The Opening of The Bottler's Room

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Geoffrey Ballard unveils the plaque in The Bottlers Room


Tolly Cobbold

On Tuesday 23rd April, 1996, St George’s Day, the country’s largest public collection of commemorative bottled beers was officially opened by Geoffrey Ballard, President of the Brewery History Society. The Bottler’s Room at Tolly Cobbold has been especially created as a celebration of English brewing and the role of beer in commemorating key events in history. The Bottler’s Room contains over 1,800 bottles and will be of interest to the regular visitors as well as the bottle enthusiast.

From time immemorial beer has been a strong thread winding through the tapestry of our social fabric and customs. Long before the Vikings came the Anglo-Saxons were already brewing. They introduced us to the practice of toasts, which we have continued to drink in beer to this day. People have gone to war on it. made peace on it, gone to work on it, and come home longing for it. The pub is today what it always has been, the working person’s club, and whatever the occasion it will quite likely to be celebrated, or condoled, with beer in the home or the pub. Despite being frowned upon by the Liberal Party who wanted to nationalise the industry at the beginning of this century and banish all our pubs to obscurity, hectored by a whole range of the "you can't do that" brigade with whom we have become so familiar of late, and subjected to bungled EC policy, despite all that and more, it survives today as vigorous and strong as ever because beer is in our social blood-stream.

The local brew has always been lauded and defended vigorously, discussed constantly by the knowledgeable and the ignorant in every bar. The owner of the brewery frequently belonged to the local squirearchy and the Head Brewer was usually a person of some consequence in the locality. Often the largest employer, with many an employee into the second or third generation, the brewery has been a focal point and played an important part in local life, and a long-established bond has been forged between brewer and customer.

Many products enjoy Brand Loyalty but in the case of beer it goes a lot further than that. Every day hundreds, sometimes thousands, make their pilgrimage to a brewery - and it's not just for the free beer. On the other hand, you don't very often hear of people going to visit a Potato Crisp factory, nor a tobacco or sweet factory for that matter, but it is difficult to envisage an in-depth discussion on the relative merits of different makes of crisps, or the cry "come on, eat up, it's my round, what's it to be, Smiths or Walkers?!" The Brand may be there but the Bond is lacking.

With all this interest and loyalty behind them, it is sad that brewery companies do not have a particularly good record as regards their own history, in many cases they have been downright careless. I am not sure that this is particularly reprehensible because there are very few long established commercial undertakings who have, but it seems the more sad because of the loyalty displayed by their customers.

Only one present-day company springs to mind as having retained for a century or more a clear perception of the importance of preserving its history. Those who attended our Archive Conference in Burton are unlikely to have forgotten Arthur Seddon recounting the year-on-year rejection of his vision of the Bass Museum, but that was a mere quarter of a century ago. To-day most breweries do have some sort of museum, usually as part of their visitor centre, but many are nothing like they could have been. Hopefully, this will mean that the haemorrhage of the history will at least be abated but it does it does take vision to be able to see today what will be of historical value tomorrow. That is really why this event is of such importance.

The bottle of beer broke the mould. It brought the availability of beer into every home, prior to that, you had to take a jug to the pub, have one or two yourself, and hope you could get it back home without spilling it. Anybody could now buy a bottle - even the ladies! - and a wider choice, too. It opened a new era, started a packaging revolution and necessitated improvements in all aspects of beer stability. Henceforth anyone could have a beer any day, any time, and take it anywhere. It opened up new possibilities, particularly in the field of export.

This brings me to to-day's event, the opening of The Bottler’s Room, and I hope it puts the importance of the occasion in it's proper perspective. Initially, Tolly Cobbold acquired the Tim Richards collection of bottled beers, which had formerly been on loan to the Heritage Brewery in Burton-on-Trent. The implementation of the MMC report necessitating replacement of the old Brewers' Society with the Brewers' and Licensed Retailers' Association spelt change in many ways and it was fortuitous that Ian Peaty, a very active member of our committee, was already in close contact with BLRA when it was decided to dispose of a variety of surplus items, including a substantial collection of bottled beers accumulated by the former Brewers' Society. All these items were handed over to the Brewery History Society, to be placed in suitable repositories for their preservation. The amalgamation of these two collections at Tolly Cobbold together with those from other sources has brought together this display of over 1800 bottles and it is fitting that both Mike Ripley, who has served both bodies being much involved with the transfer of the BLRA items to the care of the Brewery History Society,and Tim Richards, should be here to-day.

It is one of the aims of the Society to advise and help on the placement of records and items of historical value to the industry, and we are honoured to be asked to act in that capacity on this occasion. Brian Cowie,- who is well known for promoting this old and fascinating brewery, embraced the idea with characteristic spirit and, as you can see, the brewery has invested considerably in the project.

This is an important addition to our historical collections on a national basis, in an area in which it is lamentably lacking and we must be very grateful to Tolly Cobbold for making it come about. It will not be necessary to draw your attention to the collection of Anniversary Beers, they are there in plenty, to the best of our knowledge the first of these dates from Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887. Since then there has been an accelerating proliferation of commemorative beers for Royal occasions, anniversaries, sporting events, you name it, the list is inexhaustible and a collection such as this is something of a history book of the last century.

Today, his name-day, another is to be launched here at Tolly Cobbold, the bottled St. George's Ale, and could there be a better reason for a commemorative ale than in honour of our patron saint?

I would like to share a thought, that this collection should be developed on a broader basis to embrace the character of the bottle as well. Brewers have been known to get very upset if they feel there has been an infringement of what they consider to be their own particular design of bottle. I recall from my own early childhood the clear glass club-shaped bottle, always referred to Tolly's, and I believe it was unique to Tollemache at that time. There are thousands of variations on the theme of the bottle, some for economic reasons, some for scientific reasons and others for sheer eye-appeal, and I believe this aspect should form an integral part of an all-embracing collection.

I hope this collection will grow into one of even greater significance and I would like to suggest that someone might be appointed to ensure the furtherance of the project. The search for additional items, be they historical or new, will be time-consuming and require some finance. Let us not forget that Tolly Cobbold have to fight hard to maintain their own position in the tough world of commercial brewing these days and it would be unfair to place that burden solely upon them.

Ladies & Gentlemen, without more delay it is my honour and very great pleasure to thank all those who have helped to bring it about and declare THE BOTTLER’S ROOM open.”