Back in 2019 we wrote about Watney’s Red Barrel. Finding that post, Colin Prower has written to us with some of his memories of the brewery.
In the very early 1960s I did school and college holiday jobs in various departments of Watney’s Mortlake brewery, including on the Red Barrel production line.
Workers were given a freebie of a pin of Mild in the mess room but preferred to cause casks of Red Barrel to ‘fall off the line’ and drink it in vast quantities throughout shifts.
It didn’t strike me as too bad either! I gather the earlier recipe was better than later.
I also worked in the department to which pub-returned barrels were emptied into a tank for incorporation into Watney’s Mild only. No wonder the workers rejected that!
Most of the beer range at the time was produced by traditional methods. I particularly remember the maturing cellar for hogsheads of Stingo being positively Dickensian – and staffed by characters from his books.
Security there was tight but with a knowing knock at the door, men with bottles down their trouser legs and lengths of rubber tubing would be admitted and allowed to syphon off Stingo.
The above was lightly edited for clarity and consistency.The photo shows security staff at Mortlake and comes from The Red Barrel magazine for August 1961.
In 1968, the giant brewing firm Watney Mann attempted to lure young people back to pubs with a brand new concept, the ‘Birds Nest’, which turned ordinary boozers into swinging discotheques. And for a while, it worked.
First, some context: in the post-war period, brewers were struggling to make money from pubs and were desperate to make them relevant to a new generation of drinkers.
In the 1950s, they started with smart new buildings with modern decor; then they moved on to novelty theme pubs; and finally, in the late 1960s, along came concepts like the Chelsea Drugstore.
You can read more about the Drugstore in 20th Century Pub (copies available from us) but, in brief, it was Bass Charrington’s imaginative bid to reinvent the pub at what was then the heart of trendy London, the King’s Road.
With space age fixtures and fittings in gleaming metal, it combined shops, cafes and bars in one place and is perhaps best-known as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 sci-fi film A Clockwork Orange.
The Drugstore opened in July 1968; Watney Mann launched its first Birds Nest in Twickenham in February that year, a low-risk location for an experiment.
They renamed The King’s Head, an almost brutalist post-war booze bunker at 2 King Street, installing a state-of-the-art steel dance-floor, light-show projectors and a high-end sound system.
They also installed an in-pub telephone network so that if you saw someone you liked the look of, you could dial their table and have a chat across the room.
It was an immediate success, at least according to contemporary press, such as this report from the Kensington Post from 17 January 1969:
[The] Twickenham Birds Nest has become the “in” inn for young people from all over southern England, would you believe? And packed every night, would you also believe? This came about largely through the ‘rave’ buzz getting around among 18-25 year-olds – inspired by the fun experienced there by early young customers – that ‘The Birds Nest’ scene was really different. Guys and dollies were even making the trip from Chelsea to Twickenham, would you believe, so loud was the buzz of approval.
This pilot inspired Watney to launch an early example of a chain, with the second Birds Nest opening a short distance from the Chelsea Drugstore and the similarly trendy Markham Arms, taking over The Six Bells.
If Twickenham was an experiment, with a soft launch, the Chelsea branch got the full works when it came to PR with an extensive press campaign and advertising.
As part of that, we find a frank admission of one of the key points behind the concept and its name: if you went to a Birds Nest pub, there would be women to chat up. Dolly birds. Right sorts. Goers. And so on.
In fact, a headline in the Kensington Post boiled the concept right down: A PUB WITH GOOD COFFEE AND BIRDS ON THEIR OWN.
The argument was that with no cover charge, the provision of soft drinks and coffee, and the offer of simple ‘continental-style’ meals, the Birds Nest would be more appealing to young, single women – and thus, of course, to young men.
This second Birds Nest was done out to a higher spec, too. An internationally renowned interior designer, Thomas Gehrig, was imported from Munich:
His work in The Birds Nest could be said to have shades of a German Beer Garden. Here again, the perimeter of the room provides fixed seating arranged in bays to contain 6-8 people with tables and this perimeter seating is raised about 1 ft. 2 ins. above general room level. Over this fixed seating is a pitched roof supported on carved timber posts and the roof covering is cedar shingles. The bar counter is unusual in that it has no back cabinet as in a traditional pub. Use has been made of cherry wood wall panelling above the fixed seating. The dance floor (the only part of the room not carpeted) is surrounded by small tables seating two people at each. There is a supervised cloak room. (Ibid.)
Birds Nests were soon opened in old pub buildings all over London and the South East of England, from Paddington to Basingstoke, and each was launched with a press blitz.
Typically, a famous DJ or two would cut the ribbon and make an appearance in the first week – Simon Dee, Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and other names associated with the then brand new pop station BBC Radio 1.
Publicity photos from Watney Mann also bigged up the presence of “gorgeous go-go girls”, loading the clubs with models and dancers on those opening nights. When the Basingstoke branch opened, male model and choreographer Leroy Washington danced to “the latest 45s” in what amounted to a pair of Speedos. The message being, of course, that sexy times awaited you at the Birds Nest.
Not everyone welcomed this new development.
“Most of these houses are ill-lit, are painted black, have walls of black felt, and look like Wild West bunkhouses or brothels,” said one Watney’s tenant aggrieved at the move to managed houses. “They have been opened just to grab a quick fisftul of dollars from the permissive society.” (The Times, 30 January 1971.) Amazingly, he seems to have thought this description would put people off.
The other thing that made Birds Nest pubs different, and appealing, was the constant background of pop music, and especially soul – perhaps part of what prompted the antipathy towards ‘piped music’ within and around the Campaign for Real Ale? Again, from the Kensington Post for January 1969:
A super programme of recorded music is put out every evening from 7.30 until last orders. Every type of popular music will be presented including jazz and folk. On Saturdays and Sundays there will be special record programmes during lunch-time opening hours. At all times, when The Birds Nest Show programmes are not being presented, specially recorded background music will be played. The DJs, both male and female, form part of a team being trained specially for this and future Birds Nests.
And those at-table phones weren’t just designed for chatting up your fellow drinkers – you could also use them to call the DJ with requests, or to order a risotto from the kitchen. (Please use your phone to order from your table, via the app…)
In 1975, Watney’s went as far as launching their own Birds Nest record label. The first releases were ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ by Agnes Strange and ‘You Can Sing With the Band’ by Taragon.
Another part of the formula was the deliberate choice of young managers.
For example, Eric Robey, who ran the Basingstoke branch, was 20 and his wife, according to a report in The Stage for 18 February 1971, was “rather younger”.
SOURCE: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28 August 1970, via The British Newspaper Archive.
We asked an old friend, Adrian, if he remembered drinking in any of these pubs and he did, specifically the branch at 17 York Road, Waterloo, in around 1970:
The main attraction was, all the tables had phones on them, and all the tables were numbered, so if you saw somebody you fancied, you could bell them. Lots of fun. Must have made hundreds of calls but can’t remember receiving any! Saturday nights could be [rowdy] in the football season. Normal clientele, Chelsea and Millwall boot boys, could be lively when Portsmouth or Southampton fans were about. Bar and toilets downstairs, that was where the music was – mix of skinheads and rude boys; upstairs, the genesis of suedeheads.
Other accounts associate the Birds Nests with skinheads, too – a long way from the image Watney’s seemed keen to put across.
In 1972, a bouncer at the Basingstoke branch, 26-year-old Frank Stanley, was charged with assaulting Keith Baker with a truncheon, splitting open his skull. In court, he said he’d been issued with the truncheon by the management and that in his six months working the door, he’d been involved in around 150 fights: “I have been beaten up on two occasions and once we had a fight involving 20 men.” (Reading Evening Post, 6 April 1972.)
Behaviour at the Harrow branch, at a pub formerly called The Shaftesbury, prompted residents to petition to have the disco’s licence revoked in 1975. They said crowds were piling out after midnight, racing cars around Shaftesbury Circus and generally making a nuisance of themselves – especially on Monday nights. (Harrow Observer, 30 May 1975.)
In a 2012 post online, Denis Cook recalled his time DJing at the Harrow Birds Nest: “I played a variety of stuff, but it became that I started playing more Funk & Reggae, and within a short time you couldn’t get in… One day, the manager took me to one side and said he wanted me to change my music, as too many black guys were coming in. I refused and quit.”
With a growing image problem, with more ‘proper’ discos and nightclubs emerging, this corporate chain version began to feel like a relic of the swinging sixties.
So, inevitably, the Birds Nests began to pop out of existence.
The Birds Nest in Chelsea, one of the chain’s pioneers, had its disco identity toned down in a refit as early as 1971, in a bid to draw mature drinkers back. It closed in 1983 and became a ‘Henry J Beans’ bar and grill. That’s probably as good a full stop as you can ask for on a story like this.
What’s fascinating to us is that an institution can have been so prominent in the press, so ubiquitous in the culture, and then completely disappear from the collective consciousness.
But that’s pop culture for you.
This post was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Mark Landells and Jason B. Standing, whose generosity helps us pay for our subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and, of course, gives us the nudge we need to spend the equivalent of a full day researching and writing.
We all know Nipper, the HMV dog, forever captured with his snout down a gramophone trumpet – but did you know he also advertised beer?
Nipper was born in Bristol in 1884 and died in 1895. His first owner was Mark Barraud, a theatre scenery designer; his second was Francis Barraud, a painter, who immortalised him in the image we all know today.
But on another occasion, Nipper was painted investigating not a gramophone but a glass of stout – and that image was famous, too, in its day.
As always, piecing together chronologies is difficult, but what we think happened is that Nipper became an early example of a meme.
First, in around 1900, Nipper became the trademark of the His Master’s Voice and Victor gramophone companies.
Then, at some point in the following decade, Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. (hereafter just Watney’s) came up with the slogan ‘What is it master likes so much?’ From bits we’ve been able to piece together, we think this was supposed to be in the voice of a household maid, purchasing bottled beer on behalf of the man of the house.
Then, in around 1910, Watney’s bought, or more likely commissioned, two paintings from Barraud, mashing up the HMV trademark with their slogan to create this campaign:
This campaign apparently ran for months with posters up all around London, on trams, and on tram and bus tickets, and seeped into the national consciousness.
One national newspaper felt justified in saying in 1914 that Watney’s was primarily ‘familiar to the man in the street by that famous poster, What is it Master likes so much, which is undoubtedly one of the most successful pictorial advertisements on record.’ (Globe, 27/02/1914.)
We doubted that at first until we discovered the music hall song and this account of a particularly weird-sounding theatrical performance at a village not far from Land’s End in 1910, as reported by the Cornishman:
On Saturday a very successful entertainment was given at Cliff House, Lamorna, by kind permission of Mr and Mrs Jory, in aid of the Buryan District Nursing Society. The principle feature of the entertainment, which was organised by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick, was a most artistic series of living pictures designed and arranged by Miss Barker of London… The second picture, ‘What is it master likes so much?’ suggested by a well-known poster, had a clever fox-terrier, Jimmie, as its central figure, investigating his absent master’s luncheon table. Jimmie proved himself an actor of rare gifts of facial expression, and greatly amused his audience…
There were lots of parodies and pastiches of Barraud’s Nipper paintings, including this by Philip Baynes from the Bystander for 14 February 1912, which brilliantly highlights the oddity of having the same dog advertising two quite distinct products:
For all Watney’s seemed proud of these early forays into modern advertising, when the Red Barrel and What We Want is Watney’s came along between the wars, Nipper got sent to the pound.
The campaign is mentioned in both official company histories, from 1949 and 1963 respectively, but only in passing.
If you know more about this campaign, do comment below.
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.
Can you see spot what drew us to the tatty old postcard of Main Street, Haworth, West Yorkshire, from the 1960s, reproduced above?
That’s right – it’s the advertisement for Watney’s, neatly camouflaged against the brick wall to the left, above a yellow enamel sign advertising St Bruno tobacco.
This particular Watney’s ad campaign ran from as early as 1937, as explained by Ron Pattinson here, along with details of why this design was so successful. Ron also provides a lovely image of the poster which we’ve taken the liberty of nicking:
The really interesting thing about the postcard, though, is that this poster should have appeared in Yorkshire, 200 miles from the brewery’s home in London.
In the 1960s, Watney’s grew and took over regional breweries around the UK. It took over Beverley Brothers of Wakefield in 1967 and began investing in Webster’s of Halifax at around the same time, taking it over completely in 1972.
So the poster in the postcard is a symbol of the arrival of national brands, and of the homogenisation of beer that triggered the founding of the Campaign for Real Ale in the 1970s.
But it’s not all one-sided: if you look closely, you might be able to pick out a small enamel sign advertising Tetley’s next to the Watney’s poster. That, too, would become a national brand, taking a taste of Yorkshire to the rest of the country.