Leeds: A look back at the Tetley years

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This time next week, one of Leeds’s most famous factories will officially close for good, ending an 178-year tradition in the city.

In the first of a week-long series of features Neil Hudson looks at where it all began for Yorkshire’s most famous pint.

It was only a few years ago, the streets of Leeds echoed to the clopping of Tetley dray horse hooves as they pulled two-ton carts laden with beer barrels through the city streets.

It was even then somewhat anachronistic to see great Shire horses being driven through the streets, like a fragment from the past somehow embedded in the future.

Nonetheless, there was something reassuring about the old tradition, it was a link to our collective past and provided a window not only onto the hopes and dreams of our forefathers but also the morals and values which drove them to do great things.

One of those great things was the creation of Joshua Tetley and Son.

In its heyday it was a bastion of strength and pride, a symbol of the city’s enduring strength and sense of creativity. It spoke of industry, community and all that was good about Yorkshire.

At its height, Tetley’s employed more than a thousand workers and over many decades forged strong links with the wider community, allowing senior staff to dedicate part of their time to community work running several charities, not to mention the popular Granary Wharf.

Its demise is nothing short of tragic – like an oak felled in its prime to make way for a bypass.

When Tetley’s goes, it is not just the end of a brewery, or even an institution, it is the end of an era, an era which began almost 200 years ago.

Joshua Tetley was 44-years-old when he bought the brewing business of William Sykes at Salem Place, Hunslet for £400 and 9d on October 31 1822.

He did so after a good deal of soul searching, because he was already well established in the family business of maltsters, wine and brandy merchants. Taking on a new venture at his age was a gamble.

At the time, most of the beer drunk in pubs was also brewed in pubs, with the pubs buying malt from maltsters. It was Joshua Tetley’s idea that by keeping the malt and brewing his own beer, he could make more money. The recipe for the most famous ale in Leeds was first committed to paper when Joshua was just seven-years-old, scrawled in a notebook by his mother, who lived with husband William at Armley Lodge.

His business idea was solid – at the time, beer was considered safer to drink than the local water which came straight from the polluted River Aire.

Little did he know the new business would become one of the north’s most successful brands.

In the beginning, the road was uncertain.

In his first month of trading, he took no orders. In fact, in his first year, he made a loss of £2,700. Bearing in mind he paid £400 for the brewery, it was a big step in the wrong direction.

But Joshua Tetley was not put off, thanks in part to the 1830 Beer House Act, which allowed pubs to buy from independent suppliers.

The Act proved to be the fillip the business needed and before long sales of beer began to increase. In 1825 just 12.5 per cent of beers sold came from independent suppliers – by 1835, that figure had reached 23.6 per cent, with Joshua Tetley taking the lion’s share.

By 1840 he had a £3,000 profit and by 1860 his was acknowledged as the largest brewery in the north of England – quite an accolade considering the city had no fewer than 33 breweries.

Tetley’s, however, went from strength to strength, consolidating its market position, while sticking to Joshua Tetley’s mantra of ‘quality pays’.

It forged strong links with the community – thousands of people found employment because of it, either directly at the factory or in tertiary businesses supporting the expanding plant.

Competition was stiff and in 1890 the company’s profits plummeted to £28,000 – they had been at £70,000 the previous year – mainly because they owned no pubs.

Tetley’s bought its first two pubs in 1890. Only one remains today, The Fleece in Farsley. The other, the Duke William, which was in Tetley’s yard, was unceremoniously demolished by Carlsberg in 2002.

In 1892, the company went public to raise money for a bottling operation and was valued at £572,848 8s 10d.

Tetley’s also has the distinction of being the only company to confound renowned escapologist Harry Houdini, who, in 1911, accepted a challenge from the firm to escape from a padlocked metal box filled with Tetley’s ale. The story goes he hadn’t bargained on the build-up of carbon dioxide and had to be rescued.

Until the late 1980s the exact date when Joshua Tetley started his business was unclear – it was uncovered by author Clifford Lackey after days of painstaking research in the Yorkshire Evening Post archives.

Indeed, even the company seemed a little vague on its own origins – it even celebrated its centenary a year late, on October 25, 1923.

Between 1954 and 1960, it went through a succession of takeovers which left it owning thousands of licenced premises.

In 1961, Tetley’s became linked with Allied Lyons (which later became Allied Domecq) and in 1992, it was merged with Carlsberg.

Here began the slow demise of the Tetley brand and empire.

In 1996 the huntsman logo, showing a monocled chubby-faced hunter holding a pint of Tetley’s, was unceremoniously dropped as the main brand image.

Other changes seemed to come about every other year. Tetleys was now big enough to be of concern to larger companies whose eyes were more focussed on the profit margin than on preserving tradition and community links.

In 1997, brewery giant Bass was blocked from buying Carlsberg by Margaret Beckett, then trade secretary, which led the company to engage in a giant cost-cutting exercise, which included redundancies.