by Dianne M Wilson
In the summer of 1965 I left Bournville College with a clutch of O levels, 100 wpm shorthand and RSA typing qualifications, a decent understanding of how business and commerce worked and the ability to prepare a balance sheet and profit and loss account. Now I needed a job. In the 1960’s parents needed paying for board and lodging, decent work clothes needed buying, in my case office suits and shoes and a big coat for standing at bus stops, and I also needed money for fares for the buses.
I was lucky enough to land a job with Davenports Brewery in Bath Row, Birmingham, as a shorthand-typist. When I arrived my ‘work station’ consisted of a square simulated-leather topped table, a dining chair and a very old Royal manual typewriter. My status did not entitle me to a telephone but I was proud to be the fourth member of the Davenports Brewery Secretariat, as described by a plaque on our office door. I do, however, remember that I was appalled by the smell, the sweet, cloying, warm smell of beer being produced in commercial quantities. I thought I would never get used to it. But I did and came to love it.
After about five weeks of practising my new skills for anyone who needed a letter or report prepared, the very sophisticated 25 year old secretary to the Director and Head Brewer left - very suddenly as I remember. Without any discussion or fuss I was moved into her office. An office of my own, with proper desk, typing chair, modern Remington manual typewriter and a large black Bakelite phone with a dial, which connected me to the outside world but only via an operator. Pleased as I was with this unexpected promotion I remember that it did not stop me from making my way to the Company Secretary’s office and asking for an extra ten shillings a week in recognition of my new responsibilities. I got it and I then earned £8 0s. 0d. a week.
My new office also had a window, a rather mucky sash affair which looked over the rear of Birmingham Accident Hospital and, as I soon discovered, its incinerator, which explained the dirty window. That incinerator operated each day and every day and my older colleagues gave me lurid descriptions of what was being consumed.
John Davenport and Sons’ Brewery Ltd. and Davenports CB were landmarks in Bath Row. The oldest buildings dated back to 1815 but the newest had only been built in the 1930’s. Davenports came into existence because of the availability of pure water and when inspected in 1928 the two artesian wells, the Brewery Well and the CB Well, were said to be “of an exceptionally high order of purity”. CB was housed in a handsome brick building and had huge windows onto Bath Row which enabled everyone to look directly into the bottling plant. The sight of thousands of bottles rollercoasting around the tracks, being washed, dried, filled, sealed and labelled was a source of fascination to passing pedestrians and bus passengers. It was also, I imagine, a good public relations exercise and a distraction for the people visiting patients in the Hospital next door.
John Davenports’ Brewery itself, the wine and spirit warehouse, the loading decks and the yard were reached via a narrow driveway at the side of the CB Building and the buildings were much less attractive. The Brewery was set well back out of sight of the main road, a tall darkened brick square rising to four floors with a central brown stained wooden staircase with thick treacle coloured lino treads.
Davenports had dozens of public houses, the best known local pubs probably being the ‘Cotswold Tudor’ styled Black Horse in Northfield ‘and the half timbered Three Horseshoes in Stirchley, but there were also Davenport pubs as far afield as Liverpool and Hayes in Kent. However the name of Davenports was maybe more famous for its Beer at Home service and each morning dozens of drays loaded up and delivered beer, wine and spirits to their very regular customers. By 1965, when I arrived, all the drays were engine driven but horses had not long been retired. The large loading deck and yard, at the back of the CB building and to the side of John Davenports Brewery was where the draymen loaded up and exited each morning and returned each evening with their empties and their cash.
A door on the ground floor of the Davenports Brewery building opened directly into a reception office with a long wooden desk which was where the draymen checked in their day’s takings. When I began work the lady cashier, a Mrs Wilson, presided over this area. Within four years of starting work I became her namesake when I married her eldest son. I don’t believe Mrs. Wilson ever used a mechanical adding machine, but late each afternoon with piles of cash to balance, and a queue of draymen waiting to pay in and go home, she would simply run a pen down one handwritten list of figures after another and total as she went. Right that balances, next one!
The ground floor also housed the wine and spirit stores, to which Mr. Meek and Mr. Mapp held the keys and kept immaculate inventories. Whilst at work most people were known by their title and surname. Even at 17 years old I was Miss Russell, I was only Diane to my peers.
One floor up the dark staircase with its shiny brown heavily embossed walls the offices of the Head Brewer, Mr. Grant, Company Secretary, Mr. Royle and the Managing Director, Mr. Seed opened off a square landing. Each of their doors had a run of three lights on the adjacent wall, and following a knock at a door, the lights would show red for ‘go away’, orange for ‘wait there’ and green for ‘come in’.
Up the stairs again and on the next landing was the office of the Senior Brewer, Mr Muntz and alongside that my ‘home’ the Secretariat, and, I think I remember this correctly, the Boardroom. The top floor housed the general offices, the accountants’ offices and the toilets, the ‘Ladies’ of which doubled as the tea making area and which got ever so crowded around 10.30 each morning
From Mr. Grant’s and Mr. Muntz’ offices, doors led directly into the Brewery itself. My first impression was that it looked like the inside of a soaring white and silver cathedral but smelt like fifty thousand public houses. The black and white chequerboard tiled floor, the shiny round mash tuns, silver domed coppers, and fermenting vessels all shone, and there were tall cylindrical tanks in which the beer was stored before going into the barrels and bottles. There were runs of metal ladders, steps and walkways all with open gratings and everything was bubbling, spitting, fermenting, and boiling. The brewery workers stood on the metal walkways and bridges, stirring and inspecting the beer in the various stages of production. With hindsight it was a bit like a scene from a sci-fi film. The heat was intense and the workers wore the minimum of clothing, many just white shorts, which I initially found quite embarrassing, but quickly grew to accept!
Davenports’ produced many award winning beers over the years. Mr. Daniels, the Marketing Director, became a rather well known local celebrity as a result of personally fronting the media advertisements. Strangely enough I don’t ever member Davenports having an advertising department.
Mr. A. P. Grant, my boss, was very tall, with a military bearing, white haired, imposing and very, very precise. He was therefore everything one would then expect of the Director of a long established and well respected company. I would be summoned each morning for dictation and instruction. I would knock on his door wait for the green light and sit down opposite him; very carefully ensuring my skirt covered my knees, with my shorthand notebook on my lap and three carefully sharpened pencils. Conversation was strictly limited to the tasks in hand. I would return during the afternoon with all my work completed, the letters, memos and reports, presented for signature in a large leather bound folder with blotting paper pages.
I do remember one very embarrassing and frightening episode very well. I had to get the filing done each morning before Mr. Grant arrived in his office. The filing cabinets were dark green and four drawers high. At 5ft tall I could barely reach the top drawer let alone see into it. One morning in a rush to complete the filing and be out of the way before Mr. Grant’s arrival, I managed to open the two top drawers at the same time bringing the whole cabinet toppling down on me. Not able to extricate myself from such a great weight of metal and paper, nor reach the polished wood base of the internal phone system to press a switch down, I was stuck. I had no choice but to cry out for help, so I screamed! I was obviously heard above all the noise of the Brewery as the interconnecting door flew open and a brewery worker appeared, pushed the cabinet upright and allowed me to escape, bruised and mortified!
Office equipment was minimal. I had a manual typewriter, and all copies were produced by interleaving paper with carbon paper - more than four copies and the text became illegible. We also had a Gestetner machine which was used for producing larger numbers of copies. Some companies had similar machines called Roneos, and then there was the ghastly Banda machines which worked by pressing paper onto a very thickly blue or pink-inked original. All systems were extremely messy and very basic. Davenports’ Gestetner involved the operator dressing up in an oversized nylon overall before even attempting to fit the wax sheet onto the drum.
The wax sheets used for Gestetner duplication were produced on a typewriter with the ribbon incapacitated. The steel keys then produced a stencil in the wax. Errors could only be corrected by applying a bright pink nail varnish-like correcting fluid, very obvious when used and an affront to any good typist.
My Remington typewriter had an extended carriage for producing the wide landscape sheets of figures which were used at Board Meetings. This was a terrible job and the senior secretary soon decided that presenting these monthly figures was my responsibility. Figures had to be tabulated manually, counting up and down and across the sheet to get them all in line. Any errors were corrected, and therefore highlighted, in the bright pink correcting fluid and very often corrections were fuzzy or illegible - not pleasing or helpful to the Board Members. I think I also had an adding machine with ten buttons and a handle on the right which was pulled down very firmly after each figure was entered, the figures then printed on a paper tally roll.
The best bit of the working day at Davenports was undoubtedly the lunch. On the ground floor of the CB building we had an elegant panelled dining room with white clothed tables, heavy cutlery and good china. At each setting was placed a bottle of Davenport’s beer. The men had an allowance of two pints a day, the ladies one pint. I generally had a lemonade as well and made myself a shandy, as did many of the girls. For 8d a day (less than 4p) all office employees had a main course, usually a roast carved to order on the sideboard with vegetables and followed by a pudding, all served by two waitresses in black frocks with frilly white aprons and caps. We also had the opportunity to visit the dining room during the afternoon for tea, toast and jam, although I can’t remember having the time to do this very often.
I also know that the CB Bottling Hall had its own separate dining room, which I believe had bathrooms leading off it so that the girls working in the bottling hall could ‘freshen up’ before taking lunch or tea.
Funnily enough I don’t ever remember having to ‘clock in’. But that did not mean that I was ever late for work. We didn’t need incentives; it was simply a case of not being so unprofessional as to leave you open to accusations of laziness. In an age where jobs were pretty easy to come by this, in retrospect, seems charmingly old-fashioned.
In 1989 Davenports was taken over by rival Greenhall Whitley, who promptly closed the company down. One hundred jobs were lost. Birmingham City Council made strenuous efforts to get the CB office block listed but their pleas were rejected by the Department of the Environment. After many years of neglect all the Davenport buildings were demolished and new apartments now fill the site.
For nearly two centuries Davenports Brewery was managed and maintained with great pride and was a showplace of efficiency and cleanliness. When it was demolished I do know that at least two of the hundreds of hand painted tiles, showing the ingredients of beer, such as hops and barley, and which had covered the walls of the Mash Room were salvaged. So, there are a few small pieces of Davenports Brewery that remain for posterity - plus of course lots of happy memories - both for employees and customers!
Ed’s comment-Thank you Dianne for sharing your first job with everyone. Would anyone else like to do the same?
Click here to go back to the Oracle page.