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H & G Simonds' Seven Bridges Brewery
21-25 Bridge Street, Reading
A Short History

Antique Artwork of Simonds' Seven Bridges Brewery on the River Kennet in Reading - this colour version © Nash Ford Publishing

The Simonds brewery was founded at 83 Broad Street in Reading by William Blackall Simonds in 1785, after his father, William, had previously dabbled in brewing in association with his malting business. The site was somewhat restrictive however, so, four years later, the business moved to 24 Bridge Street (then called Seven Bridges), on a site adjoining and behind the Sowdon Brewery which stood on the riverside. Simonds was keen to impress his customers and had a fine new basilican-style brewery complex, designed by local architect, Sir John Soane, and including a superb family home, Brewery House. Not long afterward, he replaced horse power by an early Boulton & Watt steam engine.

However, expansion was held back because the licensing laws prohibited the issuing of new pub licenses and existing ones were largely controlled by rival breweries. The business was only kept going by winning the contract to supply beer to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1813. WB Simonds therefore diversified into banking and was keen to pull out of brewing altogether. However his eldest son, Blackall, persuaded his father to place the brewery under his own control. He was a keen huntsman and travelled round the local countryside, noting potential sites for new pubs. So, when the Beerhouse Act of 1830 finally abolished the existing restrictions and enabled the opening of new beer retailing shops, Blackall was immediately ready to spring into action.

By 1839, Simonds had doubled its brewing capacity and was supplying thirty-seven public houses in and around Reading. It was the biggest brewery in the town and, as such, was able to stem the expansion of the London breweries westwards. They pioneered the production of pale ale, a warm fermented beer brewed from pale malt. It travelled well across the World, even as far as Australia. 

Blackall retired in 1845 and his brothers, Henry and George took over, followed by Henry’s son, Henry John. Through the 1860s, Henry John doubled the brewery’s output and also moved into wine, a separate business started by his father. The following decade, a cousin, Blackall Simonds II, designed the first concrete industrial store in the country, built on four levels to hold the company’s stock. A technical laboratory for testing was developed and a successful new system of fermentation, known as the 'Burton Union Method,' was introduced. At the same time a popular lighter beer called SB (or ‘Season's Brew’) was developed that came to dominate company sales. The company’s reputation for supplying beer to the military was consolidated when, in 1872, they gained the canteen contract at the 'home of the British Army' in Aldershot, only twenty miles from Reading. This later led to branches being set up in Malta (1875) and Gibraltar (1881). The former still exists as the, now independent, Simonds Farsons Cisk Brewery. India pale ale was also exported to the British army in India and Simonds supplied many of the railways in Southern England. Further English branches were established at Woolwich, Exeter and Oxford; but the family were running out of sons to run the brewery and nephews were called home from America to succeed them.

In 1885, the company became an early limited company, taking the name of H & G Simonds from the fathers of the two main partners. The numbers of public houses owned by Simonds increased from seventy-nine in 1879 to a hundred and fifty-eight in 1896. Unfortunately, the need for greater production and therefore space at the brewery, led to the demolition of Brewery House in 1895 as it stood in the centre of the brewery yard.

Blackall II’s brother, the famous sculptor, George Blackall Simonds, largely gave up his art to become a director of the brewery during the First World War, operating a job-for-life policy that meant no staff were laid off during the General Strike of 1926. After the war, the company expanded by acquisition, under the enthusiastic guidance of Eric Simonds. He was a ‘driving force’ at Simonds who made the red ‘hop leaf’ - already their popular brand of beer - the logo for the whole company, seen outside every Simonds pub from 1930. Overseas operations were opened in Alexandria, Tripoli, Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Mombasa. At home, Eric started with about 350 licensed properties and a single brewery. Some of the more important sites he subsequently took over include the Tamar Brewery in Devonport (1919), the South Berkshire Brewery in Newbury (1920) (alias Hawkins & Parfitt and incorporating Blandy & Hawkins’ Reading Castle Brewery amongst others), Ashby’s Brewery in Staines (1930), WJ Rogers in Bristol (1935), Lakeman’s Brewery in Brixham (1937), John May & Co in Basingstoke (1947) and Phillips & Sons in Newport (1949). Unsurprisingly, by 1938, Simonds' was producing just over one percent of all beer brewed in England and Wales. By the time of Eric’s death in 1953, the company held 1,132 pubs, 80 off licenses and 36 hotels, serviced by 4 breweries. They acquired the Royal Warrant in 1929.

In 1960, whilst under the control of the first non-family director, the brewery amalgamated with Courage & Barclay to become Courage, Barclay, Simonds & Co Ltd until simplified to Courage Ltd in 1970. Courage was purchased by Imperial Tobacco (later Hanson) in 1972. They remained in Bridge Street until 1978, when operations were transferred to the new Berkshire Brewery, alongside the M4 motorway on the borders of Reading and Shinfield. The Seven Bridges Brewery was demolished shortly afterwards and the site is now occupied by the western half of the Oracle Shopping Centre. The company was sold to Fosters in 1986 and then Scottish & Newcastle in 1995, operating as Scottish Courage. It was purchased by Heineken in 2008 and the Berkshire Brewery was closed (and subsequently demolished) two years later. At the time of the Heineken take over, the rights to all Courage brands (including Simonds) were sold to Wells & Young's of Bedford who use the sub-name Courage Brands Ltd.

Click for a detailed Description of the Simonds' Brewery in 1891


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