It is 20 years since the last dregs were drained out of a North-East institution: Vaux brewery closed in July 1999. But a film is bringing it back to life

“If you want good beer make the V sign because V’s the sign you want a pint of Vaux”.

A 1978 television advert had men with big perms and bushy sideburns pushing their way through crowded, smoke-filled pubs. When they approached the bar, they lifted their hands without getting them caught on their enormous lapels, and made a V sign at the bar maid so that she would know, above the hubbub of conversation and the sound of Gerry Rafferty on the jukebox, that they fancied a pint of beer.

Not a rude V or a Churchillian V, but a V made between the thumb and first finger – a V for Vaux.

It was their generation’s version of a time-honoured ritual: for nearly 175 years, Vaux refreshed the parts that other beers struggled to reach in the North-East. The gleam of its red-and-gold lettering above the pub door must have seemed like the day’s end Holy Grail for mineworkers, shipbuilders and steelmakers.

But then, in 1999, Vaux collapsed. Even though the brewery part of the business had made more than £4m profit the year before, City investors believed they could make more by splitting it up and selling it off – to them, it was worth more dead than alive.

It was, says a voice in a new film about Vaux, “corporate suicide”.

Its collapse left a physical hole in Sunderland which is only now beginning to be filled as the vacant site is built upon, but it also tore at the psyche of the city and the spirit of the wider region – that’s why the film is called A Passion for Vaux.

The brewery was founded by Cuthbert Vaux, who started working in beer in Sunderland when he was 14. For a while he was in partnership with another brewer, William Storey, whose daughter Sarah he married, but in 1837, aged 24, he struck out on his own.

In those days, there were pubs on every street corner and micro-breweries on every block, so Cuthbert must have had something special that allowed his business to thrive. In 1875, when the North Eastern Railway bought his brewery in Union Street to build Sunderland Central Station on it, he moved to Castle Street, which would be the brewery’s home until its demise.

When Cuthbert died in 1878, he passed the business onto his sons, John and Edwin. After them, came a third generation of Vaux boys, Cuthbert and Ernest, who were crucial to the story. Cuthbert served his apprenticeship with Carlsberg in Copenhagen, and with the knowledge gained he made Vaux one of the first brewers to move into bottling ales and stouts.

And brother Ernest, through his military service with a Maxim gun, provided the name for Vaux’s most famous beer.

Just as important was sister Amy who, in 1898, married chartered accountant Frank Nicholson. He brought management skills to her brothers’ brewing expertise, and drove the business out of the Victorian era and into the 20th Century.

Using the railway network, Vaux expanded. Bottling plants were set up from Leeds to Glasgow, including Spennymoor and Middlesbrough, and hogsheads of Sunderland-brewed beer were despatched by train to be bottled at the plants and then distributed locally by horse-drawn drays.

Horse drays were in fact a great feature of Vaux, and the clip-clop of the hooves was part of the city soundtrack right up to the brewery’s dying day.

The biggest decision came in 1927 when Vaux took over the North Eastern Breweries (NEB). NEB was a much bigger company – created by the amalgamation of little local breweries, including Tower of Spennymoor, Harkers of Hartlepool and Warwicks of Rise Carr in Darlington – but, in the depths of the depression, it was in dire economic straits.

With NEB came scores of pubs and, having withstood the depression, Vaux continued to grow by acquiring smaller breweries and by building up its property portfolio of inns and hotels. Indeed, in 1969 it created Swallow Hotels to concentrate on the hospitality side of the business while in 1972, the brewery side of the business acquired SH Ward which had been making beer in Sheffield since 1830.

But times were changing rapidly. The North-East was de-industrialising, and Margaret Thatcher’s government wanted to promote competition within the brewing industry so it strove to break the link between the big brewers and their tied pubs – between Vaux and its 888 outlets.

And Swallow turned out to be a cuckoo in the corporate nest, throwing the old-fashioned brewery to the City wolves.

In 1999, a third generation of Nicholsons, Sir Paul and Frank, were ejected and even their £75m management buy-out bid was rejected because the vultures believed that even more could be realised by liquidising the assets.

On July 1, 1999, 162 years after Cuthbert Vaux started the brewery, it closed, with the loss of 430 jobs.

Chief executive Frank Nicholson was among those made redundant, and he tells the new film how he was last man out of the gates. Instead of making the famous V sign, he placed a kiss on the large Vaux sign.

“It still brings a tear to my eye now,” he says.

Perhaps because Vaux really is part of the indomitable spirit of the region, despite being corporately dead, its brands refused to die. Three former employees – Mark Anderson, Doug Trotman and Jim Murray – acquired the recipes and in 2000 began producing Vaux’s famous Double Maxim.

Now the Maxim Brewery at Rainton Bridge employs nine people, and as well as other well known Vaux names such as Samson, Lambtons and Wards, it also brews new tastes – it is sending 500 casks (that’s 36,000 pints) of its Raspberry Porter to Wetherspoons for this month’s national beer festival.

Wetherspoons tasting notes say: “This award-winning, dark ruby beer has a smooth, full-bodied character, with light chocolate bitterness and sweet raspberry flavours, which combine beautifully and linger gently on the palate.”

And the Maxim Brewery has this week been announced as the sponsors of the film, A Passion for Vaux, which is being made by the County Durham production company, Lonely Tower.

“The film is designed not just to tell of the brewery’s history but also of the people who worked there, and of how intrinsic it was to the city,” said producer Mark Thorburn.

It will be premiered around the July anniversary, and it will also be available on dvd. In the meantime, the producers would love to see any personal pictures or videos people may have connected with Vaux, or hear any stories. And do you have any Vaux memorabilia? Email and we’ll pass material on.


The Northern Echo:

ERNEST VAUX, the grandson of the brewery founder, was a remarkable soldier. He was mentioned seven times in despatches during the Boer War in which he served with the Northumberland Hussars.

The safe return from South Africa of himself and his men, who operated a Maxim machine gun, led the family brewery to produce in 1901 the country’s first brown ale, called Maxim, in commemoration.

The Maxim gun itself had been named after its inventor, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, who also invented a steam-driven bi-plane and patented a hair curling iron before going deaf due to over-exposure to the noise of his machine gun.

Sunderland’s Vaux has always pointedly pointed out that its brown ale came 20 years before Newcastle’s broon.

During the First World War, Maxim’s potency was reduced, allegedly because it was so strong that it was sending men to sleep and publicans were complaining that they weren’t spending enough. However, it may just have been because of wartime shortages.

Lt-Col Vaux himself was on the western front, leading the 7th Durham Light Infantry at the 1915 Battle of Ypres. The battalion was caught in one of the Germans’ first gas attacks before the British soldiers were equipped with anti-gas respirators. Lt-Col Vaux led them in singing the battalion’s hymn, Abide With Me, and the gas cloud miraculously passed overhead without killing a Durham (although many of them suffered in later life from their exposure).

Lt-Col Vaux was invalided out of the army in April 1918, and he returned to the family home of Brettonby, a manor house on the edge of Barton, between Darlington and Scotch Corner. His favourite horse, Mullingar, returned with him to Barton as it had also survived four years of fighting.

Tragically, in 1925, during a dinner party at Brettonby, Lt-Col Vaux – who served the Boer War and the First World War – choked on a rabbit bone and died.

In 1938, Vaux increased the strength of the beer to 4.7 per cent, so that it could fully rival Newcastle Brown, and to trumpet its new potency, it was marketed as Double Maxim. The new brewery brews Double Maxim from the same recipe, and it is said that it tastes the same as it ever did.