FOR best part of 100 years, every town had at least one pop producer. They fizzed up lemon juice. They jazzed up ginger. They mixed up burdock with dandelion. They tantalised the tastebuds with the exotic-sounding sarsaparilla, and they brewed botanically.

A fortnight ago amid our pictures of Darlington inner ring road, we spotted a lorry belonging to perhaps south Durham’s most successful pop producer: Grays of Spennymoor.

Their story starts with the Pickup Brothers who were botanical brewers in Low Grange Road, Spennymoor, at the start of the 20th Century. Botanical brewers would grind up, say, ginger, steep it and heat it with water – usually drawn from a local spring or beck – and then add secret botanical ingredients and sugar and brewer’s yeast. Ginger beer would emerge, sent to market in large stoneware flagons.

Ginger beer was first sold in stoneware in the 1830s but the practice died out in the 1930s as the public became concerned that they couldn’t see the contents of the browny-buff flagons, at the bottom of which was usually an unpleasant sludgy sediment. Glass bottles, through which you could see exactly what you were drinking, took over, but now inscribed flagons are surprisingly collectible.

In 1910, Anty Gray – who is pictured at the top of this article driving Pickup Brothers’ steam-powered Foden lorry in 1905 – set up on his own producing lemonade at the other end of Low Grange Road.

His business prospered as he not only bought out the Pickups but after the Second World War took over other local pop producers: Guthrie of Hartlepool, Garnett of Middlesbrough, and Jones of Bishop Auckland.

It was said that Grays grew into having the largest bottle washing plant in Europe in Low Grange Road.

Their business model was unusual: it was “direct supply” sold door to door.

“They had a fleet of vehicles and came round local villages knocking on doors and shouting “pop!”,” says John Biggs in Etherley Grange. “Favourite products in my childhood in the late 1940s/early 1950s were dandelion and burdock, cream soda and cherryade. They also sold syphons of soda water.”

M Smith of Ferryhill says: “I remember the Grays pop van coming round delivering lemonade etc and collecting the empties, just like the milkman, except you got money back for their bottles.”

Harold Mackenley of Cockfield worked for Grays from 1965 to 1968, starting out as a spare driver on four shillings per hour. “A year later, I was top driver/salesman out of 13 working entirely on commission earning £21pw,” he says. “Our working week was Tuesday through to Saturday, two days in Weardale, including Nenthead and Alston, one day Kirby Stephen and Appleby, one day Hartlepool and Saturday Hartlepool and Seaton Carew. Me and my wagonboy, who was paid hourly, would make 350 to 400 regular calls between us, talking and moving very fast because of the workload – I still talk like a machine gun spitting bullets.”

The business model of Jones of Bishop Auckland was more conventional as they dealt with the wholesale trade of shops and pubs. Their brewery was next to the Jones family home of Mayfield, on Bondgate, until they opened a larger factory at St Helen Auckland. We believe that in the 1980s this factory was taken over and became one of the first to bottle up 7UP, a US lemon-lime fizzy drink.

Meanwhile, Grays had also expanded into new premises which could handle 60,000 bottles a day.

“They opened on Dobbies bank,” says Gillian Donahue. “The factory no longer exists as it was demolished to make way for housing, but I lived opposite in the 1970s and can remember being woken up by the burglar alarm on many occasions as the local scallies tried to pinch the pop.”

We think that in 1976, Grays sold the Dobbies bank factory to Schweppes who bottled the first Appletise there in 1982. The Grays name continued to appear on lemonade bottles, made on the Chilton Industrial Estate, until as recently as 2003 – but it was never as ubiquitous as it was in those decades after the war when salesmen on commission rushed from door to door across Durham.

“The vehicle in your picture is a Commer Karrier,” says Harold Mackenley, who was not alone in making this identification. “They were very unpleasant to drive as the engine was in the cab. They were unique as they had a permanent starting handle sticking out of the front as they were notoriously poor starters from cold.”

Can you add a bit of pop to our lemonade story in any way? Do you have any info on Grays? Do you possess a stone flagon or bottle with a local botanical brewer’s name on it? What other lemonade or ginger beer companies should we know about? Do you remember Alpine lemonade – we believe this originated in Bishop Auckland? Please email