Vaux: Savouring the last drops of a North-East institution

The Northern Echo: Vaux: Savouring the last drops of a North-East institution Vaux: Savouring the last drops of a North-East institution

THIS week's Echo Memories names the winners of the new book about Durham City by Michael Richardson. As this blog says elsewhere, there was a great response, many thanks.

Setting the question was not my finest hour as, when the entries came in, I realised that two surnames have run the brewery for three generations each: the Nicholsons and, of course, the Vauxes. I should have done my research properly and gone back to an article I wrote in 1999 when the brewery was closing. That article is below.

I'm nearly a native to these North-Eastern parts having been here for 20-plus years and I'm nearly beginning to start to understand a few of the eccentricities of the place. One of my earliest news editors wasn't so fortunate. The newslist - the daily list of the day's stories - announced that a major brewery in the region was to close. "So," she said, really rather posh and desperate to show that she was intimately acquainted with the area, "would it by any chance by Vo?" Madly surpressed giggles all round, although I was just glad I hadn't tumbled into that particular linguistic trap.

Here's my version of Vo's history up to it cl-aux-ed in 1999. Any mistakes, please point them out.

GENERATIONS of North-East miners must have thought the name Vaux brought a funny, foreign-sounding flair to their terraced streets as it swung on their local pub sign.

More recent generations would probably associate the name largely with the city of Sunderland due to its close links with the football club and the local community.

But dying today, along with the eccentric name and the Sunderland identity, is a North-East institution. This was a brewery that consumed its rivals from Ripon to Berwick to make it the best-known in the region.

Vaux Breweries was begun, though, as a family affair. Cuthbert Vaux had been an apprentice brewer in 1806 in Sunderland. Later, he formed a partnership with another brewer before striking out on his own in 1837 on the corner of Matlock Street and Cumberland Street.

In 1844, he made his first acquisition, a brewery in Union Street, Sunderland, from where his firm traded until 1875 when the North Eastern Railway Company required the site to build Sunderland's station. Then Cuthbert moved to Castle Street, where his company has resided until today. The founder died in 1878, leaving his sons, John Story Vaux and Colonel Edwin Vaux, to manage affairs. On John's death in 1887, his sons, Major Cuthbert Vaux and Colonel Ernest Vaux, joined their uncle in charge.

Major Vaux had served his apprenticeship at the Carlsberg Brewery at Copenhagen and introduced the bottled ale and stout trade to Sunderland. Colonel Vaux had served his country in the Boer War, and to celebrate the homecoming of the Maxim Gun Detachment of the Northumberland Hussars, he stuck its name on one of his bottles of brown ale. And so Maxim was born.

The Vauxes floated their brewery on the Stock Market in 1896, which provided them with money to buy public houses. Two years later, they appointed a chartered accountant so they could concentrate on brewing. The accountant's name was Frank Nicholson, and he became part of the family by marrying Amy, the sister of the major and the colonel.

Under Nicholson, Vaux and Sons grew rapidly by using the expanding railway network. Hogsheads were loaded onto trains at Sunderland and sent to Vaux's plants in Wallsend, Spennymoor, Broughton, Middlesbrough, Leeds and Glasgow, where the beer - India Pale Ale, Vaux's Highly Nourishing Stout and Maxim Ale - was bottled.

After the First World War, Vaux began acquiring other breweries. Lorimer and Clark of Edinburgh was the first, in 1919, which brought Scotch to the North-East. Other acquisitions included Heslops of Norton-on-Tees, Robinsons of Houghton-le-Spring, and the Hetton Brewery of Hetton-le-Hole.

Despite its growth, Vaux had a serious rival in the form of the North Eastern Breweries. NEB was also the product of numerous take-overs, including the Tower Brewery of Spennymoor and the Broadway Brewery of Burton-on-Trent. Broadway was bought in 1898 to supply strong Burton beer to the Teesside ironworkers.

NEB was also continuing to expand. In the 1920s it absorbed Harkers Brewery, of Hartlepool, and Warwicks, of Rise Carr, Darlington.

But in the straitened economic conditions of the 1920s, when successive governments increased beer duty and the motor engine meant beer could travel much further, it became clear that the region could support only one brewery.

Nicholson - by now Sir Frank - arranged Vaux's amalgamation with NEB, a much larger business, in 1927. At first they formed Associated Breweries, but in 1940 Vaux re-emerged, and in 1973 it became Vaux Breweries.

Still the firm continued to expand, taking over the Berwick Brewery in 1937, the Manor Brewery, of Newcastle, in 1938, and Hepworths Brewery, of Ripon, in 1947. Scottish interests continued to grow, including the acquisition of Britain's most northerly brewery, in Perth, in 1961, until everything north of the border was sold to Allied Breweries in 1979.

Vaux was then concentrating on England, principally with its purchase in 1972 of SH Ward of Sheffield, which could trace its brewery tree back to the early 1830s. And it was also considering expanding beyond basic brewing, setting up Swallow Hotels in 1969.

This, though, was to prove its downfall. Last year, Swallow began spreading its wings and has now thrown Vaux out of the corporate nest. In the unsympathetic world of the City, where family ties mean little, not even the fact that the exotically-named brewery was being run by the great-great-grandsons of Cuthbert, who founded it, has been able to save it for future generations.

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