Let’s roll out the barrels!

Samuel Webster's Fountain Head brewery, Halifax. It closed in  1996 and the site is now Fountain Head village.
Samuel Webster's Fountain Head brewery, Halifax. It closed in 1996 and the site is now Fountain Head village.

Hogshead, barrel, kilderkin, firkin... all these were wooden beer casks in use during my spell as a temporary drayman during winter 1953-’54 at Samuel Webster’s Fountain Head Brewery, Ovenden Wood, Halifax.

The brewery, established in 1838 thanks to the local spring water, was designed originally for the horse and cart era, but the brewery successfully adapted to motorised transport and had some classic Leyland flat lorries. The then commercial speed limit for built-up areas was 25mph, though it was not rigorously enforced.

The transport office was at the entrance to the brewery yard. Inside, a barrel of dark mild was always on tap for visitors.

The brewery produced two main draught beers, dark mild and a lighter, stronger best mild. Old beer, much stronger, was available over the festive period. The Christmas and new year period was very hectic . Massive hogsheads of 54 gallons were pressed into service to handle increased demand.

The drivers and draymen were characters in their own right and the vast majority were partial to a good pint of beer; it just went with the job.

Our delivery allowances were always welcome, usually a pint or two, depending on the state of play. Brewery reps would always treat us to a drink. A good relationship existed between landlords and draymen. They relied on us and the few more portly depended on us.

My main job was to do the cellar work, rolling out all the empty barrels first, then lifting all the barrels on to stone or wooden gantry platforms and when necessary topping and venting barrels with hard or soft wooden pegs.

Once loaded and away from the brewery we were on auto-pilot and incidents were many and varied.

We delivered to one upmarket hostelry where the landlord would never let us into the bar. He always signed the delivery note in the cellar and left half a crown (22p) on a barrel end in lieu of a drink. We new our place; c’est la vie.

A change of landlord at one pub brought us into contact with a very polite, softly spoken, ex-public school teacher who explained he was completely new to running a pub and asked my driver: “How much do you usually charge for tapping, venting and gantrying my five barrels?”

My driver (think Fletcher in Porridge) replied: “Usually £1 a barrel – but since you are new we will do it for 10 shillings a barrel.” Oh dear, I was never taught this at school. A steep learning curve lay ahead.

Monday morning deliveries in Halifax town centre could be very heavy; nearly 40 barrels between two pubs, with equivalent empties to handle. The first pint allowance was downed very quickly; a welcome second helping you could really savour.

The transport manager would give us an afternoon breather with easier, scattered drops in the Bradford area. What a gent!

Friday could encompass the free trade area in Huddersfield’s clubland, with many small drops. We only took a half-pint allowance if offered but appreciated the different varieties of beer available.

Many of the lads considered themselves to be ale connoisseurs. In reality they were just happy beer guzzlers.

This aspect would reach its peak when on a barrel exchange delivery to Hammond’s brewery in Manchester Road, Bradford. It had a very modern sample room with different varieties on tap, one third pint glasses, seating tables, very welcoming. We had arrived at a liquid Shangri-La.

One of our draymen had the hots for a landlady whose pub was quite close to the original site of the Halifax gibbet. One afternoon he was quite well oiled and became over-exuberant in the cellar but our resilient heroine was quick of the mark.

Hosepipe on full she scored a bull’s eye and dampened his ego. Bravo! A latter-day Emmeline Pankhurst! Having let the team down he was red-carded for the delivery in the future and nicknamed “Mr Droopy”.

During this period we would often deliver smaller barrels to grocery off-licence shops, where ladies would come in carrying white and blue striped jugs with muslin and glass-beaded covers to get draught ale for their men.

During my spell at the brewery there were no petty regulations; the breathalyser was still a long way down the line and we were a happy bunch of lads. There was never a single incident or apprehension by “Mr Plod”. We were all in it together.

As spring was approaching my time was up. A lasting memory is driving those classic old Leyland flat lorries with crash gearboxes, slow gear change; double declutching essential.I used to get my opportunities on the evening return journeys when the drivers wanted a kip.

nJohn Scott (pictured above) was born in Halifax in 1929 and lived, first in Dyson Road, Pellon, then in Gibbet Street, Halifax. He attended Battinson Road School and Sowerby Bridge Grammar and spent most of his working life in sales.

His temporary job with Webster’s brewery in 1954 came as he was waiting to emigrate to Canada – his trip was delayed while waiting for the frozen St Lawrence River to melt!

He returned to England in 1956 and moved to Blackpool. John and his Italian wife, Maria, had two children. Maria died in 2003. John, having lived an eventful life, is now 85.