Retro: Sheffield drinkers mourned as Ward’s Brewery closed

Wards Brewery 1979
Wards Brewery 1979
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“It was like arriving in heaven coming to work here,” said one former Ward’s Brewery employee after he had left 12-hour nights at Firth Brown steelworks.

No wonder, then, that workers were gutted, not to mention the acute despair of thousands of drinkers, when the brewery closed on July 2, 1999.

The official farewell party for Ward’s staff had been held some days earlier at Bramall Lane. They screwed Ward’s pumps back on the bar for one last time and, according to all who attended, held a brilliant wake that emphasised the family atmosphere enjoyed by the 140 staff.

Around the same time the death of Ward’s Beer was marked with a funeral cortege to the gates of the brewery by members of Sheffield & District Branch of CAMRA. Outside the landmark building they laid a symbolic wreath of flowers in memory of one of their favourite pints.

David Lloyd Parry in South Yorkshire Stingo, A Directory of South Yorkshire Brewers 1758-1995, states Ward’s operation can be traced to 1837 with William Roper and John Kirkby owning a malt kiln and brew house in Effingham Street.

When Roper died in 1842, the business passed to Kirby, who was joined in the venture in 1860 by Lincolnshire maltster George Wright. In turn, Wright was replaced around 1868 by Septimus Henry Ward, the business being styled Kirby, Ward & Company.

Parry states that “the first tied outlet that John Kirby acquired was the Prince of Wales at Chapeltown”.

The Brewing History: a Guide to Historical Records, edited by Lesley Richmond and Alison Turton, says that between 1872 and 1876 the firm was known as S H Ward & Co. Later, rival breweries were acquired including, Bradley & Co’s Soho Brewery in Eccelsall Road and the Albion Brewery.

The Soho Brewery became Ward’s main operating base and its name was changed to Sheaf Brewery. S H Ward & Co was registered in February 1896 as a limited liability company in February 1896.

Ward’s thrived for the first half of the 20th century and, according to Parry, always “pursued a vigorous policy of shedding old properties, rebuilding others and building new ones in Sheffield and beyond”.

During the remainder of the century Ward’s underwent a number of mergers and takeovers. In June 1965 the Truman Hanbury Buxton Group acquired a stake in the brewery.

At this period, Ward’s had 93 freehold properties and some 33 leaseholds. Two female members of the Ward family were on the board – Jane Pritchard, who lived in Sussex, and Ann Sutton of Ashford.

Ward’s next major development occurred in November 1972 when control of the business changed hands in a £1.7m deal.

Vaux and Associated Breweries, established in Sunderland in 1837 by Cuthbert Vaux, bought 51% of the capital in exchange for an issue of its own shares.

Joint managing director Paul Nicholson said it was an “important move” for the Vaux Group: “We are well established in the North East and in Scotland. Through Ward’s we now have the opportunity to develop a strong base further south.”

Ward’s pre-tax profits for the year to September 30, 1971 were £253,000. It was also revealed that Trumans, who had taken a stake in Wards, had been taken over by Grand Met Hotels.

Wilfrid A Wright, chairman of Ward’s, said the takeover by Vaux would make no difference to the man in the street. He had sought a merger with Vaux for protection.

“Regulars in our pubs will still be able to drink the same ale brewed at our Sheffield brewery. There are certainly no plans to close the brewery down,” he assured.

Vaux gained a further foothold in South Yorkshire with the purchase of Darley’s Brewery at Thorne, near Doncaster, in 1978.

During May 1979, £400,000 was spent on a warehouse alongside the brewery in Ecclesall Road which was opened by the Lord Mayor, Coun Peter Jackson.

A year later Vaux announced it was to sell its Lorimer Brewery and 214 pubs to Allied, raising £21m to enable the group to cut its overdrafts by £3m, put £5m to development and set £13m aside for future spending.

In 1982 Sheffield Refreshment Houses, the hotels group which owned Kenwood Hall, was acquired by Vaux.

By this time the Sunderland-based company also owned the London International Hotel and had developed Swallow Hotels into one of the major hotel groups in the country.

Spreading outside the North East was a good move for Vaux, said the chairman, when half-year profits of £3.47m were turned in during May 1982. Turnover was significantly up at £43.75m.

Overseas the group’s investment in Australia was encouraging and its Belgian brewery did well but the New York-based Fred Koch Brewery made a small loss.

In an average week in the early 1990s Ward’s brewed 650,000 gallons of beer, chiefly Sheffield Best Bitter and Darley’s Thorne Best Bitter, along with the stronger Kirby Ale and a mild and a rare German-style beer. It was a bitter-only brewery – lagers came from Sunderland.

Vaux Breweries was renamed Vaux Group in the 1990s as the company diversified into hotels and care homes. The hotels traded as Swallow Hotels and the company was finally named The Swallow Group.

During the following years, Ward’s hit the Sheffield Star headlines for a number of reasons: raising the price of a pint, tussles with tenants over rent increases, announcing details of pre-tax profits, re-siting the ornate Victorian archway overhanging the brewery and the sale of Ward’s beer in the south.

Then, in September 1998, the group dropped a bombshell – Ward’s and the Sunderland Vaux brewery were to close. Darley’s Thorne brewery had shut earlier in 1986.

A ray of hope manifested itself through rescue bids by several management buy-out teams. One was made by Frank Nicholson, managing director of Ward’s and Vaux. He had resigned as a director of the Swallow Group to mount the bid.

The Star launched a Save Our Ward’s campaign supported by numerous personalities. Sadly, the Swallow Group did not listen to anyone.

Ward’s closed, along with its sister brewery in Sunderland. Frank Nicholson said after his Sheffield bid had failed: “I’m overwhelmingly sad at the waste. A brewery is a living thing and to see it like the Marie Celeste is awful.”

The Ward’s site was redeveloped for housing in subsequent years. The Vaux name is also defunct and the parent company was taken over by Whitbread in 2000.

n Have any readers early pictures of people working at the Ward’s Brewery? If so, please get in touch.