tu­ni­ties which would be avail­able to both par­ties, and, cru­cial­ly, that S.K. & F. would retain its iden­ti­ty.

When this offer is accept­ed Starkey, Knight & Ford will retain their iden­ti­ty as a com­pa­ny, and will con­tin­ue to brew and bot­tle cer­tain Whit­bread beers in addi­tion to their own… Whitbread’s will nat­u­ral­ly look after the inter­ests of the staff and employ­ees of both com­pa­nies.

And yet, in the fol­low­ing month, the North­gate Brew­ery in Bridg­wa­ter was closed as oper­a­tions were con­cen­trat­ed in Tiver­ton. The build­ing stood emp­ty until 1964 when it was final­ly demol­ished. Bridg­wa­ter no longer had a brew­ery.

placard1969And Whit­bread kept push­ing. Inevitably, per­haps, S.K. & F. brand­ed beers began to pop out of exis­tence – who would drink Starkey’s ‘Starkeg’, adver­tised in a small advert in the back pages of local news­pa­pers, when they could have Whitbread’s nation­al­ly adver­tised alter­na­tive? The logos began to appear side-by-side, Starkey’s name over­shad­owed by Whitbread’s, until, at last, in 1970, the pranc­ing horse was tak­en to the knack­ers’ yard for good. Whit­bread at first pro­posed renam­ing S.K. & F. sim­ply ‘Whit­bread’, but this was reject­ed by the Reg­is­trar of Com­pa­nies. Instead, they chose Whit­bread Devon. From 1 Octo­ber 1970, Starkey, Knight & Ford ceased to exist.

More than forty years lat­er, there are few reminders of even mighty Whit­bread, let alone S.K & F. If you find your­self trav­el­ing through Som­er­set and Devon, how­ev­er, keep your eyes peeled for the sign of the black horse, which is still to be seen, wrought in iron or carved in stone, pranc­ing across the faces of build­ings here and there.


** 21/03/2014 Writ­ing in the Win­ter 2014 edi­tion of the newslet­ter of the Brew­ery His­to­ry Soci­ety, David Dines point­ed out that a show­card for Ford’s of Tiver­ton, auc­tioned in April 2012, showed the black horse logo, so it clear­ly pre-dat­ed the for­ma­tion of SK&F.


  • Records of Starkey, Knight & Ford and Whit­bread; clip­pings; tran­scripts; labels; and let­ters, held at the Som­er­set Her­itage Cen­tre.
  • A his­to­ry of S.K. & F com­piled by Nick Red­man, Whit­bread Archivist, in 1991.
  • A his­to­ry of S.K. & F which appeared in the Whit­bread staff mag­a­zine in Jan­u­ary 1964.
  • Brew­ing Indus­try: A Guide to His­tor­i­cal Records, edit­ed by L. M. Rich­mond and Ali­son Tur­ton, 1990.
  • Var­i­ous local news­pa­pers.
  • Birth records at


The Scariest Pub in Town

The Bristol and Exeter pub, Bridgwater.

By Bai­ley

When I was grow­ing up in Bridg­wa­ter, Som­er­set, there were lots of pubs, and my par­ents took care to edu­cate me on the mer­its and quirks of each one. The Bris­tol and Exeter, aka the B&E, was one of the few pubs that deserved a flat-out warn­ing: I was nev­er to go there. It was, they said, the haunt of scrumpy casu­al­ties, so addled by their con­stant intake of super-strength, mind­bend­ing ‘natch’ that they’d prob­a­bly eat my face as soon as look at me.

The B&E cer­tain­ly nev­er looked very wel­com­ing as nico­tine-stained cur­tains made it impos­si­ble to see inside. Once, walk­ing home from my wai­t­er­ing job after mid­night, a ner­vous sev­en­teen year-old, I was pass­ing the B&E when the door flew open with a bang. I had to leap clear as two rather poor­ly-look­ing women rolled out, mid-fight, and tum­bled into the gut­ter, where one pro­ceed­ed to throt­tle the oth­er, pulling at her hair and scream­ing and swear­ing in the fruiti­est fash­ion. This was not atyp­i­cal.

Now I hear from the par­ents that, forty-years after it began, the ‘real ale rev­o­lu­tion’ has hit the B&E. It is under new man­age­ment and so cask ales from Moles are on offer; the impen­e­tra­ble screen­ing cur­tains have gone; and there is even the promise of free Wi-Fi.

Next time I go home, will I be able to over­come years of fear and con­di­tion­ing and actu­al­ly cross the thresh­old? And is Bridg­wa­ter poor­er for the loss of an authen­tic rough pub of the old school?

Pic­ture to fol­low when my Mum has popped round and tak­en one for me. Thanks for the pic, Mum! (The pub is now pink!?)

The Golden Lion, 1946

This pho­to was in the local paper in Bridg­wa­ter recent­ly. It shows a queue for hot cross buns out­side a bak­ery in 1946. Of course we were more inter­est­ed to see the liv­ery on the Starkey, Knight and Ford pub in the back­ground.

The pub’s not there any­more, but my par­ents remem­ber going there the day after they were mar­ried to keep warm dur­ing a pow­er cut.


West country beer tasting

We were down in Som­er­set for Bailey’s Dad’s birth­day a cou­ple of week­ends ago and, as always, sched­uled a vis­it to Open Bot­tles, the West Country’s pre­mier eccen­tric beer shop.

The own­er has had trou­ble get­ting some of the nation­al­ly known brew­ers to ship to Som­er­set but the result has been good for the shop. He’s now stock­ing many more local beers, includ­ing some real obscu­ri­ties with home­made labels and “quirky” brand­ing. Here are three we enjoyed:

Ched­dar Ales Gorge Best

Gorge Best! Ged­dit? Ged­dit? Like “George Best”, the famous alco­holic, only it’s made in Ched­dar with its famous gorge.

The brand­ing on this one, dodgy puns aside, is pret­ty impres­sive, latch­ing onto an essen­tial truth: Gill Sans or vari­ants there­of + screen print­ing = British­ness.

The beer itself is dark gold in colour, bot­tle-con­di­tioned, and bit­ter as Hell. In a good way. Very cask-ale-like from the bot­tle and, all in all, an excel­lent beer.

Whistling Bridge, by Ring­more Craft Brew­ery (Devon)

It boast spices, cran­ber­ries and cura­cao orange on the charm­ing­ly ama­teur­ish label (sad­ly, no pho­to). We weren’t expect­ing this to work, but it did. It’s a pale colour, with a good head, and tast­ed fruity and refresh­ing. It also went sur­pris­ing­ly well with the roast din­ner we were scoff­ing at the time. We’ll be look­ing out for more of their stuff.

Quan­tock Stout, by the Quan­tock Brew­ery

This was a very sat­is­fy­ing milky, creamy stout. Didn’t take any more notes on this one, but we liked it.

Open Bot­tles is at 131 Taunton Rd, Bridg­wa­ter TA6 6BD. It looks like any oth­er offy from the out­side, with megadeals on rub­bish lager adver­tised in on bright paper, but it real­ly is worth a detour if you’re in the area and want to sam­ple stuff from local micro­brews. You’ll have bet­ter luck there than in any of the pubs in town, sad­ly.