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Tetleys: A gamble that built an empire

When Joshua Tetley handed over the princely sum of £400 to William Sykes in 1822 for the lease of his brewery he knew he was taking a gamble.

Hailing from a family of maltsters in Armley, Joshua was following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both named William.

Between them, they had established the Tetley's name and now he was intent on taking the family brewing business to new heights.

His gamble would pay off in spades. At its peak, Tetley's employed thousands and had more than a thousand public houses stretching from the Pennines to the east coast and from Mansfield to the Scottish Borders.

The Tetley drays and shire horses were a common sight on the streets of Leeds as they clip-clopped their way out of the brewery gates delivering their casks.

The brewery employed so many men it raised a complete company for The Leeds Rifles, which suffered such heavy losses in the First World War.

It had a proud tradition of looking after its workers, providing a sports ground and social facilities and taking a keen interest in employees even after they retired.

Coupled with this was a strong commitment to the civic life of the city, which saw its workers and bosses support a host of good causes.

Yet when he paid for the loan of the Sykes brewery in Salem Place, Hunslet, Joshua Tetley was doing so against a background of uncertainty in the brewing trade. The industry was going through tough times. There had been a run of bad harvests, famines and corn laws.

However, Joshua realised that if he could brew the beer as well as make the malt, his position would be twice as strong.

He didn't sell a single half-pint for over a month and a disastrous first year saw him sell less than 3,500 worth of beer.

Building up the brewery was hard. Twenty-six years after he stepped into Salem Place, Joshua still had only 32 men to help him.

But when the general rise in prosperity began to be felt in the 1850s he doubled his staff and by 1886 the brewery employed over a hundred.

Joshua died in 1859, leaving the business to his son Francis William, who took on a partner, Charles Ryder.

Five years later Joshua Tetley and Son bought the old Sykes Brewery outright and embarked on an ambitious building scheme.

They engaged the architect George Corson to design and build new maltings, cellars, hop store and fermenting room.

In 1890 the firm opened their first public house, the Duke William in nearby Bowman Lane, followed by The Fleece at Farsley, and in 1892 the brewery began supplying bottled beer.

As the 20th century dawned, its 57 tied houses became hundreds as Tetley's pubs sprang up across Leeds, Yorkshire and beyond.

Always keen to attract publicity, the company threw down the gauntlet to escape artist Harry Houdini in 1911, daring him to escape from a padlocked metal cask of Tetley's ale.

Houdini accepted the challenge, although it ended up proving too much for him and he had to be rescued from the cask.

In 1961, Tetley's became a member of the Allied Breweries group, now Allied Domecq, which eventually paved the way for huge reinvestment in the Leeds brewery.

A computerised packaging plant was opened in 1986 where casks were sorted, washed, filled, racked and loaded on to the delivery fleet.

Three years later a new ale and lager brewhouse costing 10m was built which could produce 30,000 barrels a week.

In 1991, Danish brewing giant Carlsberg acquired a stake in the business, which duly became known as Carlsberg-Tetley.

And, when the brewery opened a museum celebrating its Leeds heritage in 1994, it was seen as a sign of its long-term commitment to staying in the city.

The attraction proved popular, however redevelopment of the land surrounding the brewery led to its closure six years later.

In 1998, the Tetley's brand was fully taken over by Carlsberg, becoming the sixth biggest brewer in the world.

Two years later, growing anti-hunt feelings in the UK led Tetley's to drop its traditional huntsman logo, which, despite commonly-held perceptions, was not a depiction of Joshua Tetley.

In 2006 Tetley's sold 185 million pints of beer in pubs, enough to fill 42 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Yet rumours surrounding the brewery's future had already begun to swirl.

Carlsberg's less-than-sparkling performance in the UK led the Danish brewer to admit that some of its 29 European breweries, including Tetley's, could be closed or sold off.

With an estimated worth running into tens of millions of pounds, the Tetley's site in the centre of Leeds was considered by many to be a prime contender.

Meanwhile the brewery site was being earmarked by Leeds City Council as ripe for redevelopment. In an action plan drawn up to map the city's future it noted that the brewery's manufacturing use had become 'out of place' with surrounding office and residential developments. Although not entirely unexpected, news the site is to now shut with the loss of 170 jobs is still a shock to many.

"The sadness and shock is for the loss of the great Tetley tradition in Leeds," said Kevin Grady, director of the Leeds Civic Trust.

"The name has been synonymous with Leeds for almost two centuries. The people of Leeds have grown up with a Tetley pub seemingly on almost every street corner."

Barrie Pepper, Leeds beer writer and founder of the city's CAMRA branch, said he was "sad, despondent and very angry" at the announcement.

"The wider consequences are the loss of 170 jobs and quite probably the death of what was until recently the best-selling cask conditioned ale in the world.

"But these things don't matter in the board room of a foreign entity who wouldn't know a decent beer if it flooded the place."

The Tetley's tale is one that has coloured life in Leeds for so long. It remains to be seen whether the last chapter has now been written.

 
 
 

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