The Fascination of Beer Label Collecting
In December 1924, the Brewers’ Journal reported that a second hand bookseller
was offering, for 50 guineas, a collection of 10,000 beer bottle labels, “carefully
preserved” in 15 albums. A noted collector had spent nearly 50 years in
travelling and gathering them together. The article noted that these mint
examples were of “beautiful design and artistic merit”, and many of them came
from breweries which had been closed down.
This brief snippet suggested that beer label collecting was perhaps unusual then.
It shows that there were certainly collectors around well before 1900. Possibly,
there were enthusiasts two decades or so before, when the earliest beer labels
appeared. These were usually small, circular white labels, printed in black.
Abott & Sons of the Bow Brewery, Nevile Reid of Windsor and A B Walker of
Warrington have examples issued in the 1840s.
|Early label (c1908) of Masons’ Waterside Brewery, Maidstone, Kent|
What attracts people to collect beer labels? The aesthetic qualities were certainly
recognized by the Brewers’ Journal. Size was also an important factor. Apart from
the massive labels used by some breweries like Watney Combe Reid of London
in the early 20th century, for their quart bottles, generally, most labels in use in
the 1950s and before were small. Many labels are attractive because they made
effective use of colour. Often, two or three main colours combined to make the
label stand out; the use of blue and yellow or light green, orange and brown in
labels issued by Reffells Bexley Brewery and Kenward & Court (both from Kent)
were especially eye-catching. Red seems to be a favourite colour and many
labels combine this with black lettering printed on white paper:-
Issued after Golding’s acquisition of Fox’s Brewery, Farnborough in 1910
Colour and design are not the only reasons for the appeal of beer labels. Many
represent a bygone age, and tastes. The styles Dinner Ale, Family Ale and
Luncheon Stout show that beer drinking during mealtimes was common in
households. The beer consumed during a meal was generally of low strength.
And as the second hand bookseller in 1924 had recognized, breweries have
tended to come and go over the years and firms and brews are no longer with us.
Between 1900 and 1979, the number of brewers for sale in the United Kingdom
declined from 6,000 to 179 (although the establishment of microbreweries has
boosted that number now). History is fascinating to the label collector. Obsolete
companies and designs – especially dating back before 1960 - are certainly more
Labels issued in the first decade of the 20th century for beers for household consumption.
The Miller label shows that breweries were keen to show off their brewery – and their
When I lived in Hampshire, I spent years trying to obtain a label from a defunct
brewery in Hartley Wintney, acquired in 1921 by Friary Holroyd & Healy’s
Breweries of Guildford. When the brewery closed and the buildings unused for
a time, local children used the labels left over for paper chases! Letters to
newspapers, talking to publicans, contacting local historians, advertising in beer
and collecting magazines and attending breweriana fairs all drew a blank. And
then, three years ago, a specimen emerged and now has pride of place in my
collection. Today, the brewery building still stands behind the former brewer’s
house in Hartley Row, carefully preserved but in other uses, overlooking the
village cricket ground.
|Label from the Hartley Wintney Brewery, pre 1917|
Probably one of the most interesting aspects of beer label collecting was the use
by some breweries of protectionist backgrounds and devices on their labels. Bass
Ratcliff & Gretton of Burton-on-Trent, who registered the first trade mark – the
red triangle – when the Trade Marks Registration Act was introduced in 1875,
had, even into the 1960s, a background that made copying difficult. But it did
not deter some companies who were keen to compete with, and steal the glory
from, their famous rival. Worthington & Robinson, the early partnership before
the formation of Worthington & Company in 1862, had a superb background
pattern on their labels (again using the popular colours of red and black) :-
Collectors have their own themes and areas to pursue, and some concentrate on
one or two counties in the UK and particular countries. But others collect beer
labels from across the world. I have concentrated on labels from the United
Kingdom and Ireland. The commemorative or special event label is one area
which is gaining in popularity. Royal events such as weddings, coronations,
silver, gold and diamond jubilees and births are especially sought after. There
were many 1953 Coronation labels and the 1937 Coronation of HM King George
VI and Queen Elizabeth generated a number too, but few examples exist for the
1911 and 1902 Coronations. A stunning label for the 1902 Coronation was issued
by Hewitts of Grimsby (closed in 1968) and the firm also registered the monarch
trade mark in that year:
Special event labels have not been confined to royalty. Landmarks in the
development of breweries – such as 100, 150, 200, 250 and 300 year anniversaries
have sometimes prompted a commemorative brew, mostly a stronger beer than
normal. And closure of breweries have also featured: the cessation of brewing at
Tolly Cobbold’s Brook Street Brewery in 1961, and the last brew from the
Southend Brewery of Henry Luker & Co. Ltd. On 25 March 1929, following the
purchase by Mann Crossman & Paulin, was Luker’s Last and Best XXXXXX.
Another Essex brewery (T D Ridley & Sons) brought out the appropriately
named Hartford End when it closed in August 2005, as a result of acquisition by
I have spent over 50 years collecting beer labels, but my fascination has not been
confined to these colourful paper items. The existence of labels is not enough for
me; I have to delve into the past, and discover the history of the brewery that
issued them, to understand that these concerns not only made a big contribution
to the local economy, providing work for people in the community, but
produced a range of ales and stouts which slaked the thirst of many in good and
bad times. And often, a brewery building dominated an area with its distinctive
tower and smell of malt and hops permeating the air around. That is why I
have researched breweries over the years and got to know more about traditional
firms which often had a loyal and dedicated following.
It started in the late 1950s/early 1960s when I visited two breweries in my home town of Maidstone
(Fremlins and Style and Winch) and was given labels showing the elephant and
the Kentish farmer. Those visits provided the springboard for my interest in
breweries and labels.
I still derive pleasure in obtaining a label from a brewery not represented in my
collection. So I hope I can appeal to ex-brewers, brewery employees and
publicans who may have collections tucked away or know someone who has. I
am interested in single labels and collections going back before 1950.
I am willing to help any budding collector as much as I can and put them in touch with the UK’s
collecting organization – The Labologists Society. The Society has been going for 63
years and holds meetings in pubs and breweries, produces a series of newsletters
each year, sells labels, and organizes The Label of the Year Competition, which
promotes good label design and has raised over £68,000 for various charities over
If any readers of the blog would like information on label collecting etc ; I`d be happy to pass on your messages to Keith , I`d also heavily reccomend looking at The Labologists Society website .
Cheers All ,
Edd The Brew