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The Vaux Brewery, Sunderland

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By the late 1990s, Sunderland was a city searching for an identity. The traditional industries of coal-mining and shipbuilding had gone, to be replaced by call centres and a plant manufacturing Japanese cars. One of the few remaining large-scale local businesses was the Vaux brewery, but its days were numbered.

Durham Cathedral Ale

The Vaux brewery was a family run business founded in 1837 at the corner of Matlock Street and Cuthbert Street, Sunderland, County Durham. Over the course of the following century, the brewery grew to be one of Sunderland's largest employers, with 500 staff at the Sunderland site, and became a major part of the community, sponsoring local events and Sunderland's football club. It was also one of the first British brewers to produce bottled ales and stouts.

Vaux had 350 tenanted pubs, 180 managed outlets, owned Ward's brewery in Sheffield and had owned several Scottish breweries including, from 1971 to 1985, The Caledonian Brewery. Vaux also produced a large range of beers, including:

  • Boxing Hare
  • Durham Cathedral Ale
  • How's Your Father
  • Judge Huffcap
  • Moonlight Mouse Autumn
  • St Nicholas's Winter Tipple
  • Waggledance
  • Lorimer's Best Scotch
  • Double Maxim

Thanks to being bought by Young's, Waggledance is probably the best known of these, but the beer with the strongest ties to its hometown was Double Maxim.

Double Maxim

Perceived by many as Sunderland's equivalent of (and some say superior to) Newcastle Brown Ale, Double Maxim has a bit of a story behind it. Captain Ernest Vaux (son of the brewery's founders) served in the Boer War in an artillery detachment from Sunderland, where they used a gun called 'The Maxim', the world's first self-powered automatic machine gun. The brewery created Maxim ale to celebrate the detachments' safe return. The beer received complaints from landlords who said that it was so strong that it put their customers to sleep, so the strength was reduced, only to be increased again in 1938 with the beer renamed 'Double Maxim'.

Ernest Vaux went on to serve as a Colonel in the first world war, became well known as a philanthropist and, through his friendship with Lord Baden-Powell, was influential in the foundation of the Boy Scout movement. Baden-Powell had discussed his fledgling ideas of the Boy Scout movement with Vaux while staying with him in 1908 and Sunderland's Lampton Street Troupe, recognised as one of the earliest1, was known as 'Vaux's Own'.

How's Your Father

When Paul Nicholson became chairman of Vaux, he couldn't have known that his would be the last of three generations of his family to run the brewery, stretching back to five by marriage, and that his would be the generation that saw its demise.

The brewery which would become C Vaux & Sons was founded in 1837 near Wearmouth Bridge by the 23-year-old Cuthbert Vaux, who had already spent ten years in the trade, including a partnership with his friend John Storey. Cuthbert married Sarah Anne Storey, one of John's sisters, in 1834, a marriage that would produce at least twelve children2, seven of whom died in infancy. Under Cuthbert's leadership, the business expanded to the point that in 1844 it had to relocate to larger premises on Union Street, where it stayed for 30 years. The brewery moved again in 1875 when the North Eastern Railway Company bought the Union Street site. Vaux would be at its new location, Castle Street and Bridge Avenue, until the end. When Cuthbert died in 1878, the business passed to their sons Edwin and John. Three short years later John had also died, and his sons Cuthbert and the aforementioned Ernest joined the partnership. This was to be the last partnership drawn exclusively from the Vaux line.

On 20 June, 1896, Edwin, Ernest and Cuthbert Vaux held the first meeting of their newly-formed limited liability company: C Vaux & Sons Ltd. Two years later they appointed 25-year-old Frank Nicholson as a manager. After becoming a director in 1919, Nicholson oversaw a period of huge expansion, including, in 1927, an amalgamation with North East Breweries Ltd, forming Vaux and Associated Breweries Ltd. This made Vaux North East England's second largest brewery, topped only by Newcastle Breweries Ltd (who in 1960 would merge with Scottish Breweries, forming Scottish & Newcastle, now part of 'The Big Four' 3.) In traditional dynastic style, Frank Nicholson had married Amy Vaux on 25 January, 1900. They had two children: Margaret and Frank.

The second Frank Nicholson became chairman of Vaux in 1952 and had five sons. Two of them, Paul and another Frank, would be the men at the top as the company went down.

Though several years separate them, both Paul and Frank were educated at Harrow and Cambridge before moving into very different careers. Their father wanted all five brothers to avoid the brewery trade so Paul joined The Coldstream Guards before training as an accountant with Price Waterhouse while his younger brother Frank became a chartered surveyor4.

The 'avoiding the brewery trade' thing didn't go too well. Paul joined Vaux in 1965, at the age of 27. He was chairman by 1971. Frank became managing director of the Brewery Division in 1984. The company they were running, which had changed its name to Vaux Breweries Limited in 1973, was one of the few remaining breweries in the North East5 and was a defining part of Sunderland's culture. The brewery was one of the city's main employers and the brewery's dray horses were still a common and colourful, if anachronistic, sight on Sunderland's streets.

Waggle Dance

Historically, there's been a paternalistic aristocracy in the North East of England which, while separated by class from the community as a whole, understood that it was the community that kept industry alive and therefore felt obliged to do the best by them. The importance of the historical ties between Sunderland, its community, the Vaux brewery and the Vaux/Nicholson dynasty wasn't underestimated by Paul and Frank Nicholson. This made the demise of the brewery in 1999 all the more heart-wrenching for them.

During the mid 1990s, the once again renamed Vaux Group expanded into hotels and, of all things, care homes. The care homes didn't last long, but the hotel business, under the name of Swallow Hotels, took off. By December 1998, The Vaux Group had been renamed The Swallow Group, with the original core business of Vaux becoming a subsidiary. In retrospect the writing was already on the wall but Swallow Group was doing well, and the Vaux brewery and pubs were doing well, so what went wrong?

In late 1998 Paul Nicholson, nearing 60, was preparing to step down. Martin Grant was recruited from Allied Domeque to replace him. Unfortunately for Swallow, Vaux, Sunderland and Sheffield, Grant was from a different world.

Swallow had already grabbed the attention of a couple of companies who had been sniffing around with take-over attempts in mind when Grant was appointed. This was largely down to the success of the hotels, and helped form the perception that Swallow was a hotel group carrying a brewer. Being from a city background, Grant, perfectly legitimately, saw the group in the same way. Grant had an interest only in the shareholder, not in the community.

Paul Nicholson could also see this, and saw that if the brewery remained part of Swallow it was likely to be bought as part of the whole and dismantled. Vaux was too important for this to happen, so he proposed selling Vaux Breweries as an independent concern. On 14 September 1998, Vaux announced that they were to sell the brewing and wholesale beer operations along with 350 tenanted pubs.

Moonlight Mouse Autumn

This is where Frank Nicholson came into his own, organising a management buy-out (MBO) of the Vaux brewery to protect the breweries in Sunderland and Sheffield, the pub chain and the 3,200 associated jobs. Paul Nicholson stepped back to avoid a potential conflict of interest and on 29 January, 1999, Frank and the board of Vaux were given a four-week exclusivity deal to arrange the finance and details of the proposed MBO.

This should have been the way out but Martin Grant and his finance director Neil Gossage went behind the board's back to lobby the major shareholders PDFM, Mercury Asset Management Ltd and Hermes Pensions Management Ltd6, between them holders of 30% of Swallow Group's shares, telling them that the MBO would raise £20m less than closure and sale of assets.

Martin Grant and Neil Gossage were sacked from Swallow Group on 9 February 1999, two weeks to the day before the non-executive directors vetoed the MBO. By 9 April, the pub estate was put up for sale and, if no buyer came forward, the breweries were to close on 2 July. Local MP Derek Foster tried to raise a consortium to buy the former Vaux breweries and pub chain but this also failed.

In the words of Frank Nicholson:

In less than 160 days, a company with 160 years of history had committed suicide. The directors paid the price of worshipping at the altar of shareholder value, forgetting that such an altar has to be built on foundations that embrace employees, customers and suppliers as well as shareholders7.

The hotels went to Whitbread, the Sunderland brewery was demolished and Ward's in Sheffield was closed, leading to a 'funeral march' through the city by local Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) members. Ward's, established in 1840, had been last of the four major brewers in Sheffield.

A question about the fate of Vaux was raised in The House Of Commons by Chris Mullins, then MP for Sunderland South, but it was too little too late.

Flats now stand where the Sheffield brewery once did and the Sunderland site is being redeveloped. Double Maxim has been resurrected by two of Vaux's former directors. Created in honour of Sunderland based artillerymen, it's now brewed in Stockport.

1EK Wade, 21 Years of Scouting.2Records are vague about the precise number.3A term for Britain's largest brewers who between them control over 80% of the market. The other three are Carlsberg Tetley, InBev and Guinness.4The other brothers became a chartered accountant, an engineer and a farmer.5Between 1945 and 1975 the local breweries had been reduced from twenty-five to five.6Who administered the pensions of the soon-to-be-redundant Vaux employees.7What's Brewing, June, 2001 (Newspaper of the Campaign for Real Ale).

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