P.Phipps, Northampton Brewery Company, Phipps NBC
Like the river Nene, the boot and shoe industry, the Cobblers, The Saints, Jimmy's End Lighthouse, Bassett Lowke, picture perfect villages of iron and limestone, Phipps is lodged deep in the county's collective memory. The idea of a pint of Phipps stirs up evocative associations in those for whom the past is not a foreign country: the smell of the shoe factory and leather works, pounds shillings and pence, steam trains, spires and squires, rolling green fields and hedge rows, open roads, warm and welcoming pubs selling local beer... a gone but not forgotten world.
After nearly 150 years of independence, Phipps NBC became part of the Watney Mann empire in 1960. Despite assurances of a bright and prosperous future, the company's beers and brewery were steadily run down over the next 14 years. Phipps draught disappeared in 1968, Stein lager continue until 1969 with bottled IPA and Jumbo Stout lasting another couple of years. Bridge Street brewery continued to produce beer sold under the Watney and Mann labels until 26th May 1974. Carlsberg took complete possession of the site and built their lager plant there, still brewing today.Last Orders
Tuesday 20th May 1968 was the date of the final brewing of Phipps traditional, fined , draught beer, what we would know as real ale today. This was timed to give the publicans the whit weekend bank holiday to clear the last stock of Phipps and it fell between June 1st and 3rd in 1968. The weather was warm, throats were dry and news of the finale had come from the press so some pubs had sold out well before.
As Phipps NBC's own handbook for landlords noted;
"Whilst the brewing, fermenting and serving of good beer can be partly reduced to rule of thumb methods, the ultimate product in the glass is the result of the skill of the brewer, aided by careful storage and serving by the licensee. All Cask Beers require 24-48 hours to settle and fine bright. Start drawing and selling as soon as possible and try and empty the cask within 48 hours. Cask Beers should always be sold and the cask empty within 10 days of delivery"
The last wooden casks of Phipps IPA ready to leave Bridge Street in May 1968
Pubs around the region chalked up notices, "Last Phipps today". Men who had followed in their father's and grandfather's footsteps as Phipps drinkers shook their heads at the cruel way the modern world had taken away their birthright. A time- tested product of quality swept away in the name of modernity and progress. As the last wooden barrels gradually emptied in the days that followed, a small piece of Northamptonshire's unique character drained away.
Celebrated Ales and Noted Stout
Like the majority of brewers whose business started in the late 18th or early 19th century, Phipps' original Towcester and Northampton Ales were thick, dark and strong, a style of beer close to today's porter. In the mid 19th century the Burton Union system of brewing began to make inroads into the national market as the railways made transportation of bulky, heavy goods like beer possible for the first time. At the same time advances in glass manufacture technology meant drinkers would be able to see the beer they were drinking in the glass unlike the older pewter, ceramic or leather pots.
When the Phillips Brothers moved in next door to Phipps and immediately began brewing Burton style clear, sparkling beers sold under the "Star" sign to emphasise their style, Phipps were jolted into re designing their range. Phipps chose the "Diamond" name to give their new Burton Ales a descriptive family name. Later on the exclusive use of this name would be fought over by Bass, Davenports and Phipps, with Bass eventually coming out the winner.
From the 1840s a style of beer had emerged to serve the colonial trade, in particular the export of ales to British India. Hops in beer not only give flavour, they act as a preservative and the more hops you add and the stronger the beer, the longer it will last. Before the Suez canal opened in 1869, a cargo of bottled beer would take 4 to 6 months to arrive in Eastern Indian ports. The East India Company picked up on the early successes of Hodgsons Bow Brewery's heavily hopped ales in India and in 1822 commissioned Allsop's of Burton to produce and India Pale Ale specifically for export. Even stronger and hoppier brews came to be known as East India Pale Ales as they had 1000s of nautical miles more to travel in the tropical heat to reach Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.
Phipps in landlocked Northampton never had pretentions to become a major exporter but by the late 19th century India Pale Ales were becoming a popular style of beer in Britain. To mark to opening of their new purpose built brewery in 1880 Phipps added an IPA to their range. They developed a strong brew with an Amber tint unlike many paler IPAs. Although highly hopped, a characteristic of Northampton brewed beers lead to a slight softening of the tarter edge making the IPA " a most drinkable pint", full of flavour without excessive bitterness. Up the road at NBC, as Phillips had become, their best bitter was proving the company's best seller, a darker, nuttier brew than their neighbour's offerings.
Both Phipps and NBC beers were noted for their higher than average hop content which gave a bite to the beers in comparison with the competition. The gradual success of these two companies in out selling other local ales and in seeing off neighbouring brewers, was often put down to the tastes of the core market, namely shoe factory workers. A working day spent in an atmosphere steeped in tannin rich leather aroma drove men towards beers which could cut through the clag; flavour and bitterness became prised attributes in your pint mug. The reduction in strength of the IPA to 4.3% during WW1 also helped to turn drinkers to it on a regular basis. It was no accident that Northamptonshire's chosen session bitter was unusually an India Pale Ale, a beer with a higher hop content than standard pale ales or bitters.
A 1960s Pump Clip showing Phipps regarded the IPA as their session, best bitter
As a comparison, in areas where the main industry was a hard physical one such as mining iron and steel or shipbuilding, the nature of the work would push drinkers towards dark, heavy, maltier beers and stout that put back the calories at the end of the day; hence Newcastle Brown's long reign in the heavy industrial North East. Yorkshire and Notts miners took to thicker, darker bitters for the same reason. In the West Midlands Milds were more popular than bitters, perhaps light engineering oil didn't produce the same need for bitter flavours as leather dust. In areas where agriculture was the mainstay of the drinking population, lighter, clearer fruity ales often did well. Even today ales from rural regions seem to have their flavour's described with terms like "Floral" or "Fruity", attributes that would have drawn men who spent their working days outdoors.
The link with locality and flavours, along with one industry dominating employment in a town or county, started to fade in the 1960s. National brands developed that needed good transport link and national advertising such as TV to make sense. Watney's take over of Phipps in 1960 is a text book case; the M1 had just arrived from London and ITV had taken to the Midlands airwaves in 1956. Another separate development was the arrival of lager. British Forces returned from WW2 and later national service tours of Germany with a taste for Pilsner and the availability of refridgeration to cool the beer facilitated its arrival in British bars from the 50s on. The increasing material wealth of the country allied to the beginning of foreign holidays meant lager drinking initially became a badge of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan, how times change.
Today the resurgence of traditional real ale brewing, often led by that Northamptonshire invention, the Micro Brewery, has put the full range of styles and flavours possible with craft brewed ales within reach of the whole country. This is undoubtedly a good thing, let many flowers bloom and many pints be pulled. No one would want to go back to a time where one brewery had a monopoly in an area and where in towns like Northampton, if you didn't drink either Phipps or NBC, you were likely to be a child or tea totaller. Those days will never return but we felt it was a worthy project to bring back Phipps' range of beers, developed over decades and even centuries, tailored to the tastes of an industry and way of life that might not be the regional giant of old but is still a part of the particular heritage of our town and county.
The Phipps Diaspora
After the demolition of the brewery Phipps NBCs' influence lived on as a number of it's brewers made telling contributions to the world of Real Ale we enjoy today.
Noel "Dusty" Miller, the well respected Phipps NBC head brewer, was initially responsible for the recruitment and transfer of the best men to Carlsberg but left soon after the lager brewery was up and running. He took his redundancy money and expertise and became a key investor and head brewer at Ruddles in Oakham, spear-heading that company's rise to prominence in the 70s as one of the best know traditional bitter brands
Pat Heron, whose father had been head brewer at NBC before him, moved to Hall and Woodhouse's Blandford Forum brewery as head brewer. He was instrumental in turning that company into one of today's most respected brewers with a successful range of Badger bottled ales; "Tanglefoot" his award winning beer and still their flagship brew.
Bob Hipwell, from another long line of brewers, stayed with Watneys and Grand Met and moved down to London to take up a number of senior positions within the brewing empire.
Peter Mauldon initially went to Watney's Mortlake Brewery but returned to his native Suffolk to re-establish the family's brewery, Mauldons in Sudbury, his son still works there today whilst Peter is a consultant at Cask Marque
Bill Urquhart, the last head brewer at Bridge Street, started one of the country's first micro breweries in Litchborough and became a consultant to many of the micros that set up in his wake.
- 1801 Pickering Phipps first brews beer in Towcester
- 1817 Phipps Brewery opens on Bridge St. Northampton click here for location on 1899 town map
- 1857 Phillips Brothers open The Phoenix Brewery also on Bridge St. Northampton
- 1864 Ratliffe & Jeffrey opens brewery in Northampton on Albion Place
- 1864 The Lion Brewery opens on the east side of Bridge Street
- 1873 Phillips Brothers change their trading name to Northampton Brewery Company and Samuel Lipscombe Seckham takes over.
- 1878 Arthur Campbell Praed acquires brewery in Wellingborough from John Woolston
- 1884 Ratliffe and Jeffery open their new Albion Brewery on Commercial St. just off Bridge St.
- 1885 T Manning & Co operating Castle Brewery on Black Lion Hill Northampton click here for location 1899
- 1887 Northampton Brewery Company registered as a limited company by Samel Seckham
- 1890 Northampton Brewery Co acquire the Lion Brewery
- 1899 P Phipps acquired neighbouring brewers Ratliffe & Jeffrey click here for location on 1899 town map
- 1890 NBC acquired Allen & Burnett
- 1892 NBC acquired East Brothers, Milton Malsor known as the Hope Brewery
- 1896 NBC acquired Chouler & Company Coventry
- 1899 Phipps take over Ratliffe and Jeffery
- 1901 Phipps Brewery burns down in Towcester and all production moved to Northampton
- 1903 Regular brewing at the Albion brewery ends but it is retained for periods of high demand and storage until 1919. The well is enlarged and continues to supply water for Bridge St. brewing even today under Carlsberg's ownership
- 1906 NBC close Hope Brewery moving production to Northampton
- 1916 Huge fire at the Phoenix Brewery forced NBC to buy beer from their neighbours Phipps until site rebuilt
- 1920 P Phipps acquired Hipwell & Company, Olney
- 1920 Campbell Praed acquire Dulleys, Wellingborough
- 1929 NBC acquired Eady & Dulley, Market Harborough but continue to brew in the town. Set up in 1840's by Joseph Nunnely,1850 Nunnely & Aggas, 1875 became Nunnely & Eady finally by 1881 Eady & Dulley. Eady & Dulley had acquired Smith & Sons Brewery in the town early 1880's.
- 1931 NBC acquired wine merchants Lankester & Wells
- 1933 P Phipps acquired T Mannings & Company and close their Castle Brewery
- 1938 Eady & Dulley Brewery Market Harborugh ceased production
- 1952 NBC acquired Phillips, Stamford
- 1954 P Phipps takes controlling interest of Campbell Praed, Wellingborough
- 1957 P Phipps and Northampton Brewery Company merge to form Phipps Northampton Brewery Company Ltd
- 1960 Watney Mann purchases Phipps NBC
- 1963 Abington Brewery Co, Northampton, acquired by Charles Wells and the brewery is demolished shortly afterwards.
- 1964 Phipps NBC renamed Phipps Brewery Company
- 1968 Phipps renamed Watney Mann (Midlands) Ltd and all Phipps draught axed by June
- 1972 Watney Mann acquired by Grand Metropolitan Hotels Ltd
- 1973 South Brewery (Phipps) closed and demolished, the first part of the Carlsberg plant partially opens on land behind the original brewery called the Baulmsholm
- 1973, Phipps head brewer, Noel "Dusty" Miller moves to Carlsberg as deputy head brewer
- 1974 North Brewery (NBC) closed and demolished, Carlsberg take over Phipps' modern offices along with the remaining site whilst Watney Mann (Midland) continues as a pub chain operating from Lodge Farm, Duston
- 1974 Bill Urquhart, the last head brewer at Bridge St., founds Litchborough Brewery
- 1975 Dusty Miller leaves Carlsberg to become head brewer at Ruddles in Oakham
- 1977 The pub chain business renamed Manns Northampton Brewery Co
- 1982 Dusty Miller poaches young Charles Welles brewer, Tony Davis, to be his deputy at Ruddles
- 1983 Liddingtons buys Litchborough Brewery
- 1986 Liddingtons Brewery closes
- 1987 Manns NBC merged with Norwich Brewery to form Manns Norwich Brewery pub chain
- 1991 Courage and Co Ltd buys Watney Mann and Truman Brewers Ltd
- 1995 Scottish & Newcastle purchase the ex-Phipps NBC pub chain, from Grand Metropolitan and set up offices in Delapre, Northampton.
- 2003 S&N Northampton begin looking into possibility of re-brewing Phipps IPA as a local heritage real ale
- 2004 S&N disposes of all their pubs and pub chains. The Spirit Group buys many ex-Phipps NBC properties, the Lodge Farm depot goes to Keuhne Nagle
- 2004 The company name, Phipps Northampton Brewery Company and its star trade mark, pass to former S&N, Northampton purchasing director Quentin Neville who begins researching the original brews with brother Alaric.
- 2008 Phipps NBC launch Phipps IPA, 40 years and 6 months since the draught beer disappeared. It is brewed in Oakham by Tony Davis with contributions from a number of ex-Phipps NBC men
- 2009 Phipps NBC relaunch Red Star, an NBC style bitter, following the success of the IPA
- 2009 Ratliffe's Celebrated Stout re-launched in December
- 2012 Phipps Diamond ale re-launched
Phipps 1801 -1957
Pickering Phipps Esq MP 1827 - 1890
click to download full version
In 1801 Pickering Phipps started to brew beer in Towcester, Northamptonshire. In 1817 a wharf and brewhouse on Bridge Street Northampton, by the Nene, was put up for rent. Pickering Phipps took up the lease and converted the building into his second brewery.
Pickering clearly prospered as he became mayor of Northampton in 1821, he died in 1830. His two sons, Richard and Thomas inherited the business on his death in 1830. Later a grandson, Pickering also joined. This was the man who put the company and the family on the county map, being Mayor in 1860 and 1866, and MP for Northampton from 1874 to 1880 before moving to a more rural South Northants seat in 1881
The firm, known as P.Phipps and Company from 1880, continued to expand under the stewardship of various family members. In 1886 the third Pickering Phipps became a director.
The gentlemen of P.Phipps in the Victorian era, sent in by a descendant of the book keeper William Oates, standing on the right with top hat and beard.
In 1888 the company built grand new offices at 8 Gold Street and swimming baths were opened opposite the brewery, heated by spare hot water piped under the road. Later the Church of St Matthew`s Northampton was paid for by the family, with local wags naming it "Phipps' fire escape". The area around it, east of the Racecourse came to be known as Phippsville. The family exhibited the classic style of high Victorian capitalist philanthropists, amassing a fortune but putting a lot back into public good works. Like NBC, Phipps saw the benefit of linking up with the new craze for Association Football and Pickering Phipps became the Chairman of Northampton Town AFC. They also began a long sponsorship of the local Northamptonshire skittles league, it was still known as the Phipps league well into the 1970s.
St. Mathews Church, Phippsville, Northampton,
By 1892 P.Phipps and Co. had the largest pub estate of any Midland brewer, 9th largest in Britain. As a public company many of the shares were in the hands of the family at the end of the 19th century but Boddingtons of Manchester had a small stake. A Home Office report in that year recorded their number of tied houses as 242. Interestingly given the sad event many years later, Watney & Co had a similar number, 258 at the same time
Ratliffe & Jeffery Ltd 1864 - 1899
The Albion Steam Brewery was owned by one of the Northampton's first large brewing companies, Ratliffe & Jeffery Ltd. It was founded by Thomas Ratliffe and was operating from Commercial Street from around 1864, when it was first mentioned in Melville & Co’s Directory of Northamptonshire.
A sketch of the extension with work on the King Billy just starting. A plan of the workings within the new extension
William Jeffery, whose family owned a long established bakery and malting business in Northampton, joined Ratliffe in partnership in June 1869.
The name Jeffrey is spelt in three different ways during the company's life, Jeffery, Jeffrey and Jefferey.
The company also had owned several tied cottages in Albion Place lived in by brewery workers, with the Head Brewer living at The Brewery House at 4 Albion Place.
Early in the 1880s the brewery was extended from 16 to 22 Commercial Street and right back to Foundry Street. This structure survives today as the only traditional brewery building left in Northampton.
When Ratliffe & Jeffery became a limited company in 1895 its assets included 135 tied pubs. The brewery is thought to have dropped the word steam from its title by 1890 when it appears in Kelly’s directory as Albion Brewery, ale and porter brewers.
In 1899 Ratliffe and Jeffrey became part of Phipps following the death of William Jeffery which was said to have deprived Thomas Ratliffe of all motivation. Phipps not only gained the brewery and pub estate but the celebrated Ratliffe`s Stout which would continue to be a separate brand into the `60s. The Ratliffe family also joined the company as managers and directors. Richard Ratliffe was still Phipps' estate manager at the beginning of WW2.
In the photo on the left Richard is the man standing behind his seated father, Thomas, in this 1910 shot sent to us by his descendants.
In 1920 Hipwells of Olney was purchased. Like the Ratliffe's before them, the Hipwells became brewers and directors of Phipps. Former Bridge Street brewer from the 50s and 60s, Bob Hipwell, is still one of our consultants today.
In 1901 the old Towcester Brewery was destroyed by fire and this seems to have pushed Phipps into consolodating all their brewing at the one site on Bridge Street. The brewery was rebuilt and extended as well as being fire-proofed. and Ratliffe's stout production was also moved down the road leaving Albion Brewery to be used as stores until 1919. The Ratliffe Well was retained and even enlarged. Just before WW1 a large, modern bottling plant was added to the site.
Following the fire at NBC`s brewery, Phipps stepped in to supply some of that company's brews until their plant was restored after the war. Another consequence of this was a beer price agreement with NBC and Mannings.
In 1926 Mannings were absorbed. Tim Mannings was once head brewer at Phipps but left to start his own company after his demands for a pay rise were refused. When Phipps finally bought the successful company he created, Pickering III is reported to have joked that that was the most expensive pay rise he had ever agreed to.
In 1937, the last Pickering Phipps died at 76.
During WW2 Phipps scored a notable PR success of sending out Ratliffe's Stout to the Northamptonshire rRgiment serving in North Africa with the the Desert Rats.
The company entered the post-war world in an expansive mood, and took a controlling interest in their Wellingborough rivals Campbell Praeds in 1953. The deal was a big one and caused some financing problems even for Phipps. Independently minded Praeds shareholders were still holding out and preventing the formal winding up of the company although Phipps still managed to push through the practical amalgamation of the two companies businesses within a few years.
The industry and market was changing, nationally branded beer was making inroads into traditional markets and by the end of 1956 directors of both Phipps and NBC were talking of;
“considerable economies in operation...if there were a closer association between the two companies” (Chronicle and Echo, 7th Jan 1957).
Campbell Praeds 1823 -1954
John Woolston operated a brewery well before 1823 in Wellingborough until it was sold to Campbell Bulkley Praed in 1878 in partnership with Charles Tryingham Praed MP and Herbert Bulkley Praed for £185,000. The brewery used water from the Red Well a the the top of the town although its brewery was in the center on Sheep Street a site occupied today by the Arndale centre.
Following P.Phipps taking the majority of shares in the company, brewing in Wellingborough ceased in 1955 with many staff transferring to the Phipps Brewery in Northampton along with some of the newer and better Praeds brewing plant.
The company had not been legally dissolved by 1960 and so in name at least, the Watney Mann bid was for Phipps NBC and Campbell Praed as well.
Aquistions included Dulley & Sons in Wellingborough 1920 (using warm water from the family brewery, David Dulley had built Dulley's Swimming Baths. The Baths closed in around 1915), Everett and Willis Kettering circa 1949, Robinson & Riddley in 1950 and RC Allen Leicester in 1951.
A Praeds enamel sign from the Stanwick Village Shop. It was overpainted by Phipps although this has gradually weather off over the years
In the Wellingborough area there is still a recognition and affection for the Praeds name. Since our success in reviving Phipps, we have been approached by a number of people from the town asking us to put out a Praeds pint. Sadly despite some research and appeals in the local press, we haven't been able to find any documentary evidence for the beer's recipe or make contact with any surviving Praeds brewer.
We would only want to produce a pint and call it Praeds if we knew it was based on some solid history, Phipps NBC does not and will not ever pass off a generic pint of beer as something with historical roots.
NBC 1857 - 1957
The Northampton Brewery Company grew out of a business run by the famous Midland brewing family, the Phillips. The Phillips Brothers had converted the site by the River Nene on Bridge Street, into The Phoenix Brewery in 1857.This firm became known as The Northampton Brewery Company after 1873 when the notorious Victorian businessman Samuel Lispcombe Seckham took over the company. At one time his home was Bletchley Park, later the centre for code breaking in WW2. He also lived in Wooton Hall, now the site of the County Records office where many records of his company are lodged.
The Phoenix Brewery: a modern print taken from an original copper plate engraving found earlier this year in the cellar of a house in Abingdon by Dave Curtis. Note the barges unloading from a long-gone short canal spur off the Nen3
NBC had been first in the town to use the new “steam" Burton Union technology and produced clear, clean ale that quickly caused rivals such as Phipps to drop their traditional thick brews to compete.
The company not only owned the Malt Shovel, now the home of all things real ale in Northampton, but the more impressive Plough Inn Hotel.
NCB’s attentions were often to the west of Northampton, perhaps because of links with other Phillips family breweries and one oddity in the company’s history is that it once owned Molineaux, the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two years after selling the ground in 1901, the company donated £100 to the fledgling Cobblers “to encourage sport in the town”.
In 1916, after a huge fire that put the brewery out of action, NBC started buying in beer from their near neighbours, Phipps. Despite some talks about closer links, the rebuilding of the Brewery in the early 20s ended co-operation, not to be resumed until the 50s.
In 1931 the Market Harborough brewer Eady and Dulley was absorbed and its brewery closed. Part of this structure still stands in the town today.
In 1952 Phillips of Stamford was purchased, a company founded by the original Phillips brother's uncle. NBC always seemed to capitalise on the clear with Northampton implied in its name, using slogans;
"Good for you and for Northampton"
"Brewed in Northampton by Northampton men"
"NBC beer radiates good cheer""Call for NBC and be satisfied"
"Call for NBC, Ales if you are thirsty, Stout if you are tired and Stingo if you are blue"
Placed alongside the later merged company slogan "Phipps is beer" they sound almost Shakespearian. However the simplest but most appropriate slogan was "NBC the best" which highlighted the fact that NBC best Bitter or star Ale, was considered the company's flagship brew, a better best bitter than Phipps' similar PA.
Click image to download full version
NBC had proudly maintained its independence from its larger neighbour for decades but the economic climate of the 1950s continued to push breweries towards mergers or take-overs. NBC and Phipps had been linked by a pricing deal since 1955 and it was a logical next step to talk about a genuine merger.
Phipps NBC and Phipps Brewery Ltd
The two Northampton brewers came together to create a regional business with 1131 pubs (711 from Phipps, 420 from NBC). Phipps was clearly the larger partner but was still financially unsettled from the Praeds takeover; NBC smaller but more profitable. Their breweries had grown up side by side on Bridge St. and had co-operated in the past; Phipps brewing for NBC after their fire in 1916 whilst NBC helped Phipps during water shortages with access to their well
The company decided to continue using the NBC star as its logo but with the addition of the Phipps name over the NBC button. This was not surprising as Phipps themselves never had an original logo. Their bottles carried the Northampton Town crest in the `50s but before that the serifed typeface, often seen on the mosaic pub signage, was their only corporate brand.
The Chronicle and Echo described the rivalry between the two sets of drinkers:
"In Northampton and district many beer drinkers have been either "Phipps" men or "NBC" men, staunchly advocating the merits of one brew or the other - and sometimes bitterly (!) commenting on the alternative. It was a two-way affair with the drinkers backing their own customary favourite. But now, as the result of the merger of the two breweries, the two camps are drinking the same beer, brewed to a common recipe."
There was some resistance at first and the company had to do a u-turn in December 1959 and re-introduce separate beers, Lt. Col. Palmer noted:
"We have attempted to group these two beers and rationalise them. We have now gone back to separate main line brews. There is clearly a diehard palate among beer drinkers." December 1959.
The two breweries were soon physically linked, initially by the simple expedient of knocking through doors in the dividing wall. Later a rationalisation plan would try and make sense of the numerous brands and brews; all stout and dark beers would be brewed in the NBC/ North side, Pale Ale and IPA in the Phipps/South. No doubt dedicated drinkers of each separate beer would have disagreed but many of their products were similar enough to be brewed as one lot and branded separately.
A state-of-the-art modern office block was built parallel to Bridge St. which even featured a roof garden for employees to pass their lunch break in.
Lager was making inroads into the nation's pubs and Phipps NBC launched Stein in May 1959. This was partly to replace the exotic Danish import, Carlsberg, which was sold in some of their more cosmopolitan outlets. Keg ale was also a straw in the wind but as the quantity sold was still small, consideration was given to purchasing it as needed from Watney Combe and Reid. So into our story for the first time, comes the future owner and nemesis of Phipps NBC, a keg of Red Barrel, the wooden horse which got the Londoners past the brewery gates.
Meanwhile down in London, the newly merged company of Watney Mann was growing fat on the back of their famous Red Barrel, the keg beer that could be sold without a cellar and kept drinkable much longer than traditional cask ales. They had just survived a hostile takeover from a Mr Clore who ironically made his money in the shoe industry. Like Phipps, they could see that they needed to get bigger fast.
The brewing industry was awash with takeovers and mergers in the late `50s and Phipps NBC knew they were a potential target. The company was a big regional player but still not too big to be swallowed by one of the emerging nationals. Its Stein lager was doing well but cost-cutting on other brands, especially Pale Ale was having an adverse effect on sales. In a bid to merge themselves into another league talks were held with Charles Wells of Bedford and Hunt Edmunds of Banbury but nothing came of it. Instead 151 more pubs were added to the estate, 19 from Ind Coope and 140 from Taylor Walker's Brackley Brewery. In August 1959 the Chronicle reported that:"Following the recent attempt by Mr Clore to take over the Watney Group it would be rash to suggest that anything is impossible in the brewery trade but Phipps' policy of consolidating their area certainly makes it a more difficult takeover prospect."
It was no coincidence that the brand new M1 motorway opened in November 1959 and that Watneys made an offer in January 1960 for Phipps NBC. Northampton's place at the heart of England, newly furnished with a speedy connection to London and the prospect of the M1 spreading north to Leeds in the next decade made the Bridge Street Brewery an attractive site for the expansionist company.
At the time Watney`s assets were £22 million compared with Phipps' £5 million. The deal was styled as a marriage benefiting both partners; Watneys had the cash and needed more capacity and more outlets, Phipps had spare capacity and could sell its products into the adjacent Manns estate, something that never materialised. Although Phipps NBC had clearly been attempting to stay independent in the years before, the directors bowed to the finacial logic of Watney's offer and recommended the takeover to the board. There were some voices raised against the deal, but chairman Col. Jones calmed fears by declaring:
"There would still remain a high degree of local independence in the running of business in Northampton. We are also particularly glad that this type of amalgamation will ensure the continuation of our own beers..." Chronicle and Echo, 15th Jan 1960.
Wasting no time, Red Barrel was being trialed at Bridge Street by March 1960. Soon this and other Watney Mann brands would be brewed there.
In 1964 the company’s name was rationalised to Phipps Brewery Limited, the star logo had already lost its NBC script the year before.
Watneys were pressing ahead with their push to become a nationally known brand and spared no expense in using advertising to put Red Barrel at the front of the nation's mind. World Cup hero Jack Charlton was hired to extol the virtues of the beer in ITV adverts whilst Phipps had to make do with black and white line adds in the Cobblers' programs.
In April 1967 Phipps' Stingo No 10, a strong barley wine-style beer was dropped in favour of Watney's Barley Wine. The reasons given at the time were that the Watney variety was available throughout the group and that this was a step towards the rationalisation the company was working on .
Chairman Jones went on to say:
"I know Stingo was very popular but I hope, indeed I think, the customers will find the new one very acceptable. They are good beers and when the drinkers realise this I don't think they will feel cheated. In fact I hope they will regard it as an instance where they have been given the chance to drink something even better." Chronicle and Echo 6th April 1967.
How many times do we hear cuts and cost saving spun as choice and progress! With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that the reasons given for Stingo's demise could and would apply to all of Phipps "local" beers. Soon the home grown range would be cut to Pale Ale, IPA, Jumbo Stout, and Stein lager. To add insult to injury, the old NBC bottled light ale brand name, Star-Light, was re-used on a weaker and cheaper Red Barrel style keg draught, Watneys Star Light. A bigger change was around the corner as 1968 arrived, workers at Phipps Brewery Limited would have to learn a new name for their employer.
Watney Mann ( Midland) 1968-1974
It looked at first as if the business plan for what became Watney Mann (Midland) Division was to continue Phipps beer as the traditional ale brand alongside the products of its new owners. However the late 60s was proving to be the low point for real, draught ale as keg beer seemed to promise a brighter future and Watneys was a company that believed in bright shiny futures.
Draught IPA and PA was gone by May 1968 and by 1972 all bottled Phipps went as well; Jumbo Stout finally bowing out in October, replaced by Watneys Cream Label Stout.
For a while an attempt to woo local drinkers with something called Manns Northampton Draught was tried to no great acclaim. Phipps draught, along with other regional traditional brews owned by Watneys, would be replaced on the pumps by Watneys SPA and Manns IPA. The theory being that these brands could benefit from national advertising and that the modern drinking public wanted clean and clear keg beer.
In the late 60s, the Watney Mann empire consisted of 12 breweries; Watneys at Mortlake London, Manns at Whitechapel London, Crowleys in Alton, Tamplins in Brighton, Dryborough in Edinburgh, Wilsons in Manchester, Bullards, Steward and Patteson and Norwich Brewery all in Norwich, Ushers in Trowbridge, Beverley Bros in Wakefield and Phipps in Northampton. Closure would hang over a number of these sites.
Watney Mann (Midland) was profitable but the Bridge Street brewery was soon identified as being too jumbled and disjointed for modern brewing; it was still really two separate plants cobbled together. As the parent company was taking stock of its sprawling empire and considering an option to rebuild Bridge Street as a modern plant, one of the longest and bitterest strikes to hit the company was grinding on. On 17th October 1969 the transport section walked out in a dispute over pay.
Pickets check a relief delivery van and driver
The strike settled in and publicans began to make their own arrangements for picking up beer. Soon the police became involved, controlling the traffic jams on Bridge St. that stretched far up the Towcester Rd. as a motley collection of vehicles queued to enter the brewery yard. On the 30th October the remaining workers came out in support of the drivers and the strike became total. As November came, pubs began to run out of beer, a process made worse by panic buying by some dedicated drinkers.
On the 6th November both sides finally agreed to go to arbitration and the men returned although the brewery took another week to get back to normal production. The T+G union rep at this time was Bill Morris, later Sir Bill, general secretary of the TUC.
Watneys had been rather late getting into the lager market, Carling Black Label had been on sale in the UK at Bass Charrington houses for several years and Whitbread linked up with Heineken as long ago as 1961. In 1969 Watneys invited Carlsberg to supply the lager in their pubs and the arrangement proved successful, Phipps' Stein lager being the inevitable casualty.
Talks with Carlsberg would't stop at just supplying lager to Watney's pubs. On 5th February 1970 Watney Mann announced it was to streamline its entire operation, reducing the number of breweries. The Midland Division chairman, Col Jones added:
"I have told my people here that while some changes might ultimately apply to the Bridge Street site, there will still remain important jobs to be done involving a lot of people. There might be some re-organisation of production but there are many other activities to be carried on. There will undoubtedly be a lot of work in Northampton."
...but not in brewing beer as we can clearly read between the lines.
In the late 60s, like Watneys before them, Danish lager brewers Carlsberg were riding the changing tastes of British drinkers with cash bulging in their pockets. They were looking for a British base at the same time Watney Mann were looking at their brewery's future. The two companies came together in a joint project to rebuild Bridge Street as Carlsberg's UK lager facility, a plan announced in July 1970.
South Brewery coming down
South Brewery, the former Phipps part of the complex, closed in January 1973 as the Carlsberg plant rose behind it. Office staff and distribution personnel moved up to the new Duston distribution site, built there for ease of access to the M1.Carlsberg'snew automated brewery control centre
In 1972 it was Watney's turn to be the focus of a takeover as Grand Metropolitan Hotels launched a hostile bid. Watneys fought, decking their Phipps delivery lorrys with " Keep Watneys, Watney's" slogans as if punters and publicans could or would save them. Earlier in the year they had fought off the Rank organisation but this time Grand Met won and began to re-organise their new aquisition.
Phipps used Commer delivery lorrys for decades
Grand Met continued with the plan they inherited and Watney Mann Midland was to become just a pub chain and distribution company whilst the old Victorian brewery building was to be torn down. The beautiful Italianate warehouse on the banks of the Nene, known as Brown and Panks after the wine merchant subsidiary that once occupied it, was listed in 1973 despite Carlsberg's objections. Originally built as a maltings by Ratliffe and Jeffery it had become a much loved part of the town's architectural heritage and plans were made to turn it into a museum. Sadly the building was neglected over the next few years and after a fire destroyed part of the roof in 1977 Carlsberg finally won permission to demolish it in 1979.
The Carlsberg Brewery takes shape behind the ill-fated Brown and Pank buildiing
Before the rundown the brewery employed around 1000 people with many families working there for generations. Some transferred to Duston, some took redundancy and only 100 were taken on by Carlsberg whose brewery was designed from the start as clinical and efficient modern plant needing far fewer hands to produce far more beer. The modernist new building was actually mostly built on the Baulsholm, marshy land behind the Phipps brewery. The River Nene was diverted to create a larger site and once the Carlsberg lager started to flow, the original P.Phipps or South brewery came down, the old NBC Phoenix Brewery continued to brew for another year.Carlsberg almost complete,, Phipps' South Brewery almost down, NBC's North Brewery in its last days, 1974. Courtesy of Carlsberg UK Ltd.
On 26th of May 1974 the task of signing off the last brew and handing over the brewery to the demolition contractors poignantly fell to the Watney Mann Midland Division chairman, Guy Phipps-Walker a descendant of Pickering, who had worked at the brewery since 1953. The photograph taken on the last day shows the remaining workforce in a surprisingly happy mood. Most of the workers left are older men, close to retirement age and content to take redundancy. Alongside them are a smaller number of younger men, employed on a casual basis to keep the plant going to the end.
Bridge Street workers on the last day of production, 26th May 1974. Guy Phipps-Walker is to the left of centre on the front row with a full length grey mac, Bill Urquhart to his left, John Welsh to his right.Third generation Phipps man Robin Seward is forth from the right at the top
Once the Watney Mann Midland company moved out to the new Duston Depot, Carlsberg moved into the Phipps offices on Bridge St. The remaining old brewery was demolished, the site was leveled and used as car and lorry parking. The Ratliffe Albion well and Victoria promenade well were also retained along with the large culvert under Bridge St. that delivered its water to the brewery.
Litchborough, 1974 -1986
Bill Urquhart and Frank Kenna in the late '70s Litchborough Brewery
At the time of the closing and demolition of the Bridge Street Brewery, the head brewer was Bill Urquhart. Bill had started out as a brewer in Alloa before heading south to Tollymache in Ipswich. From there he moved to Ely with East Anglian Breweries and then to Steward and Patteson in Norwich. They were taken over by Watney Mann in 1963 and as a result Bill was transferred within the company to Phipps in Northampton that same year.
Noel "Dusty" Miller, Bridge Street's long serving head brewer, had moved over to Carlsberg a year before the final end of brewing and his deputy, Bill, took over to see out the last days of the Phipps Brewery. In the years running up to closure Bill had made attempts to convince the Watney Mann board to construct a small brewing plant at the new Lodge Farm, Duston Depot. He knew that there was still a demand for a local, Northamptonshire brewed draught beer. A small brew plant could easily add its casks into the distribution system being constructed to bring beers in from other surviving Watney breweries. Unfortunately his plans found no favour and Duston would never produce its own beer.
Around Britain at this time many other traditional breweries were closing so finding similar employment with another company was going to difficult. Clearly there was to be no job for Bill in the new streamlined, state-of-the-art lager brewery in Northampton either.
Bill, however, was a resourceful and practical man who decided to strike out on his own. With the help of former Bridge Street colleagues such as Chief Chemist Michael Henson, Bill set about transforming the Phipps PA recipe into something he could brew on a small scale. He and Mike actually worked on this recipe at Bridge Street, under the noses of the Watney management. Mike remembers slipping out to Boots in his lunch hour to buy ingredients for the secret trial brews. Using his redundancy money and contacts within the brewing fraternity, Bill cobbled together the country's first micro brewery in the small Northamptonshire village of Litchborough.
Bill had initially tried to interest other former Phipps brewers in becoming his partner but it was soon apparent that the business would only support one wage. However like many small businesses and microbreweries in particular, behind Bill stood his wife Nessie and sometimes daughter Elspeth who both chipped in when needed. By 1978 neighbour Frank Kenna had formally become Bill's business partner after helping out since the early days.
At first the product range was sparse and simple, a traditional bitter in the Phipps style but it gained a loyal following. Initially it was only produced as a premium keg bitter since most of the area's cellars and bars had lost their beer pumps in the dash to keg that Watneys had encouraged. As the decade rolled on Bill encouraged many independent outlets to re-install traditional beer engines which enabled him to begin brewing and supplying them with traditional cask ale.
John Heaverman and Bill Urquhart in the brewery with halves of Northamptonshire Bitter
The mid- ‘70s saw the beginnings of the real ale revival and Bill was to play a key role as consultant to many small independent brewers setting up at this time. At his brewery he took on apprentices and passed on his knowledge directly. One such was Richard Jenkinson who would go on to found his own company down the road in Aylesbury, and The Chiltern Brewery continues to flourish there today. Another, John Heaverman would eventually take over the Litchborough concern when Bill literally flew off to St. Helena to help the government there set up an indigenous brewery, again calling on former Phipps friends such as Peter Mauldon to help source the plant.
Bill came to be seen as the father of the new generation of small breweries which sprang up during the first wave of the real ale revival. CAMRA's Mick Bolshaw said at the time: "Many a small brewer has beaten a path to Bill's fermentation vessels in search of advice and expertise, which has been freely and cheerfully given. The man seems to have become a guru to the trade." Chronicle and Echo, Oct 1980
In 1980 the brewery re-located to Daventry after planning permission for an enlarged plant in the village of Litchborough was refused. To mark the move and Bill's retirement, Northampton CAMRA members rolled a 9 gallon firkin of the last brew 5 miles from Litchborough to the new site in Daventry.
In 1983 Liddingtons, Rugby-based beer and wine wholesalers, bought the company from John Heaverman although he continued working at the re-located plant with his sons. The new owner's enthusiasm soon faded and the end finally came in 1986. Bill and his wife had by this time retired to their native Scotland but in the years following the demise of Bridge St. he had successfully passed on the Phipps way of brewing to the next generation.
The term Microbrewery hadn't been coined when Litchborough started but it is now regarded as the first example in the world. Other claimants to the title are the Selby Brewery although this was a re-opening of an existing brewery in 1972, and Westbury Ales in 1973 which was a small brewpub based in the Miner's Arms, Priddy, Somerset.
Frank Kenna Interview
Frank moved back from Australia in 1973 and found himself living next door to Bill and Nessie Urquhart in Litchborough, Northants. Bill had bought a property from Watney Mann, an old pub with barns in the rear and was in the process of getting his microbrewery together. Frank was an engineer and was enlisted to help with the construction of the plant. In these early days, long before an industry grew up to support microbrewing, every thing had to be made from scratch or adapted from other sources of parts.
Bill had got hold of a number of redundant cellar tanks from Watneys and these formed the basis of the Litchborough operation. Frank remembers drilling 1000's of holes in a sheet of stainless steel to make the mash tun filter floor, In the early days the ingredients also had to consist of whatever was available at a price and quantity that matched Bill’s 5 barrel plant. Originally Wheat syrup was used along with malt but soon Frank was able to cobble together a small malt mill from two redundant CO2 bottles and a washing machine motor. The pair only managed to find one large propane burner for the kettle which often led to a slight charring on the bottom of the vessel. Bill found this added a slight burnt, smokey note to the beer which he kept as part of the flavour. 4 varieties of hops were used, the idea being that if any one wasn’t available Bill could blend a close enough brew from 3, or supplement a different fourth. The beer was always cold filtered but then dry hopped and yeast added in the cask. Over the 6 years with Bill at the helm, Litchborough’s Northamptonshire Bitter evolved and improved but remained 3.8%. It is odd to think now in an era when light, golden beers dominate the trade that Bill coloured his naturally light brew with burnt sugar to make it appeal as a traditional, dark bitter.
The very first customer was Farthingstone Golf Course where Bill was a member, the beer delivered in kegs. As the 70s wore on more free houses broke away from the strangle hold of national chains and trad cask Litchborough grew as a proportion of production. Bill was not a crusader for real ale in the purist CAMRA sense, he was trying to brew a beer of traditional character but was always a pragmatic and prudent man. Nothing illustrates this more than his willing attempt to brew a lager. Carlsberg, like Watneys before them, experienced a plant shutting strike in the '70s. One of Bill’s customers who also served Carlsberg lager, asked him if he could supply an alternative during the strike and Bill happily dusted off the old Phipps Stein formula and produced a brew or two of “Litchbrau”. When Carlsberg resumed production Bill returned to a bitter only brewery.
Bill, or Morris as his close friends and family knew him, was often likened to Dad’s army’s Captain Mainwaring and not just for his physical resemblance, like Captain Mainwaring he was no push over. His day would start at 8.00 am with an opening drink and at mid day lunch was always served with full silver service, napkins and a finishing glass of whiskey. Generally, afternoons at Litchborough were not quite as industrious as the mornings.
Frank had initially been an occasional engineer, drayman and brewer at Litchborough as the turnover was small and variable in the first years of trading. By 1978 the business had established itself and Frank came on board full time. Although Bill had wanted him to stay on after he retired in 1980, Frank decided to return to his main profession and after pursuing a few avenues, eventually started an engineering company with two other partners which took up most of his working life. He remained a good friend of the Urquharts for the rest of theirs.
Frank Kenna at home today
The Dry Years, 1974 - 2004
Watney Mann's new owners Grand Metropolitan were a large, sprawling company that seemed to understand hotels and real estate more than it did brewing. The plans they inherited for the remaining part of the old Phipps NBC business, a pub chain without a brewery, involved building a new distribution centre at Lodge Farm in Duston which would bring in beer from other breweries and brewers to serve the estate. Later the pub chain would be run from offices in Delapre, Northampton, not far from the old Bridge St. Brewery site. Although the new brewery only brewed Carlsberg lager, it was still part owned by Grand Met until 1985.
Watney Mann had entered the ‘70s as a motley collection of old breweries servicing a number of separate pub estates, headed up by a brand that had quickly gone from being the dashing modern hope for brewing to the butt of radical humour and one of the hate figures for the emerging real ale movement.The famous Monty Python travel agent sketch where Eric Idle’s Mr Smoketoomuch rants on about Spain being full of tourists drinking “bleeding Watney’s Red Barrel” was first aired on 16th November 1972 and captures the moment the tide turned against Watneys. Sweetening the brew and re-branding it simply "Watneys Red" only delayed the end.
Ironically, only 8 years after ending traditional "fined" bitter Watney Mann Midland were trailing "new, traditional gas free real ale" in autumn 1976. Stung by the success of CAMRA and Litchborough, and with an eye on market share, 30 rural pubs were chosen to re-intoduce this type of beer. Although it was brewed in Norwich, new managing director Robin Harston announced it was the first step towards catering for local tastes:
" We have a lot of homework to do and part of that involves finding out what people really want from their local brewer... for even if we no longer have a brewery in Northampton, we are still looked upon over a wide area as the local brewer." Chronicle and Echo September 1976.
It is possible to imagine the directors and managers at Watney Mann Midland realising their hasty discarding of Phipps might have been a mistake and that although sterile gas-filled keg beer had its place, there would always be a market for a more complex and crafted beer. CAMRA had labelled Northamptonshire a "Real Ale desert", largely thanks to the efforts of Watneys in dismantling the county's beer engines, and the label stuck.
Watneys still hoped to be thought of as your local brewer while selling beer brewed in Norwich and London. The pub in the picture, is the Admiral Nelson in Braunston,
Interestingly, the Phipps brand name was set aside at this point. Whether Carlsberg had options to pick it up or Grand Met had a notion they might one day revive it, we can’t know from this distance. Watney’s part in the company name was finally dispensed with in 1978 when NBC made a return as the business became Manns Northampton Brewery Co. Just as the Phipps NBC star had gradually been replaced by the Watney red barrel on signage in the 60s, the Manns St.George and Dragon figure started to replace the red barrel in the late 70s.
In 1987 Grand Met merged another of its brewery-less brewers, The Norwich Brewery, with Manns NBC to create Manns Norwich Brewery Ltd. Watneys had taken it over in 1963 and closed their brewery in 1983 but Northampton remained the centre of the new joint operation.
In 1991 Grand Met sold its brewing interests to Courage, then owned by Australians Elders whose best know brand was Fosters.
In 1995 Scottish and Newcastle bought Courage Elders Fosters. It reorganised its assets, renaming Courage the Brewman Group Ltd, one of its subsidiaries being Brewman MNB Ltd, our old friend.
In 1999 it was renamed again this time Cellar Door Direct Ltd but by 2003 S&N had taken the decision to get out of pub ownership altogether and the company was set to be broken up. The distribution network and depot at Lodge Farm had stayed with Grand Met who had merged with Guiness to become Diago, the opperation was sold to Kuehne Nagel, a German based logistic company. The pubco Spirit, based in Burton on Trent, then took over the majority of the surviving pub estate and the Delapre offices were closed.
There was a six month handing-over period between S&N and Spirit during which time S&N Northampton manager Quentin Neville transferred to Spirit to help integrate the old company’s pubs into its new owner’s business.
The Brewing Revival, 2004 to date
During what would become the last year of S&N's ownership of the Northampton pub chain, two of the local managers, Quentin Neville and Edward Theakston had started working on a plan to re-introduce a Phipps real ale to the Northamptonshire Chef and Brewer pubs as a historic, local novelty. The idea had been encouraged by a number of the more senior landlords, some of whom still doggedly referred to the company as Phipps! Following S&N's decision the wind up the company, Edward Theakston left to revive his family's old Masham brewery in Yorkshire but Quentin along with brother Alaric, decided to take the opportunity and go it alone, continuing the real ale project with Phipps NBC as an independent company once more.Caroline Teunissen, Phipps Chief Chemist Mike Henson, Ann Phipps-Reybould, Phipps Brewers Clerk John Clipston, The Mayor and Mayoresse of Northampton and Alaric Nevilleat the re-launch of Phipps IPA at the Sir Pickering Phipps pub, December 2008
Picture courtesy of The Chronicle and Echo
It took four years of research and negotiation from the inception of the revival for Phipps NBC beer to launch in December 2008 at the Sir Pickering Phipps in Northampton. You can read about this process in "brewing our ales".
The reception of the beer has surpassed all expectation and its a matter of great pride that once again people can walk into many pubs and clubs in the Northants area and order a pint of PhippsFurther Research and Credits
If you want to go further into the history of not only Phipps NBC but Northamptonshire brewing as a whole, the following book, invaluable in preparing our own history, is a treasure chest of detail:
BREWED IN NORTHANTS - A Directory of Northamptonshire Brewers (including the Soke of Peterborough) 1450 - 2010.
By Mike Brown with Brian Wilmott ISBN 1-8739-06-7.
Published by the Brewery History Society, 102 Ayelands, New Ash Green, Longfield, Kent DA3 8JW