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History

img_john_arkellAnyone visiting Arkell's Brewery for the first time could be excused for thinking they have walked straight into a time machine.

The beer is still brewed in much the same way as it was when John Arkell first made it in 1843 and the brewery buildings seem untouched by the passing years. If you speak to any of the staff about the company it is clear that everyone is still as fiercely proud of its local and family roots as John Arkell was himself.

But Arkell's has not achieved its unique position as Swindon's oldest company and one of the oldest traditional breweries still operating in Britain today, simply by standing still.

The company has remained true to the principles of loyalty, quality and tradition set down by its founder 167 years ago, but it has also adapted brilliantly to the changing world around it. Some things never change at Arkell's, but it is the ability to change effectively when change is necessary that has been at the cornerstone of the brewery's success story over the last 167 years.

hist1-2largeJohn Arkell was a remarkable man. Born into a farming family in 1802 in Kempsford, South Gloucestershire, he emigrated to the New World in his late twenties and took with him a group of local people who sought a refuge from the tough conditions endured by agricultural folk at that time. It was a brave step.

They arrived in Canada and established the small community of Arkell - which still exists today - but three years later, John returned for love. His fiancée preferred to live in England so he came home to marry and set up home in Stratton St Margaret, near Swindon, where he grew barley on his farm.


hist2-1largeIt was a natural step to turn to brewing beer, which at that time was commonly produced by many pubs and in many more private homes. But it took the foresight of John Arkell to realize the potential market for supplying beer to a string of other pubs as well as his own Kingsdown Inn, which he had just bought.

His timing was perfect. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had just chosen Swindon as the site of his works on the Great Western Railway and the once sleepy market town was already developing into a bustling (and thirsty) industrial centre.

A major expansion into Swindon would come some years later as the town continued to grow, but to begin with he contented himself with leasing just one Swindon pub, the Carriers Arms, (later the Lord Raglan) in Old Town. It was 1856 and so successful was John's makeshift brewery that he was inviting friends to dine inside his new 3,000-gallon barrel.

But the business was already outgrowing the farm and in 1861 a new steam brewery was built behind the original Kingsdown Inn at Upper Stratton.


hist2-2largeArkell's bought The Fox Inn in Highworth in 1862, The Golden Cross at Cirencester in 1864, The Tavern at Greatfield (later renamed The Butchers Arms) in 1866 and supplied The Harrow, Wanborough on a ten-year lease. Soon, John opened his second Swindon pub, The Artillery Arms in Regent Street, which survived until 1936 when it was demolished to make way for a new Woolworth's store.


hist3-1largeBy 1867 the business had even outgrown the new brewery and John was forced to convert the old Kingsdown Inn into offices and build a new pub across the road. Yet the expansion was still gathering pace and John was to buy up another 20 pubs in the next ten years. Acquisitions reached a peak with the addition of three pubs in one year (1877) and a further seven by 1881. Now the majority of the expansion was aimed firmly at Swindon.

Sadly, John Arkell was to see his tied estate grow no more. He died on 21st October, 1881, much mourned by a local community who always knew him as 'Honest John'. The Swindon Advertiser noted that shops were closed and blinds drawn as the funeral cortege passed to Stratton Church and added: "He was open and above board and Radical in all he said and did. The poor had lost a good friend, a plain and simple friend."

hist3-2largeDespite his loss, there was no question of the brewery floundering after John's death. After all, he had built his business on solid foundations and strong and fair principles which would be passed down from generation to generation while the business remained tightly in family hands.

Sons Thomas and James took over and Arkell's continued to expand, still focusing on the boomtown of Swindon. The pubs would serve both Arkell's and the community well as the railway works headed for its heyday after the turn of the century.

Arkell's mainly bought up pubs thrown on to the market when rival breweries folded. It was the company's ability to not only survive but also to thrive when other smaller breweries were closing or facing takeover that has been perhaps the most remarkable feature of the story.


hist4-1largeBy 1900, Arkell's owned more than a quarter of the pubs in the Swindon area and was firmly established as a cornerstone of life in the town, which was now almost unrecognisable from its humble status of 60 years before.

But there was a limit to how fast Arkell's could expand and the latter years of Thomas and James' management of the brewery saw a period of consolidation of the tied estate. When Thomas died in 1919 at the age of 80, the brewery had bought no new pubs in two decades, though another five were added to the chain before James, aged 75, passed away in 1925.

Arkell's became a private limited company in 1927 with all shares owned by the family - as, indeed, is the case today. Now at the helm were James' sons, Thomas Noel (later Sir Noel), James Graham and John Oliver Arkell.


hist4-2largeBy now the brewery was over 70 years old and it was time to modernise, so the 1930s saw the closure of the maltings and the opening of a high-tech bottling plant which employed up to 25 people. The period also saw the foundation of a mineral water plant which gave birth to the fondly-remembered Ace brand of soft drinks. Meanwhile, the new brewery chimney was added to the Stratton skyline for the first time.

Despite the slow recovery period after the Second World War, a handful of new pubs were added to the Arkell's estate and, in 1954, Peter Arkell, the eldest son of Sir Noel, joined the company as a director.


hist5-1largeA war veteran who had seen service with the RAF in Burma, Peter had spent a year in hospital after crashing behind enemy lines. He brought valuable brewing experience to Arkell's as a former director at the Tadcaster Tower Brewery.

Peter, who was awarded the OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 1997, once said: "My initials are 'PA' - Pale Ale. I was born in the brewery and I married a brewer's daughter. I'm in it up to my neck!"

With Sir Noel, Graham and Peter as a board of directors, the Sixties was to see another groundbreaking era in the history of Arkell's as it took its first steps in the wine and spirits market, buying out local firm Brown and Plummer's, which was actually owned by one of Peter's cousins.

It was another example of Arkell's adapting to shifting fashions in the drinks industry while still applying the same business methods that had served them so well for over a century. It would ensure Arkell's Vintners of its current status as the leading wine merchants in the area under Sales and Vintners Director, Nicholas Arkell.


hist5-2largeFurther diversification came in 1967 when Arkell's formed a partnership with Derek Austin to supply the growing demand for amusement machines in pubs and in 1979 it also secured a 50 per cent interest in Edmont's Joinery, a company employing 70 people which carries out much of the refurbishment of Arkell's pubs.

There were changes, too, back at the brewery, where the mineral plant was closed in 1962 and the cooper's shop - made redundant by the introduction of metal casks in 1960 - sadly followed in 1968.

In the boardroom, Peter Arkell became chairman in 1971, a year before the death of Graham Arkell and ten years before Sir Noel, Peter's father, passed away. Meanwhile, a new Arkell generation - the fifth - was being groomed to help lead the business towards and beyond its 150th anniversary.


hist6largeJames Arkell (pictured left) was born in 1951 and by the time he became a director in 1973, he had already learned the art of brewing at the Donnington Brewery near Stow-on-the-Wold, owned by second cousin Claude Arkell, and with spells at Baird's the maltsters and Bass. James is now chairman, having taken over from father Peter in 2010.

The Seventies and Eighties saw Arkell's secure itself an enviable reputation among lovers of traditional beer as the consumer revolution set off by the Campaign for Real Ale left the company well placed to take advantage of beer drinkers' discerning attitude towards the quality of beer.

If the 150th anniversary celebrations in 1993 were a time for looking back to Arkell's magnificent past, the 1990s were also a time for the business to look forward to the future with confidence.

A wholesale disposal of Whitbread pubs saw Arkell's buy up and breathe new life into eight pubs in Gloucester and Cheltenham in 1991 and this was to herald an expansion even more rapid than the one masterminded by John Arkell in the last century. The brewery now has pubs in places as far away as Oxford, Newbury and Ascot and a busy free trade, mainly through the Thames Valley and into London.

Meanwhile, the original bottling store, which closed in 1983, was replaced in 1997 by a new, high-tech plant which is ensuring that Arkell's customers can once again enjoy their beer at home.

tawny_owl_280As the millennium approached, Arkell's had over 100 pubs under its wing - many of them extensively refurbished - meaning the Brewery was not only ready for whatever changes the 21st century will bring to its business and its products, but it relished the challenge.

By the time of Arkell's 160th anniversary in 2003, Arkell's had added a further seven pubs and spread its wings even more into Berkshire with acquisitions in Reading and Whitchurch plus new builds in the expanding northern sector of Swindon.

The Queen's Golden Jubilee was also celebrated with a special Jubilee beer in 2002, with Arkell's first all-organic ale first launched just a year before winning numerous awards for its delightful 'honey' flavour.

george_duke2003 was also very special year for the Arkell's family and the brewery with the 80th birthday of Chairman Peter Arkell - marked by the brewing of Moonlight ale to recognise his World War 2 bravery as a nightime pilot - and the marriage of George Arkell.

And by the time the Brewery welcomed its very first Royal guest in 2008 with the visit of HRH The Duke of Kent, Arkell's had continued to expand with further investment in pubs and hotels in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire & Wiltshire to bring the number of establishments under the Arkell's name to over 110.

That year, James Arkell also became chairman, with Alex Arkell, James's youngest son making the decision to join the family business, firstly as a 'tenanted' pub landlord at The Rusty Bicycle in Oxford.

Sadly in 2010, Peter Arkell, the inspirational head of the Arkell's family and brewery, passed away at the age 87.

2012 brought the retirement of long-standing head brewer Don Bracher with the position being taken up by Alex Arkell, James' youngest son. After training as a Master Brewer in the US and Germany, Alex is now taking Arkell's beer in a fresh, new direction reflecting the reassurgence of real ale and craft brewing of which Arkell's is at the forefront.

george_alex_arkellsSo as 2013 arrived, the incredible milestone of 170 years as brewers was celebrated with a beer festival at the brewery.

Fitting then that in 2014 James Arkell was hugely honoured to be inaugurated as the Master of the Worshipful Company of Brewers, one of the oldest City Guilds which dates back to the 12th Century, just a few weeks after Arkells won Gold at The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) National Beer Awards for their 1843 Lager.

Add in the highly prestigious Champion Beer Award for Arkell’s Kingsdown at the 2016 Taste of the West Product Awards, plus the acquisition of Rudi's Bar in Swindon and The Crown in Cirencester in 2017, and you have a family brewing business first started by John Arkell in 1843 heading towards its 175 anniversary never looking stronger.

The late Dave Backhouse, chairman of the Swindon branch of CAMRA, said: "Given its combination of tradition and efficiency, we can hope for a long and prosperous future for this well-run local company."

We'll drink to that!