The Reading firm, like the other elements in the Courage Group, maintained its strong family flavour. William Blackall Simonds lived within the precincts of the brewery during his active years. This was in the tradition of his time and it had been mentioned that his way of life lacked style. His residence was in fact designed and built by the great Sir John Soane, an intimate friend of his, and this was an early indication of the taste for the arts and intellectual pursuits which ran in the family. The spacious, well proportioned house, creeper-clad with its wide windows looking out on the brewery yard, had been transformed into offices by the time it was photographed, set among horse- drawn drays, in the eighteen-nineties. It was used by Barnard to illustrate his visit about 1890. While his account, written just before the Boer War, is, for the most part, sturdily factual, it shows how the business had prospered even before its great expansion which was to come in the twentieth century. He approached the story with a lyricism which must be quoted at least for its pleasingly nostalgic note: “It was early in the month of May when we left London, by the South Western Railway, to pay our promised visit to the Reading Brewery. The season of spring had arrived, at whose magic touch the drooping sensibilities of our nature are aroused, and the heart filled with sensations of waking pleasure. Although, physically, man knows not the renewing power of the seasons, yet his mind cannot fail to acknowledge their genial and invigorating influence.
How delighted we were to turn our backs upon the busy city and make for the country, there to inhale the restoring balms with which myriads of bursting germs and blossoms were loading the soft and vernal gale. As we proceeded on our journey, how we admired the verdure of the fields and trees, the expanded and beautiful foliage of the sinuous woodbine spreading through the hawthorn hedges, the mingled hues of green, and the insensible sweetness of early vegetation. We reached our destination long before we had fully enjoyed the sylvan beauty of the scenery through which we had so rapidly passed.”
Having recovered from this ecstatic experience on the old Great Western Railway and admired the Soane architecture, Barnard got down to his usual meticulous survey of place and product: “Though their trade mark, the red ‘Hop Leaf’, is now so well known, we understand that Messrs. Simonds’ first trial in brewing pale ale was eminently disastrous, from a financial point of view. Having made the experiment in a good strong bitter beer of the old-fashioned type, Messrs. Simonds duly consigned it to Melbourne, where it fetched quite a fabulous price. Unfortunately, the consignee stuck to the money, and had not the grace to return even the empty casks. Nothing daunted, however, the firm turned their attention to making this class of ale a speciality, and wisely cultivated a demand for it among their own more immediate connection.
At this period a taste for a lighter kind of ale had just set in; Messrs. Simonds therefore applied themselves to the task of producing a beer of much lower specific gravity, and on the identical principles now adopted at Burton and elsewhere, using a large quantity of the finest hops, and adopting what was then a novel expedient - hopping down with dry hops introduced into the casks.
To this beer they gave the name of S B, and so pronounced was its success, that the demand for it soon necessitated the reconstruction and enlargement of their brewery. Since that time the process of extension has gone on to the present day, until the brewery has become almost the largest provincial one in the South of England, and the premises cover seven acres of ground.
From any point of view the brewery buildings, on account of their magnitude and picturesque appearance, are most striking, particularly the lofty new brewhouse on the river side of the premises. The plant of the old brewery has been remodelled to suit that of the new, which latter is of the most costly description, and either can be worked separately or both can be used together. It is only when one sees the inside of these vast establishments, with their ponderous engines and machinery, their great cellars filled with thousands of barrels of beer, that he can form any idea of the capital employed by the brewer in the production of a good glass of ale. During the last thirty years the Reading Brewery has assumed gigantic proportions, and the present proprietors can boast of having more than quadrupled its output since their advent to the business.”
The men who were running the brewery with such success in the Victorian heyday were the grandsons of William Blackall Simonds, and their background is of some interest as it shows the unusual versatility in the talents they brought to the running of the business. The Chairman at that time was Henry John Simonds, a former Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, who had practised at the Bar. He became Mayor of Reading, a County Councillor and, characteristically, Secretary of the Local Hunt. But it was he who had been in charge of the prodigious operations of supplying the army manoeuvres.
With him on the Board was Henry Adolphus Simonds who had had commercial experience in America before joining the business in 1850. He also was Mayor of Reading and became Chairman of the County Brewers’ Society.
The third Director, Blackall Simonds, began as a civil engineer working under Sir John Fowler on the construction of London’s Metropolitan Railway. When he came into the family business he was responsible for great reconstruction works at Reading, his ideas being so original in their day that they attracted visits from London architects. He also became Mayor of Reading, High. Sheriff of Berkshire and Chairman of the brewery between 1896 and 1905.
But the man who left his mark literally at Reading was George Blackall Simonds who sculptured the great Lion which stands to this day in Forbury Gardens as a memorial to the Berkshire men who fell in the Afghan War of 1880. He was also responsible for statues of Queen Victoria outside Reading Town Hall and his fellow industrialist George Palmer, the biscuit king, in Palmer Park. Born in 1843 he studied art in Dresden and Brussels and then went to live for twelve years in Rome. But like other members of the family he was drawn back to Reading and the family business. He was Chairman of the brewery from 1910 to the time of his death in 1929. He did not relinquish his interest in the arts which he combined with an enthusiasm for the revival of falconry.
Finally, the Secretary and Manager of the company at the time of Barnard’s visit was Louis de Luze Simonds, one of whose sons became Lord Simonds, Lord Chancellor in 1951. His eldest son, popularly known as “Eric”, entered the brewery as a trainee in 1902 and became Chairman in 1938. “He was the inspiration and driving force of the firm’s growth from 300 - 350 public houses and one brewery in 1916 to 1,400 houses and four breweries in 1952” it was stated on the occasion of his brewing jubilee. Assets had risen from £778,000 in 1902 to nearly £10,500,000.
When he made his report, Barnard met seven members of the Simonds family who were active in the business, and he concluded his account with this note of personnel: “There are employed, at Reading alone, six managers, three superintending brewers, a staff of twenty clerks, five travellers, and over 200 workmen. Adding to these the 170 persons employed at the firm’s eleven branch houses in England, and those at Malta and Gibraltar, and the separate staff of 140 people engaged on their railway and pier contracts, it gives us a grand total of more than 500 persons, a number of which the proprietor of any business may well be proud.”
At this period the company had already joined its future confederates on the Thames waterfront in London. Their depot was in a noble house in Grosvenor Road facing across the river to Lambeth Palace, having a wharf to which the beer was delivered direct from Reading, the upper reaches of the Thames still serving a useful commercial purpose. The business in London was already substantial for the nearby stables accommodated fifteen horses for metropolitan use.
Thus, toward the turn of the century, the firm - which like other breweries had been incorporated as a public company in the eighteen-eighties - had consolidated and spread far and wide. But a significant expansion was to come through mergers carried out later than those of most other companies of the Courage Group in the present century.
The first of these were the Tamar Brewery, Devonport, which was taken over in 1919, and the South Berks Brewery the following year. The big expansion throughout the south and west of England came in the thirties with the acquisition of Ashby’s at Staines, Rogers of Bristol, Wheeler’s Wycombe Breweries, Cirencester Brewery, Lakernan’s Brewery, Brizharn, Stiles of Brigend, and Marsh of Blandford. To these in the post-war years were added Bowley of Swindon, May of Basing- stoke, Phillips of Newport (Mon.), Grant of Torquay, Blundell and The Octagon Brewery, Plymouth, and Pool of Penzance.
Earlier in the century Simonds possessed a great array of branch offices, particularly associated with military and naval bases. But with the advent of motor transport, the need for these diminished and there was a general rationalisation of the pattern of the business.
The offices at Reading, rebuilt at the turn of the century, remained the pivot of the enterprise and are now the headquarters of Courage Central. Though there is still a Simonds presiding there, there are few relics of the past except in the memories of old hands. Soane’s gracious building has disappeared, together with the stabling for the directors’ carriages and horses, and the kennels for the Dalmatian carriage dogs which used to trot between the rear wheels. Until the beginning of the present reign barges still came to London bearing timber for casks; but as with other breweries the river frontage is no longer in commercial use, and gone too is the boathouse for the directors’ river- craft. When in 1960 Simonds joined the Courage Group they brought with them some 1200 tied houses, hotels and catering establishments as well as the chain of retail wine and spirit shops operating under the name of Arthur Cooper (Wine Merchant) Limited.