Retro: The Barnsley pint for strong tastes

Barnsley Brewery Workers Protesting - 9 September 1974
Barnsley Brewery Workers Protesting - 9 September 1974
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Barnsley Bitter was the miner’s pint. Top of the northern beers’ league for strength, it was an acquired taste.

Visitors winced when they tasted it, Barnsley men missed it when they left.

Cudworth-born TV personality Michael Parkinson once said: “Lads who thought they could drink a bit used to come and try Barnsley Bitter. It was only when they felt like their heads were falling off that they realised there was a limit.

“It was a seductive beer. It used to stick to the glass. You could taste it blindfolded. But it didn’t leave you with many memories afterwards.”

Many other stories have also been told about the Oakwell Brewery legend.

There’s the one about the magistrate who had a senior job at the brewery. Strangers facing charges of drunkenness after a night visiting the town were let off with a small fine if they said the strength of the beer had surprised them.

There were drinkers who tried the Barnsley challenge along old Shambles Street, starting with a thimbleful of beer at the first bar and doubling their intake at each pub, never reaching the bucketful and the 17th and last stop.

And there were the Barnsley football supporters who told their sons that the fine pitch had been sprayed with the brew – and told each other that the players must have been treated with it as well.

Predictably, and perhaps quite rightly, there was a public outcry in the early 1970s when John Smiths (then part of the Imperial Tobacco-Courage empire) announced production and distribution would be moved from the Barnsley Brewery at Oakwell to Tadcaster.

This included axing Barnsley Bitter and about 200 jobs. Management argued it was uneconomical to operate two breweries only 28 miles apart.

So serious was the situation that the Battle for Barnsley Bitter reached the House of Commons in February 1973. A broadside was fired by Defence Secretary and Barnsley MP Roy Mason who put down a motion – signed by 66 MPs – expressing concern over the growth of the tied house system in beer supply.

He said: “Massive conglomerates are gobbling up small regionally-based breweries, abolishing quite indiscriminately the local brews of local bitter beers.

“They are thrusting upon the consumer a form of alcoholic fizz until all beers will soon taste alike – no choice, no real draught bitter, just a cold, insipid, clinical version of traditional bitter beer.”

In August 1974 a South Yorkshire County Council plan to save the Barnsley Brewery was scorned by Tory councillor Irvine Patnick as “a stupid waste of ratepayers’ money”.

The council had called for a report to be made into ways of saving the brewery, one idea being to take it over.

The council’s initiative had won the backing of many beer drinkers. A spokesman for John Smiths at Tadcaster said he was surprised to read of the idea but any takeover bid would be considered.

According to Lesley Richmond and Alison Turton in their 1990 book The Brewing Industry: A Guide to Historical Records, Barnsley Brewery was established around 1857 by Guy Senior in Pontefract Road, Barnsley. Initially trading as Paul and Guy Senior’s Oakwell Brewery, makers of Barnsley Bitter, a new concern, the Barnsley Brewery Co Ltd, “was incorporated as a limited liability company in August 1888 to take over the business, Arthur Senior remaining as brewery manager”.

During the 20th century, the Barnsley Brewery Co Ltd acquired the New Trent Brewery Company Ltd in Crowle in 1916. It moved its head offices to Beevor Hall, Barnsley six years later and absorbed the James Fox Brewery in Crowle in 1949.

Richmond and Turton say a mutual trading agreement was reached “with John Smith’s Tadcaster Brewery Co Ltd, North Yorkshire, in 1957, merging fully with that firm in 1961”.

During the weekend of September 7-8, 1974 protest marchers descended on Barnsley in the latest bid to save Barnsley’s bitter.

Hundreds of members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) from all parts of the country were handed maps on which 13 pubs which still served the Barnsley brew had been marked. The idea was to sample a pint in each pub before a march through the town.

Police made a last-minute change in their destination, which was to have been the doomed Oakwell Brewery. A deputation from the local branch later handed in a protest letter at the brewery.

A John Smith’s spokesman denied that a company policy existed to phase out Barnsley Bitter. In fact sales figures were alleged to have risen since “Smiths pubs were installed in many public houses”, he said.

“Tadcaster brew seems to go down better than Barnsley bitter because the quality of the product comes more to the customer expectations.

“The traditional bitter in a wooden barrel requires more expert attention and consistent cellar temperatures. We are at a loss to understand why a campaign is necessary,” he added.

On January 31, 1976, The Star announced the end of Barnsley Bitter was nigh. For the news tipplers had been fearing had finally arrived from Tadcaster – the last deliveries were to be made in April.

Thus, from the week beginning March 29, the last few barrels of Barnsley Bitter were loaded and shipped out of the town’s brewery.

As the brewery turned off the taps for the last time, the beer was taken to the few remaining pubs and clubs still serving the full-bodied brew.

The Oakwell Brewery was used for some time afterwards as an area office and distribution site by John Smiths but was eventually demolished.

n Did any Retro readers protest about the closure of the Barnsley Brewery? Do any readers have any Barnsley Bitter mementoes? If the answer is yes to any of the above, please let us know.