2. The Decline and Fall of Georges' Brewery

In the high summer of 1961 the Bristol Brewery Georges & Co Ltd was taken over by the London based brewing firm of Courage Barclay & Simonds Ltd, thus finally removing the last independent brewer in the city. Georges had begun life as a late eighteenth century partnership, initially led by Philip George, and since the 1880s had slowly but inexorably swallowed up the smaller brewing concerns in the Bristol area. In 1956, with the acquisition of their only remaining rivals Bristol United Breweries Ltd, Georges had become the pre-eminent brewers in the city. However, this pre-eminence was to last only five years as Georges were swept along on the crest of a tidal wave of change that had been working its way through the brewing industry since the second world war. This paper will attempt to analyse these industry-wide changes in the context of the fate of Georges in Bristol to answer the separate but inter-related questions of why Georges were taken over at the height of their power and influence, and what, if anything, they could have done to forestall or prevent it?

Initially, as the war came to a close in the summer of 1945, the directors of Georges were in ebullient mood. Put simply, the war had been good for business. The war economy of Britain, if viewed from the micro-position of the brewing industry in Bristol, had produced a complex weave of economic and social conditions that had, in turn, produced a quite artificial but ideal trading environment. The war years had often seen demand for beer outstripping supply, and the retail price of beer increased from 3.3p a pint to 5.5p.[Brewers Society Statistical Handbook, 1988, Table E4] At the firm's annual general meeting in December 1944 chairman Christopher George commented that

In spite of numerous restrictions, labour shortage, transport difficulties and rationing of materials, we have sent out more than five thousand barrels more than in the previous twelve months. During the year under review our output of beer reached a new high record, and compared with that of 1938 was 30.5% higher.[Courage Archives, CA/C/1, Annual Reports & Accounts]

It did not seem to cross the mind of Christopher George that these 'numerous restrictions' had only served to make the brewery more efficient. Transport costs had been cut under 'zoning agreements' whereby brewers supplied each other's public houses to save long delivery journeys, and the combination of a reduced workforce, raw material shortages, and record output must have meant that Georges were operating at a higher rate of efficiency than in peacetime.

The social effects of the war are also important, particularly as they seemed to stimulate the appetite of the British for beer as well as encouraging entirely new groups of customers into public houses. In the same way the war created a war economy, it also created an artificial and temporary 'war society'. Co-operation and pulling together, perhaps traditional British virtues in times of adversity, were the obvious and superficial results and these have long since passed into folklore about the home front in the second world war. However, the pressure of living through the war years seems to have had another effect in that it encourage people to act in more experimental ways, and in ways they would not have done in peacetime. Nowhere is this better evoked than in Mary Wesley's novel The Camomile Lawn [Mary Wesley 1984: Macmillan, London] where the characters live their lives under the intense pressure of war all around them. Almost everyone seems to be in uniform, loved ones go off to war and sometimes they do not return. The essentially upper-middle class characters meet people from outside their class, they experiment with sex and, helped by the lack of alternative entertainment, they drink more. The pressure of war and the very real uncertainty of the future created a more dynamic society and nowhere is this more apparent in the increased demand for beer. Naturally, the armed forces stimulated demand as hundreds of thousands of men from all backgrounds were herded into uniform, and the unwillingness of government to regulate the industry (quite unlike the first world war) perhaps shows that beer was seen more as a morale-booster rather than a threat to the war effort. [Brian Glover 1987: Brewing for Victory p.14 ] Added to this demand was the relatively new market of women drinkers. This is difficult for an historian to prove statistically or empirically, but former land girls and factory workers all seem to tell the same story. The war had caused them to enter the world of men and, like the men sent off to fight around the world, these women bonded together Ö and when they relaxed they visited public houses and drank for the first time.[Carol Twinch 1990: Women on the Land p.90 and p.144] This would not have happened in peacetime. These social changes served to add a depth and strength to the efficiencies of the war economy. It was almost as if the 1930s Georges' advertising slogan 'we do not want people to drink more beer, we want more people to drink beer' had come true.

 

It also did not seem to cross the mind of Christopher George that, although the firm had performed well in the heavily regulated war economy, the future success of Georges would rest on the ability of the directors to adapt the firm to a steadily de-regulated peacetime economy. It took about three or four years for the reality to sink in. By the time of the annual general meeting in December 1948, Christopher George's mood had turned distinctly sour. He tiraded against the Labour Government's increase in beer duty and their new excess profits tax which he claimed ìhas resulted in a decrease in our salesî.[Courage Archives, CA/C/1] That same year Georges had raised a million pounds through a new share issue and this resulted in the rather heady combination of the directors realising that something had to be done, and having the cash at hand to do that something. The late 1940s and early 1950s were generally unsettling times for brewers and there were persistent worries about the Labour government nationalising the brewing industry. A great deal of this worry was probably self-induced as there is little evidence that Labour seriously thought of the brewing industry as one of the commanding heights of the economy, but it was nevertheless a persistent and unsettling theme.[1945:Brewing Trade Review, p.505] Naturally there was some agitation at Labour's increase in beer duty, and further agitation when the Conservative governments of the 1950s seemed unwilling to lower them again. However, the downturn in sales mentioned by Christopher George was real enough as men were demobilised, women for the most part returned to their pre-war social norms, and the demand for beer tailed off. After an initial, temporary post-war boom, national beer sales fell sharply by twenty five per cent between 1945 and 1951.[Brewers Society UK Statistical Handbook, 1988 ]

The profits and dividends of Georges suggest that by the mid 1950s they were coming under concerted pressure (Fig.1)

 

 
Share Capital( )
Profits( )
Dividends(%)
1938
1,375,000
253,981
18
1939
"
270,147
18
1940
"
219,723
18
1941
"
241,953
18
1942
"
226,553
18
1943
"
227,400
18
1944
"
220,935
18
1945
"
217,616
18
1946
"
277,943
22
1947
"
283,251
22
1948
2,500,000
268,202
22
1949
"
211,034
18
1950
"
193,130
18
1951
"
191,728
17
1952
"
188,951
17
1953
"
222,889
18
1954
"
264,455
15
1955
"
265,177
14
1956
"
297,203
14
1957
"
363,192
26
1958
"
377,077
26
1959
3,500,000
463,083
21


Figure 1. The profits and dividends of Georges 1938-59
[Courage Archives, CA/C/1, Georges annual reports and accounts]

 

The directors, to their credit, did indeed begin thinking of new ways to expand and consolidate the company. In 1947 and 1948 they seriously considered building a new brewery at Arusha in Tanganyika at a cost of half a million pounds but this rather bold move, fuelled by a rosy speculation about the future relationship with the Empire in East Africa, petered out as some of the board lost their nerve and initial enthusiasm. [Courage Archives CA/C/210, Africa project files and correspondence 1947-49] Although other British breweries did indeed expand into Africa in the post-war years, this was a step too far for a firm that had little knowledge of the trade outside the Bristol area. Instead, and eventually, the directors took the obvious route of acquiring their rivals Bristol United Breweries Ltd in 1956, thus making them absolute masters in their own city. The United brewery at Lewins Mead was quickly closed and all production centred at Georges' Bath Street brewery site. The six hundred or so United public houses were added to the burgeoning Georges' estate and tied to Georges' beers. The history of the takeover of United is a fascinating story in itself and opens a window on the aims and methods of provincial businessmen in the 1950s, but ultimately it was a sideshow. Although Georges' profits and dividends increased dramatically in the years immediately after the takeover (see Fig.1) it was to be a very short-lived success.

It is perhaps fair to say that after the takeover of United there was almost a feeling of triumphalism within Georges. They were masters of all they surveyed and clerks in the managed house department would, for their own amusement, try to compile a list of the public houses in central Bristol that were not owned by Georges. There were no more than a dozen. The small number of United workers who were kept on were looked down upon by the Georges' employees when they were transferred to Bath Street, and the culture of the company was one of general self-satisfaction. It came as some surprise to the workforce in 1961 when the first stories of Georges' acquisition began to circulate. ìWe thought this couldn't be true. We were too big to be taken overî remembers one worker [Peter Bays 1999] and there was a genuine sense of bewilderment and even betrayal as the events of the spring and summer unfolded. The truth was that the directors of Georges' safely ensconced in their fiefdom, could not protect themselves from still further pressures for change working their way through the industry.

The first of these pressures was a change in consumer taste, away from draught and cask beer and towards bottled beer and wines and spirits. The demand for bottled beer rose dramatically, from about twenty five per cent of the market before the second world war, to over fifty per cent by the mid 1950s. [J E Vaisey 1958:ìThe Brewing Industryîpp.399-400]. The steep rise in demand for bottled beer led to the growth of nationally advertised brands, and Mackeson Stout, Mann's Brown Ale, Guinness and Double Diamond became household names and big sellers. Georges could not really compete in this new, national marketplace and they had neither the product nor the wherewithal to overcome this obstacle. Their very provincialism was their undoing. They were unused to getting involved in the marketplace outside their traditional heartland and their one faltering step in this matter perhaps shows their uncertainty. In 1955 a new bottled beer was launched called Georges' Glucose Stout and a traveller was sent to Devon and Cornwall to drum up trade for this product. After a month the traveller returned with orders insufficient to warrant the delivery costs and any attempt at a national brand died as well. [Peter Bays 1999] This was to have more significance that the directors imagined ñ there was more of a profit margin on bottled beer and the demand for cask beer was dropping steadily. Consumers now had a wider possible range of leisure opportunities, and were spending less time in public houses and more time at home in front of the television. Consequently the 'take home trade' grew as the British consumed more beer at home, and this rapidly expanding market was one that Georges could not take advantage of.

The other pressure on Georges was that, put simply, they were to become a victim of their own success, particularly in the field of public house ownership where they had a virtual monopoly in the Bristol area. It can be suggested that breweries like Georges, with their high ownership of public houses in a concentrated area, became of interest to much larger companies who were not traditional brewers. Foremost of the new breed of entrepreneurial businessmen were Charles Clore and Eddie Taylor and they viewed companies like Georges not just as provincial brewers, but also as property owners

with hundreds of public houses, various production sites and a portfolio of unlicensed property. It has been suggested that, in fact, brewers in the 1950s were as much involved in the property market as in the brewing market. [Alison Dean 1995: ìMerger Activity in the British Brewing Industry 1945-60: the Implications of being a Landlordî Ph.D. thesis, University of Massachusetts, p.90] Dean argues that some companies used their property estate as a tool to support their primary business of brewing, either by closing and selling unprofitable public houses that had a greater value unlicensed, or by using the estate as collateral against which to borrow money to expand. Many others, however, ignored the financial strength their estates would provide and this is of particular significance when considering the prolonged post-war property boom in Britain. A company like Georges, with 1,300 public houses, should have benefited from this property boom, but the reality was that they consistently failed to value their estate at its true worth preferring instead to give each house a book value based on historic cost accumulation. Only at the eleventh hour, in 1960, did Georges appoint chartered surveyors S & G Motion to value their houses, and this was more of a defensive response to the growing takeover pressures rather than an offensive strategy. [Courage Archives, CA/C/125, Corres. re United bid, press release 31 January 1961] It was Georges' perceived strength in both the brewing and property markets of Bristol that was to be their final undoing. From outside Bristol, and from outside the industry, Georges must have appeared ripe for takeover.

Indeed it was Eddie Taylor, leading his United Breweries Ltd conglomeration, that made the first offer for Georges in late January 1961. There was immediate hostility from the Georges' directors who thought his offer insufficient, and it came as a pleasant surprise when Courage Barclay & Simonds Ltd entered the battle for ownership a few days later. Taylor was a Canadian and an international businessman based in the Bahamas, and his cavalier style must have appeared bewildering to the Georges' directors. He wrote to Cecil Hadley, managing director of Georges, on 2 February 1961 before the interest of the Courage group was known:

As I am flying to the Bahamas tomorrow, I thought I should write a brief note to you. It is our plan Ö to have at least one large and robust brewing company in each of the principal beer consuming areas of the United kingdom. When this is accomplished, the Group will be in the position of producing and marketing nationally advertised brands.

[Courage Archives, CA/C/125]

Taylor had big plans for the British brewing industry and Georges were to be part of them. A short but reasonably bitter battle began between the two prospective buyers, a battle that Courage Barclay & Simonds were not prepared to lose. Courage were also determined to get a foothold in the south west, and their failure to acquire the Somerset brewer Brutton Mitchell & Toms Ltd in October 1960 in another battle with Charrington & Co meant that a second failure could not be countenanced lest their reputation and share price be damaged. [Courage Archives, CA/C/126, Corres re Courage bid, Morning Advertiser 10 March 1961]

From the outset the Georges directors seemed to prefer the offer from Courage, and the tone of their correspondence with Richard Courage, managing director, is markedly more friendly than that between themselves and Taylor. Georges naturally had many questions to ask about the future of the Bath Street brewery and the employees, all of which Richard Courage answered to their complete satisfaction. [Courage Archives, CA/C/126, Hadley to Courage 22 February 1961] The warmth towards Richard Courage, even though his firm's offer was less than Taylor's, shows that the Georges' directors felt that he was a man with whom they could do business, and in the summer of 1961 Georges became the western arm of the growing Courage Barclay & Simonds empire.

Georges were a victim of their own success and of their provincialism. When they took over Bristol United Breweries in 1956 they had really reached the limits of possible expansion, and at the very time they thought of themselves as at the apogee of their power they were in fact at their weakest. The 1956 acquisition of United was little more than two elderly relatives moving in together and tidying up their affairs before the inevitable end.

Postscript: Georges' former brewery in Bath Street became the headquarters of Courage (Western) Ltd from 1962-84, and part of Courage Brewing Ltd thereafter. It was extensively modernised by Courage in both the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, becoming a brewery dedicated to the production of cask, or ìrealî ales. A downturn in the market for these ales resulted in the announcement in May 1999 by that the brewery would be closed within the year, and production moved to another brewery within the Scottish Courage group.

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