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His Master’s Stout?

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:

A dog sniffing a glass of stout.
SOURCE: Watney’s/American Radio History.
A dog slinking away from spilled stout.
SOURCE: Watney’s/American Radio History.

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:

A dog in a smashed gramophone.
‘I still don’t know what it is master likes so much – or am I the wrong dog?’

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.

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Beer history breweries featuredposts

Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

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.

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Beer history marketing

Only Watney’s could be so bold

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:

What we want is Watneys
SOURCE: Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

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.

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beer reviews Beer styles bottled beer

BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been corresponding on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we interviewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Britannia. When Tom came into possession of several bottles of a strong ale produced by Watney’s in 1987 to celebrate the supposed 500th anniversary of the founding of the Mortlake brewery.

(You can read the inevitable Martyn Cornell takedown of that story here.)

We set aside a little time to enjoy the experience of drinking this beer, 137ml each, even though we suspected it was going to be rank. After all, Watney’s beer wasn’t well regarded even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a suburban sideboard.

The label told us that the beer had an original gravity of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giving us a hint that it was probably around 10-11% ABV.

Popping the foil covered cap, we were treated to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid covered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bubbly head that drifted away in seconds.

There was a whiff of roasted malt, we thought, or perhaps even smoke, and then a big punch of sherry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of balsamic vinegar. There was also an almond nuttinness and a layer of dark chocolate.

Running through all of this, stopping it from quite being out-and-out pleasant to drink, was a beefy, Marmite line.

If you’ve read any other tasting notes on old beers, none of the above will be surprising. We probably could have written them before we even opened the bottle.

Still, it was special, and an experience we can now tick off our wish list.

Categories
Beer history Brew Britannia breweries

Watney’s Red Barrel – how bad could it have been?

You can’t have cops without robbers, or Batman without the Joker, and so the story of the revitalisation of British beer needs its bad guys too. Enter Watney’s.

Watney’s (or Watney Mann, or Watney Combe Reid) was the Evil Corporation which sought to crush plucky small brewers and impose its own terrible beer on the drinking public. It acquired and closed beloved local breweries, and it closed pubs, or ruined them with clumsy makeovers.

Its Red Barrel was particularly vile – a symbol of all that was wrong with industrial brewing and national brands pushed through cynical marketing campaigns.

This, at least, was the accepted narrative for a long time, formed by the propaganda of the Campaign for Real Ale in its early years, and set hard through years of repetition.

But does it stand up to scrutiny? What if, contrary to everything we’ve heard, Red Barrel was actually kind of OK?

This long post was made possible by the kind support of Patreon subscribers like Matthew Turnbull and David Sim, whose encouragement makes us feel less daft about spending half a weekend working on stuff like this. Please consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.