From the Southwark tideway some forty miles upstream at Reading, the House of Simonds was founded in 1785, just two years before John Courage went into brewing. The Simonds’ roots were deeply set in the countryside in contrast to those of Courage, Barclay and Perkins which were entirely urban. But these contrasting origins in fact followed the progressive pattern of the brewing industry as it emerged from the eighteenth century. The brewers of Southwark, essentially metropolitan in outlook, gradually spread their interests out towards the countryside from which they drew their natural resources. Such brewers as Simonds started by serving a rural community and worked towards a more sophisticated urban industrial form. Owing to its geographical situation, which brought it into contact with Victorian military life, the Simonds concern developed a unique overseas trade with establishments at such outposts as Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus. But apart from this important development, which took place when the firm was already well established, the Simonds story offers a classic example, repeated all over the country, of the integration of brewing with farming and agricultural finance. The growing connections between brewing and banking in the eighteenth century have been noted by Peter Mathias, ” . . . men who had become personally wealthy in banking brought that wealth, and their banking associations into the partnerships of breweries. The families of Barclay, Bevan, Gurney, Hanbury, Brown, Hobhouse, Hoare, Wilshere, Clutterbuck, are examples of this movement . .. On the brewers’ side the need was clear enough, but there was a mingling of motives on the part of the banking families who accepted the new associations. Often, established bankers would put a son or relative into brewing, rather than become involved himself (as with Robert Barclay, or George M. Hoare or Sampson Hanbury). In this case, there need be no more economic significance in the move than the fact that brewing was a highly prosperous and secure occupation in which a young man with capital might invest his money and energy with advantage.”
The Simonds family was characteristic. William Blackall Simonds, who founded the brewery, came from a family which had prospered in Berkshire since Saxon times. They had been farmers, millers, maltsters, lawyers and landowners. With a background of such interests it was natural that in the eighteenth century some of them should have established themselves as bankers, and it was with existing family connections with banking that William Blackall Simonds founded his brewery in 1785. Some five years later he entered into a partnership which became known as J. & C. Simonds, Bank of Reading, which flourished in Berkshire until 1913 when it was absorbed by Barclays. At the time of this amalgamation the Reading Bank had twelve branches.
At one period the bank and the brewery occupied the same premises, but in other respects their identities and their management remained separate. After going into brewing, however, William Blackall Simonds retained many financial interests. He was Town Treasurer for Reading in 1793, 1802 and 1817, and he was also Receiver General of Taxes for Berkshire. Like the Southwark brewers, the Simonds dynasty was much concerned with public affairs. During the course of the years they gave the nation a Lord Chancellor, Berkshire two High Sheriffs and Reading five Mayors.
Besides his banking connections and his established position, William Blackall Simonds was fortunate in possessing some property which was to have geographical significance to the brewing business in after years. In his grandfather’s Will dated 1765 he received “all my Farm and Lands in the Parish of Sandhurst lately in the occupation of Thomas Sandford.” Thus he was already a landowner at Sandhurst when the Royal Military College opened there in 1813. Local geography, the lie of the land and rural habits in fact play a very potent part in the Simonds development.
There were already five breweries in Reading when Simonds opened in Broad Street in 1785. It was a small local trade but it prospered sufficiently for him to move to the site in Bridge Street on the West bank of the River Kennet where the business has remained. This riverside situation was to be of great importance for the next century or more because of the vital part water-transport played in brewing, even after the development of the railways. The brewery possessed splendid artesian wells which still exist, and there was no question of the site having been chosen in order to turn the Kennet water into beer. The position rather afforded a focal point for the network of interests which was to grow with the brewery during the nineteenth century. The present pattern of railways, in which Reading is so well placed, had already been in existence for nearly half a century (William’s son Henry Simonds was one of the original directors and later Deputy Chairman of the Great Western Railway which came to Reading in 1840) when Barnard wrote in 1891: “The Kennet falls into the Thames about half a mile from the brewery, whence it is navigable for barges of 110 tons as far as Newbury, and joining the Kennet and Avon Canal affords communication with Bath, Bristol and the Severn. The Thames affords means of transport to the Metropolis, for articles of bulk, and it is by this route that Messrs. H. & G. Simonds frequently send beer to their London stores at Millbank Wharf.”
From the start the structure of the business remained a family concern. After the turn of the century the founder’s two sons, Henry and George, were taken into the business. But the main succession passed to his three sons, Blackall (1784-1875), Henry (1785-1874) and George (1794- 1852). Of these, Henry continued to pursue his own business as a vintner until his wine and spirit business was merged with the brewery in 1868. It was William’s first son, Blackall, who was most active in promoting the brewery development. His most successful achievement arose from a remarkable capacity for combining business with pleasure.
He was an enthusiastic follower of hounds and it was in the hunting fields that he first got wind of impending legislation which was to alter the whole pattern of the brewing industry. The Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister when, in 1830, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the abolition of the beer tax. New legislation known as the Duke of Wellington’s Beer Licenses Act of 1830 not only removed the duty on beer but it gave anyone the right to retail beer by paying an annual licence of two guineas. Thus a new area of trade was intentionally opened up, one of the objects being to discourage the formidable consumption of spirits which had more than doubled during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. The Act stated that the newly created beer houses were not to open before 4.00 a.m. and were to close down by 10.00 p.m.
Having been tipped off about the government’s intention, Blackall Simonds foresaw the impact of the new legislation upon his own immediate surroundings. So while he continued to hunt the countryside within fifteen miles of Reading, he carefully noted down suitable sites for public houses to enjoy the benefit of the new retail trade as soon as the Duke of Wellington’s Act was passed. He was assisted by a sagacious groom, whose name has not been handed down but whose knowledge of the lie of the land and the habits of local people contributed realistically to the acquisition of fifty sites all within comfortable range of the brewery drays from Bridge Street, Reading.
Not everything went smoothly in the creation of these fifty new public houses, which was such a master stroke in the Simonds’ fortunes. Loud protests came from a clergyman near Eversley. He declared that Mr. Simond’s hunting days were doomed for the swamping of the countryside with beer-houses would surely destroy the trade of his brewery. Whether this protest was made on general moral grounds or because the parson considered his amenities threatened is not clear. But according to Barnard’s account of the affair, Mr. Simonds indulged in a little game with his would be tormentor: “In those days skittles were permissible to the British rustic, and Mr. Simonds, who dearly loved a joke, saw his opportunity. He accordingly bought a field adjoining the rectory garden, where, a fortnight before the passing of the Act, he put up a shed and a four-cornered alley, during which operation the foundations of the intended beer house rapidly rose above the ground. One morning the parson came to Mr. Simonds, in anything but the mildest of tempers, to remonstrate with him on the subject. Mr. Simonds, who received the parson in his usual courtly style, and with great affability, replied, “Why, my friend, you have frequently told me that you objected to public houses, so I am erecting this beer house and skittle-alley for the benefit of your parishioners. I admit that it abuts on to your garden, but then you must remember that the rectory itself occupies the choicest position in the village, and I can hardly imagine that you wish to appropriate to yourself what you would deny to your poorer neighbours. The noise of ‘twicers’ or ‘floorers’ will, when you are once used to them, afford you genuine pleasure, all the more so that you have spared your parishioners a walk of over a mile to the ‘Red Lion’ for their enjoyment.”
Eventually Mr. Simonds settled the matter amicably with the clergyman, and they afterwards became the best of friends. There are several versions of this story but they all agree that it ended happily ever after; although it is difficult to see precisely how the clergyman’s anger was assuaged.
As soon as his new enterprise was established, Blackall Simonds retired to the Isle of Wight, leaving his brothers to carry on the business. The geographical situation of the brewery had already begun to play an important part in associating Simonds beer with the British Army and promoting the cherished slogan “The Stuff for the Troops".