Crowns, labels and slips
Memories of the bottling plant at Benskins Brewery
By John Perry
As a 16 year old I entered into the world of Benskins the brewers in Watford, now alas long gone, It seems strange to recall that such a large undertaking, as it was then should have been bought out just to eliminate a rival, which is precisely what took place.I had worked for just under two years in engineering before starting my career in the world of brewing; we left school in those days at the tender age of fourteen. Somehow I cannot envisage today’s children doing the same.
Labels and slips
My first Job was as a label boy. As the beer was bottled, it was my job to see that the bottles each had a label. The machine was all hand fed with pints or quarts, the stoppers were all put in by hand. The label over the top of the stopper was called a slip. There was a large board, which was pasted up, and the labels or slips were laid out into the paste and then either applied over the top as a slip or put onto the bottle as a label. This seemed like quite a lark at the start, but the machine was relentless and it was hard to make up if you got behind.
‘Handraulic’ bottle filling
As one’s proficiency grew, then there were other jobs on the machine to be learned. The bottles came from the bottle washing plant and had to be put onto a spout on the machine, which then rotated to fill, and as the filled bottle came round it was taken by hand and put onto a large wheel, the bottles laid back to present the body to the label and slip boys. Then filled bottles were packed into crates, one dozen for pints and quarts in fours. As you can see we were all “Handraulic”. Being young, we were always up to something, like seeing how far you would dare to let the labels get behind before making up for lost time!
The beers we bottled were India pale ale, Stout, Brown ale, Light ale, Jubilee ale, Colne Spring Ale, Cider from Gaymers of Attleborough, Guinness on licence delivered by tanker, from Park Royal in London and then bottled. Sometimes we had to work on the automatic machines, which were for filling half-pints and were a bit “sissy” for us big strong lads!! These half pints were packed into crates of two dozen; the metal tops being called “Crowns”.
Clogs and Wellington boots
We all wore clogs, with the wooden soles and the metal cleats underneath. We used to find an old pair of Wellingtons and cut the soles off, then put the Wellington tops on to our legs and lastly put on the clogs, now with a long apron we could work in the wet all day.Believe it or not there are still no hairs on the back of my calves to this day, as an effect of wearing Wellingtons, continually!! The reason for the clogs was to stop us getting cut on all the broken glass under foot. By the way, broken glass is called “Cullet” in the brewing trade; ours was taken away to be recycled.
The first lagers
We saw the introduction of the first Lagers into the system; one was called “Castle or Tuborg” then came” Carlsberg”. What a difference they made to the brewing industry in this country!! The ladies apparently do not like the smell of beer, but lager is acceptable. Then I got a job in Despatch. This was the floor where all the filled bottles were stored. As the inspectors called out their requirements, we sent the crates down a chute to the loading stage to be loaded onto the waiting lorries. We were continually trying to wheel higher and higher stacks of crates, there were some spectacular crashes at times as we tried to each go faster than the other, but boys will be boys I suppose!!
Colne Spring Ale
Christmas was a busy time with all the reserves of bottles and crates coming out of store in the old brewery buildings by the River Colne in Lower High Street. It was Healey’s brewery at one time I believe. It had an old fire engine, which was hand pumped– this must be in a museum now. Across the river from these storage buildings was the Maltings, and below these was the storage for the famed Colne Spring Ale. This stayed in the barrels for some months, and as the old brewery had been changed into a maltings, the cellars were still beneath the Malting floors, an ideal place for storage of Colne Spring.
No water, only liquor!
One thing that I found really strange was the fact that there is no water in a Brewery!! It’s called “Liquor”, I suppose that is so that no one can say that they watered down the beer!! The barrel sheds took up the whole of the central yard, there were hundreds of barrels stacked up inside, if I remember right they went in size as follows, Pin—4 ½ gallons, Firkin –9 gallons, Kil or Kilderkin– 18 gallons, Barrel– 36 gallons, Hogshead– 54 gallons. The barrels were Russian oak and the Cooperage was always busy. During my last year at Benskins, the last cooper was given his articles having completed his apprenticeship; for this he was put in a barrel and covered in the most unimaginable filth and then paraded around the premises. Another old custom gone forever!!
As the barrels came back from the customers they were unloaded, and then a man had a lance with a gaslight on the end which enabled him to see if there was any pieces of the bung left inside, he sniffed to see if the barrel was sweet, hence his title “Sniffer” the pieces left inside he deftly removed with a sharp spike.
The Barrel sheds was a place where many of the inmates of Leavesden Asylum worked. They walked to work all the way from Leavesden to the Brewery and then home again afterwards. Sometimes as we walked through the sheds a face would appear and the action of shooting would take place with a finger as the gun. They all worked very hard though and needed to be stopped at “Beaver” time. This was the beer ration – two pints for all, except the Maltsters who got four pints; most people drew their ration in two separate one pint tin containers like a soldiers water bottle.
Pipes and butts
There was a canteen, where they spent the first few hours every day making rolls for the hungry workers. These were picked up by one of the youngsters; a label boy was a good person to send!! Beneath the Canteen was the Bonded stores, where they bottled spirits. These came in very large barrels called pipes and butts. I am told that the spirit came in at a hundred proof and was then cut with distilled water, to the seventy or so that whisky is sold at today, ——- yes I know I said water, but it was distilled and not the same!! At any time there would be grain lorries from James and Sons in the yard. These picked up the spent grains that once had been Malt, to be used in cattle feed. When used Malt is first “Kibbled”, that is to squash it slightly so when it is boiled the malt is all used up.
Yeast and Marmite
That lovely smell that is brewing will not be happening again in Watford, some disliked it but I thought it was a nice smell, on cold days the steam would rise to quite a height over the brew house. The thing that I found fascinating was the yeast, which started in the brew as a small batch in a tiny vessel but ended up being what looked like tons of the stuff, which went to Marmite, and every so often they would start again with a small amount and end up with loads of it. Each brew had to have a small amount taken to the Brewers office, where they could keep an eye on each batch, checking for colour etc: they were in charge overall. The head brewer was Mr Batkin; there were other brewers also, Mr Norton and Mr Kilkenny who was the son of the Managing director. There was a coppersmith, who had busy time, as all the vessels in the brewery were copper lined. When I go these days to a Distillery, all the copper reminds me of the brewery, the fermenting vessels were wood with a copper lining.
The thing that seemed to be miraculous was the brew itself, just malt and hops and sugar. The product of this is called” Wort”—- when it is raw, just boiled and without yeast, but put in the magic yeast and in six days beer!! When the brew is run off it first went into a “Back”. This is another of those names that come from medieval times; sometimes I wonder if they ever had the man with his leather trousers sitting in a puddle of beer like the Excise did!! Apparently if he stuck to the seat then the beer was good!!!
The cooper’s art
Riding ones bicycle to work was a bit fraught with all the railway lines going across the yard, with their own crossing gates across the passage to Watford fields. The engines only came so far and then the tractor took over; these trains came up from Watford junction. This passageway was very popular with the public. Sometimes the Coopers whose workshop was near the level crossing would have the doors open, then they could be seen using their tools which are the same as those of old, like sitting on a long bench using a drawknife, and the din when they drove the barrels tight has to be heard to be believed, this was accomplished with two men hammering and going round and round until the bands were tight. When a barrel is made it looks like an open flower, as they assemble the pieces one end is put together with the rest looking as if it will never fit, then steam is applied and a band of rope is applied tourniquet fashion to pull the ends together and the hoops are then put over as the other end is put on and banged together. The water tightness of the barrel, (or should I say beer tightness?) is achieved by the introduction of a special type of rush plant between the staves as the barrel planks are called, also the barrel when in use is waxed inside. It really is incredibly clever, or so it always seemed to me, but what a noisy place, no ear defenders then, I could not guess what a health and safety officer would make of it all now!!
Blacksmiths and boilers
Another place full of interest for us boys was the Blacksmiths shop. The springs from the brewery lorries were set up here, after a time they lost their set and were heated and bent back to the right amount of curve. When sent on an errand the cooperage and the blacksmiths being close together proved a magnet for us youngsters. If it was cold we would go into the boiler house to talk with the boiler man, as you can imagine the hot water requirement for a brewery is immense, there was a long row of very large boilers, all oil fired and making quite a noise when in full burn.
One thing that really impressed me, even as a callow youth was an old man, his shoes about two inches thick with pieces of leather nailed to the bottoms, carrying his worldly possessions he would turn up as we were getting ready to leave after the days work. The only thing that he wanted was the hot water that continually dribbled from a pipe low down on the boiler house wall, he would hang a Billy can under the pipe and sit to wait for it to fill, then he would go off on his way, he was always clean but just how he managed that while on the road I never knew. Now being older I really wish that I had taken the trouble to speak to him, he would have some tales to tell. The police knew of him but he never got into any trouble that we heard about, his total impression on us all was that he was the old tramp.
Putting heads together
On my trips around to pick up a special barrel, this was because some customers wanted their beer to be carbonated in the cask, these casks were fitted with a special valve and were filled by me as part of my filter room duties, I would watch the “Racking” this was filling the barrels and was next to the large barrel sheds. When the men stacked the barrels they put their heads together to make a stable platform to lift the weights safely, and yes it really works, at odd times we tried it, it seems to make large weights quite effortless – hence putting your heads together I suppose? Can you see them with legs splayed with caps locked together, the barrel swung with one easy movement up on to the stack? This only with the smaller ones I might add!!
On my trips on the lorries at odd times, it was interesting to see just where Benskins had Public houses, Much Hadham, Christmas Pie, that’s just two of the strange places that we ended up while delivering the supplies to the Pubs. Out in the country some of the pubs did not even have cellars, the barrels were put up behind the counter on to a ladder like device and the Beer was drawn straight from the barrel; this was even advertised outside, with the addition to the pub sign of the words, straight from the wood. One of the pubs was called “The Case is altered” but just what it meant I never discovered. Most were animals or Kings and Queens, arms or heads!! Most had lovely signs, the pictures being real works of art, all refurbished at Watford in the Builders Yard, then repainted by Millers in King street, a local sign writing firm.
Then my call for National Service came up and Brewery service stopped for two years, returning to resume employment in the bottling stores my job had been filled, there was however a vacancy in the Filter Room. Beer is filtered as it is bottled, it is also Carbonated by the process of adding Carbon Dioxide to make the beer sparkle in the glass, the Carbon Dioxide came in frozen blocks, these were put into a cylinder with a hot water jacket on the outside. As the hot water melted the” Cardice” as it was called, the pressure rose in the cylinder and then was put into the beer, the traditionalists do not like gassy beer, nor did they then!!
Filters old and new
The filters had to be made from paper pulp, this was washed and reused, there were large washing machine like containers for this purpose, the old filters were shredded by hand and then put into the machine and steam heated, large paddles reduced the contents to pulpy water. After thoroughly washing the pulp was put into a mould and water pressure squeezed all the water out to make a new filter, about forty of these went into a tall filter body, in use the beer went in one end cloudy and out of the other clear. Modernity reared its head in the shape of rotary filters from Denmark, these spun at an incredible speed, like a spin drier, however the plates inside the filter got really mucky so we had to take them apart and clean them, this time there were about a hundred plates to be cleaned each time, so much for progress!!
First published in Watford Observer 27/10/00
© John of Croxley.