Book Review: ‘Good Honest Tales – 150 years of Batemans Brewery’

Many years ago when my family took me on day trips to Skegness we would sometimes briefly stop on the return journey at a pub that I can recall had Batmans written on its sign. As a youngster this was rather spooky. Only years later did I realise that it had been Batemans that I’d seen on the pub.

This was my first encounter with the Lincolnshire-based brewery in the village of Wainfleet and since then I’m pleased to have had a less scary relationship with the company including enjoying a pint of XXXB on various occasions with the current custodians of the family business Stuart and Jaclyn Bateman.  

Against this backdrop I was pleased to receive a copy of the newly published book ‘Good Honest Tales – 150 years of Batemans Brewery’ by Adam Cartwright (from Amberley Publishing). It’s a readable journey through a century and a half of the challenges of running a family business in an industry that has undergone great change and a period of two world wars.

The chapters each take a period of time and highlight the key changes to the business. Beginning with George Bateman buying a local brewery in 1874 and selling his farm at a time when there were 20 breweries within a 20-mile radius of Wainfleet. By 1951 Batemans was the only one left and it went on a pub purchasing mission under George’s son Harry – taking it from 11 to 100 pubs between 1918 and 1945. Meanwhile the end of the 1920s saw some iconic developments as the Salem Bridge windmill was acquired and ‘Good Honest Ales’ appeared in ads for the first time.

Batemans was not immune to the inevitable post-war regional brewery consolidation and was forced to close 26 pubs while lager started to appear on the scene along with keg beers. The brewery briefly set up a makeshift keg production facility but swiftly phased it out. The death of Harry in 1970 came amid problems as drinkers shifted to keg beers and cask came under pressure. CAMRAs creation in 1971 proved to be a saviour as it led to renewed demand for Batemans’ three cask beers and six bottled brews.

Another serious challenge came in 1985 when the two siblings of George Bateman – who had joined the business in 1952 and gone on to become MD – informed him they wished to sell their shares. This looked like the end of the road and a sell-out to a rival all but inevitable. However, George was not to give up the brewery’s independence that easily and he fought on principles rather than purely financial.

He was quoted in The Guardian newspaper at the time: “There’s something a bit special here. It’s not all about the bottom line. I still think the building of a happy community is something worthwhile. I hold this business in trust for future generations and the local community.”

As well as principles he was also helped in his task by XXXB winning CAMRAs Beer of the Year in 1986 that put some wind in the sails and sales. It also possibly helped attract the attention of solicitor Brian Bean who played a crucial role in devising the strategy of a share buy-back that enabled the Bateman family to buy all the company’s shares but at a cost of taking on a chunky debt. This prompted the sale of 45 properties (pubs and hotels).

With Stuart taking on the MD role in 2002 along with assistance from Jaclyn there was to be some experimentation involving new beers including Yella Belly, Strawberry Fields Waynflete Bitter (that had a dramatic effect on beer lines in many pubs) and most notably Rosey Nosey. But his biggest deal was selling Batemans free trade business for a period of six years to Carlsberg that paid off all the debts.

The current 49 pubs certainly kept Stuart and Jaclyn busy when dealing with the many challenges that Covid-19 threw at them. At least they have the family’s resilience that makes them adept at rolling with the punches. And they can also fall back on being able to collect their thoughts and strategise over a pint or two in the bar of their distinctive Salem windmill.

‘Good Honest Tales – 150 years of Batemans Brewery’ is available from Amberley Publishing.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider