Dunston -- end of an era
Working men’s clubs sprang up throughout the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries to provide small havens of comfort for people who worked long hours in often degrading circumstances in pits and factories. The clubs did charity work and helped people down on their luck.
And, naturally, they offered what at the time was called “a healthy beverage” – beer. The healthy beverage was in short supply during World War One but the clubs in the North-east found themselves still short of deliveries when the war ended. Malt and hops were rationed and brewers concentrated in the main in supplying their own pubs.
And when supplies did get through to clubs, the stewards found it was often heavily watered down. The brewers were charging the clubs the full price for beer and were raking in huge profits as a result of cheating. That old musical hall song about “the very fat man that waters the workers’ beer” was not fantasy.
The clubs complained that the brewers were charging the full excise duty on beer but were supplying casks that had often been watered down from 570 standard gallons to make 851.
The anger at the activities of the brewers led clubs in many areas to plan their own breweries. The Federation or Fed for short became the biggest and best known of the clubs breweries but there were others in Yorkshire, the Midlands and south Wales. Clubs on Tyneside and throughout Co Durham and Northumberland raised the funds to launch their own brewery. Their first attempt ended in embarrassing failure. In 1919, they bought a brewery in Alnwick that turned out to be unusable. It had not brewed for years, the buildings were falling down and the brewing vessels were rotten with rust.
Smarting from this disaster, the clubs’ leaders turned to a brewery closer to hand and bought J.H. Graham’s plant in Newcastle. Brewing started in 1921 and the enterprise was such a success that in 1931 the Fed moved to bigger premises in John Buchanan’s brewery in Hanover Square.
The relationship between clubs and brewery was in sharp contrast to the one that existed between a tied pub and its brewery. The Fed was a co-op owned by all the participating clubs. In return for their shares, they received good quality beer sold at prices far cheaper than those offered by commercial brewers. The annual dividend – the famous co-op “divi” – paid out to the clubs every year enabled them to extend their premises and offer facilities beyond the means of pubs in the impoverished years of the 1920s and 1930s.
The most remarkable aspect of the Fed was that it was run by a different breed of people to the regional brewers of the time. It was said in Victorian times that in well-to-do circles the less intelligent young men who failed the army and the church would be sent off to run the family brewery.
The Fed, in sharp contrast, was run by men who often left school at 12 to go down the pits or work in foundries. In their spare time, they poured themselves in to running local clubs and some of them moved from the clubs to managing the brewery in Newcastle.
In order to keep pace with demand for its beer, the Fed installed a new brew house in 1957 that cost £450,000 and which was capable of producing 7,500 barrels a week and 50,000 bottles. The brewery moved with the times in very way. In the 1960s, as more and more clubs opened, commercial brewers attempted to muscle in on the Fed’s trade by offering a new type of beer to clubs – tank beer.
This was a halfway house between cask ale and keg beer – bright, filtered but unpasteurised beer. I recall, some 20 years later, touring clubs in the North-east and marvelling at their size, the vast number of people using them and the enormous quantities of beer being consumed.
In 1980, the Fed was on the move again to a custom-built site at Dunston on the Gateshead side of the Tyne. The new brewery cost £20m and at its peak produced 10,000 barrels a week.
The decline and eventual sale of Dunston to Scottish & Newcastle in 2004 was the result of massive changes in the fabric of social life in Britain. Industry went in to sharp decline as both Tory and New Labour governments decided financial services would form the basis for the country’s financial future. Mining communities disappeared and many clubs went with them.
For those of us that think there is more to a happy life than just financial gain and self-interest, Dunston will not be forgotten. For close on a century, working men and women banded together out of compassion and a belief in the common good to produce a healthy beverage for their friends, neighbours and work mates. They deserve to be remembered with thanks and affection.