Do you remember the days when the smell of beer wafted down every street from big breweries like Fremlin’s, Style & Winch and Mason & Co?
Don’t worry if you don’t, you’re not alone – even some of the people who worked for those breweries struggle to remember too much about those days, owing to the fact it seems half of them were half drunk half of the time.
Brewing had been big business in Maidstone since the 1600s and was still a big enough employer in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s to keep thousands employed, and well-lubricated.
While most staff were given a daily quota of beer, some clearly found a way around that limit – and if you were a drayman delivering beer around the town and beyond, it sounds like life was a permanent pub crawl.
As a schoolboy, Paul Caney recalled helping out as a drayman’s assistant for the Courage brewery – formerly Style & Winch based in St Peter’s Street – and said a main part of the job was keeping the driver from going thirsty.
“Before leaving secondary school we were sent to work for one day at a local business to initiate us into working life,” he recalled.
“I remember my day working at the Courage brewery as a drayman's mate which entailed me sitting in the lorry with my feet on a crate of light ale with a bottle opener in my hand and passing the opened bottles to the driver as he delivered beer to the pubs in and around Maidstone.”
This was back in the mid-60s, when the Road Traffic Act of 1930 only made it illegal to drink and drive if you were too drunk to control the vehicle – and it wasn’t until 1967 that an actual drink-drive limit was introduced. While Paul couldn’t be certain how many bottles the driver drank, it’s safe to say he would have been over the limit, if there’d been one.
“Add to that he also had a beer given to him by the landlord at every pub we visited,” added Paul, “and on our return we went to the 'tap' room for a beer before we clocked off.”
Whether or not said drayman went to the pub to wind down after that hard day’s work, we’ll probably never know – but he wasn't the only Style & Winch employee heading home drunk in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“My grandfather worked there but I’m not sure of dates ....possibly the ‘50s,” recalled Gary-Jan Flexon. “He used to drink more than his fair share and my grandmother used to hide at the back of the bus in case he got on. When they got off he'd say to her ...'hello Elsie, I didn't realise you were on the bus too'.”
If the beer quota didn’t send you to sleep, then maybe the monotony of the factory work would.
Over at Fremlin’s Brewey, on the site of the Fremlin Walk shopping centre, David Woodcock remembered struggling to concentrate during one particular shift.
“I worked in Fremlin’s for a while, mainly on bottle cleaning,” he recalled.
“While sitting watching the cleaned bottles going round to be filled I fell asleep and let a cracked one through. There was an almighty bang and glass and beer flew everywhere. I was taken off that job.”
Brewing might have been serious business, but even standard working practices at some breweries sound more like activities from a stag weekend.
Tom Overill recalled how his uncles Bill and Jim worked at Style & Winch from leaving school in the early years of the Second World War – with Jim working there and the Courage bottling works until it closed in 1971.
“He served a full apprenticeship to become a cooper,” added Cathy Taylor. “The final test was to be rolled in your own barrel down the loading ramp.
“If the barrel survived intact, you passed your apprenticeship. Uncle Jim passed.”
For many others in the town, the breweries were part of every day life and provided a living for thousands of families.
Tim Monk recalled: “My late father worked at Fremlin’s, he was a drayman in the town with a team of horses, plus he travelled around the country showing off their show dray.”
David Millward added: “My dad Jack Millward was a ‘Maltser’, (according to his marriage certificate).
“Before he was called up in ‘39. Never made it back to Blighty, he was killed by friendly fire in Burma in ‘44. He survived El Alamein but they got him in the end.”
Michael Fagg remembered working at the Courage brewery from 1967 to 1969, earning £16-16 shillings a week and overtime on a Saturday, while David Goodayle recalled working for Fremlin’s Brewery in the yeast room in the ‘60s and ‘70s, adding: “The only one thing I can remember is that we were given two pints a day.”
Other than Fremlin’s and Style & Winch, other big employers included Mason & Co. Waterside Brewery, in St Faith’s Street.
Established in 1830, Masons were known for their scientific approach and began bottling beer in 1909, before eventually being taken over by Shepherd Neame in 1956.
Little remembered now, Isherwood, Foster & Stacey Ltd was a big presence on Lower Stone Street for more than 200 years.
Possibly founded before 1650, the brewery was eventually acquired by Fremlin’s in 1929 along with 151 pubs, and was closed down.
But the end of Fremlin’s in 1972 didn’t signal the end of brewing in the County Town.
A decade later in 1983, Phil and Debbie Goacher opened their own brewery – Goacher’s – in the Loose valley, reviving the ancient tradition, and going from strength to strength until expanding and moving to Tovil in 1990.
Still going strong, Goacher’s is now run principally by their son Howard, and there are now plans to expand again and move to new premises near East Sutton.
Any future employees can rest assured they will neither be rolled down a ramp in a barrel, nor be allowed to drink all day while delivering to pubs.