So They Brewed Their Own Beer — The Northern Clubs Federation

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.

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Further Reading #1: The Newcastle Beerpendium

Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. We barely got to scratch the surface in the book so this series of blog posts is intended to highlight some great resources you can go and look up yourself.

Our first stop is the City Library in Newcastle upon Tyne which we visited for a couple of pleasant sessions in June 2016. The top floor reference collection has a nice collection of books on the region’s pubs, most packed with photos and anecdotes, like this from Brian Bennison’s Heavy Nights, published in 1997:

In Gosforth High St the County Hotel was owned by James Deuchar before [Scottish & Newcastle]. One significant change took place in 1975 when the sanctity of the Gents’ Buffet was breached after what was thought to have been 140 years of ‘men only’. The day the Sex Discrimination Act came into force three female journalists entered the Gents’ Buffet to push the boat out with an order of one glass of cider and two fruit juices. The landlord told them, “You realise you’ve just made history in here. It’s a sad day.”

The real star of the show, though, is a huge scrapbook of newspaper clippings and leaflets. Archivists rightly protest when people claim to have ‘unearthed’ something which they, the librarians, found, bound and catalogued years ago, and this collection is a great example of their work. It contains early Tyneside CAMRA leaflets, for example — the kind of thing that most people threw away or lost when their guidance ceased to be useful but that someone thought to keep and preserve.

Good Pub Guide c.1975

From the above, undated but c.1975 we’d guess, it becomes clear how dominant Bass was in the region and that the Mitre at Benwell (second on the list) and the Duke of Wellington in Newcastle city centre were the most notable ‘beer exhibition’ pubs.

The news cuts tell interesting stories, too, such as the offence taken in the region in 1971 when analyses of beer strength undertaken by Durham County Weights and Measures Inspectors revealed that the North East’s beer was rather weaker than popularly imagined.

HEADLINE: "We're Weak Beer Snobs!"

This article also contains a table of the original gravity, ABV and price-per-pint of every beer sold in the region. (Which we think we’ve already shared with Ron Pattinson…)

There’s a story from 1976 about a two-day CAMRA beer festival in Durham with no less than fifteen different ales, but not Tetley, which refused to supply the event because they feared the beer ‘would not be served properly’. That’s followed by a review of the event by John North for the Northern Echo:

There was a feller professing to be the Earl of Derby’s nephew, another who’d struggled there on crutches, and a third who carried round an empty Castrol GTX can, presumably in case he needed to take a few samples home… The senior man at St Chad’s College arrived in knee-length shorts and near knee-length hair; the wife of a bookshop owner in Saddler Street came in a Pickwickian dress; a lot of men wore light blue CAMRA tee-shirts over tight brown bellies and a young lady had the peculiar message ‘Lubby, lubby, lubby’ emblazoned across her chest… In one corner a bearded man sat engrossed in his Times crossword, automatically reaching out every few seconds to grab his Hook Norton’s.

(An early manifestation of the bellies and beards stereotype?)

One final item worth highlighting is the arrival in 1977 of Tsing-Tao at the Emperor Restaurant, run by Arthur King who came to Newcastle from Hong Kong as a child in the 1940s. The Journal had great fun with the crazy idea of Geordies drinking beer from China and got a few locals to taste it, like 71-year-old pensioner Albert Smith:

It’s very good: a soft, smooth tasting drink… But at 40p a bottle it’s too expensive for people like me to drink. And it’s a long way to take the bottle back.

Beyond the stuff specifically relating to beer and pubs there are also, for example, decades’ worth of issues of local society magazine Newcastle Life packed with ads for local pubs, clubs and breweries. (Main picture, top.)

If you live in the North East and fancy learning about your region’s beer history, or if you’re in Newcastle as a beer tourist and need something to do between your smashed avocado toast and the pub opening, do pop in and take a look at this fascinating collection.

Impressions of Pubs in Newcastle

Based on our week holidaying there we reckon Newcastle is a great city, a great place to drink, and we’ll definitely be going back.

For one thing, we loved the sense that there’s less of a stark line there between ‘craft’ and ‘trad’, posh and rough, town and suburb, than in some other parts of the country. The Free Trade and The Cumberland, for example, were both just the right side of grotty. There and elsewhere, basic but decent pints were available at reasonable prices, alongside more extravagant, trendier products, with no sense that one is better than the other.

Newcastle Breweries branded Formica tables.

At the Gosforth Hotel we had what might be our beer of the year, Allendale Pennine Pale, at £2.85 a pint, but we could have gone for pints of keg BrewDog Punk at £3.55 — about the price of Bass in Penzance — if we’d been in that mood. Prices were displayed clearly in front of the pumps so there was no need for embarrassing conversations or warnings over price. In fact, prices were plainly on show, as far as we can recall, everywhere we went.

All of this made for genuinely mixed crowds, even if there was sometimes a self-segregation into lounge and public bar crowds — literally where the partitions survived.

The Crown Posada was one of a handful of pubs that was so good we made time to visit twice. Even on a busy weekend night in town we didn’t have any trouble getting in or getting a seat. The beer was great, the service was fantastic, and there were cellophane wrapped sandwiches going at two quid a pop. It’s a tourist attraction but not a tourist trap. When we went back on Sunday lunchtime, though, we found it deserted — just us and a barman — and, as a result, much less charming.

The more full-on craft outlets — BrewDog, The Bridge Tavern brewpub — seemed out of place, superimposed rather than integrated, as if they might have been picked up in any another city and dropped into place. (If we lived there, we no doubt welcome the variety.)

An inter-war improved pub with 'Flaming Grill' branding.
The Corner House, Heaton, built c.1936.

There aren’t as many inter-war ‘improved pubs’ in Newcastle as in Birmingham (on which more in our next post) but we found a couple, manorial in scale, chain-branded, but otherwise doing what they were built to do nearly a century ago: providing un-threatening environments in which men, women and children can socialise together over beer, food and afternoon tea. They’re not much good for serious beer lovers — just lots of Greene King IPA, well off its own turf, but even that was in good nick when we did try it.

We came away with a clear impression of what seemed to us to be the dominant breweries in the region: Allendale, Mordue and Wylam were almost everywhere. We’d tried Wylam beers in the past and thought they were decent but we’ve noticed a renewed buzz around them on social media in the last year; now we see why.

Almost every pub we went in had one beer we really wanted to drink and most had a couple more we were keen to try, or already knew we liked. Across the board there was a tendency to provide a range from dark to light, and from weak to strong. Only in one pub-bar (the otherwise likeable Cluny) did we find ourselves thinking that the vast range of hand-pumps might be a bit ambitious — the beer wasn’t off, just a bit tired.

Light shining through coloured glass into a dark pub.
Stained glass at the Crown Posada.

But even if the beer had been terrible everywhere it wouldn’t have mattered too much because the pubs are just so pretty — stained glass, fired tiles, decorative brick, shining brass, layers of patina — and often set beneath the cathedral-like arches of the city’s many great bridges.

And, finally, not in Newcastle but a short train ride away in Hartlepool, we got to visit our first micropub, The Rat Race — the second ever, which opened in 2009. We stayed for a couple of hours, interviewed the landlord, Peter Morgan, and chatted to some of his regulars, and to others who drifted through. We think we get it now and, yes, we reckon they’re probably a good thing.

Interior of the Rat Race micropub.
The Rat Race. Yes, that’s Astroturf on the floor.

This is a part of the world which, to our eyes, definitely seems to have a healthy beer culture. If you decide to pay a visit yourself — and you should — do check out these local publications for tips:

  • Tyneside & Northumberland CAMRA’s Canny Bevvy newsletter
  • Independent magazine Cheers North East edited by local expert Alastair Gilmour