Wartime stories of the Leeds’s Tetley brewery

Dr Laura King, of the University of Leeds, and project volunteer Jo Robinson.
Dr Laura King, of the University of Leeds, and project volunteer Jo Robinson.
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The Tetley Brewery was a fixture of the Leeds landscape for almost two centuries and played its part in the city’s Great War effort, as Chris Bond reports.

TODAY, the Tetley building is home to a contemporary art gallery, workshops and a bustling bar and restaurant.

But for 189 years this sprawling site, a short walk from the River Aire, housed one of the biggest employers in Leeds. The Tetley brewery was an institution and working there became a rite of passage for generations of families, so deeply was its history woven into the fabric of the city.

One of the most tumultuous chapters in the brewery’s long life came during the First World War and this has been the focus of a recent project run by the University of Leeds.

When war broke out the brewery, like factories all over the country, faced huge changes. When men rushed to sign up many of the jobs they left behind were filled by women, some of who lived just a stone’s throw from the brewery.

Jo Robinson was among the small team of volunteers working on the project who trawled through the archives to bring the brewery’s wartime story to life. “We found out that women started working at Tetley’s in 1916 which is when conscription started and there was a big push in Leeds to get women working in various industries,” she says.

Most of the women worked in the maltings and the offices, while some were given jobs in the mash room or worked as painters. They quickly showed they could do the jobs just as well as the men had done, but that didn’t mean they were paid the same wage.

Women received 25 or 27 shillings a week, compared with 33 shillings for most men. As the war continued and the company’s profits increased so did the workers wages, although again it was the men who benefitted most. “Women weren’t paid as much as men and the disparity got worse, so by the end of the war the difference was even greater,” says Robinson.

Among the interesting items they unearthed was a letter hidden away in a box dating back to 1916. It was from a Constance Minett who wrote to Tetley’s 
asking for a job. The letter reads: “Having heard from 
a friend, Mrs W. Grasby, 
that you are likely to require the services of a few lady clerks, I respectfully beg 
to offer myself if suitable, 
for the period of the 

“I am 33 years of age, and had 9 years experience with Messrs E.J. Arnold and Son, Ltd, the last 5 of which I was in charge of the ‘Bought Ledger.’ Should my application meet with your approval, I shall be pleased to call for an interview, at your convenience.”

“It was just in the middle of all these sundry documents and later we saw her name in the wages book so we know she ended up getting the job,” says Robinson.

For the brewery, the war brought great upheaval. Out of its workforce of 613 men, 261 left to go to war. Of those who signed up 25 were killed and today their names are inscribed on the roll of honour in the building’s entrance hall.

William Reveley was among those who marched off to fight and never returned. He was a clerk who worked in the ledgers department and followed in the footsteps of his father and cousin who worked at Tetley’s as brewery draymen. He married in December 1914 and enlisted the following year. He served with the Bantams in France as a company sergeant major and was killed during the Somme Offensive in October, 1916.

Charles Rotherforth worked as a drayman. In 1912 he had moved to Canada where he got married, but he returned to England with his wife shortly after the war started. He joined the Leeds Pals as a private in 1916 but was killed at the Battle of Arras the following year.

It wasn’t just Tetley workers who gave their lives. The day after war was declared a notice was served on Tetley’s to hand over its horses for the war effort.

“The shire horses used to deliver the beer were sent off the war. There were eight that worked at Tetley’s and none ever returned,” says Dr Laura King, a research fellow at the university, who was involved in the project.

Twelve more horses were sent to France and these fared better with the loss of only two. One was wounded while the other, terrified of the shell fire, lost weight and was evacuated suffering from shell-shock.

The Tetley horses proved invaluable in the mud of Flanders rescuing stranded teams and detached wagons. On one occasion it was reported that a team of six horses pulled an eight ton lorry workshop out of thick mud.

“People forget how important horses were,” says Dr King. “They not only did physical and practical work but there was also a feeling that the Tetley horses were doing their bit.”

Despite their Herculean efforts it’s unlikely that any of the horses ever returned to Britain. After the armistice it’s believed they were handed over to the French and were used in the fields or eaten as horse meat.

Their involvement shows just how far reaching the conflict was and Dr King believes highlighting the brewery’s story helps bring the war home to people.

“This was the first war that had an impact on almost everyone’s life at the time in this country, no matter who they were. We tend to think that it was all about trenches and the horrific battles, but there are other stories to be told and for some people it had a positive impact.

“By focusing in on a company like Tetley and some of the ordinary workers and individual stories you start to paint a bigger picture.”

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