The Golden Bitter of Burnley. Part I.

I have probably checked by now a thousand obscure beer names from bygone breweries. From any brewery that once enjoyed some longevity, labels often survive, collected at the Labology site, or another beer historical site.

Online sales and auction sites (eBay, Worthpoint, etc.) are useful resources, as are old magazine and newspaper ads.

Searching such a name recently, I was startled to find a label of modern design, at the beer rating site Untappd. The brand: Massey’s Golden Bitter. Only later did I locate more historic representations.

This was not a famous old marque like Bass, still sold. For a minute I was transported back to the future, then I realized the current label is a revival.*

The brewer is Heritage Brewing Company of Burton upon Trent. It operates a mini-brewery built some years ago to replace the pilot William Worthington plant at the National Brewing Museum (the former Bass, then Coors, Museums).

The Golden Bitter, last brewed c. 1970, was re-brewed for an East Lancs CAMRA festival. It is one of many heritage brands made by the brewery, Charrington IPA is another. See the current range, here.

My interest arose due to a story in the Burnley Express on May 11, 1940:


Through the courtesy of Massey’s Burnley Brewery, Limited, members of the Burnley Society of St. George were conducted on a tour of the Bridge End brewery last Wednesday evening. The visit proved most enjoyable and instructive. The various processes in the manufacture of Masseys Golden Bitter were fully explained, and the members of the party were greatly impressed by all they saw and heard. At the conclusion of the visit the Society’s warm thanks to the directors of the brewery and to the officials who took charge of the party were expressed the Society’s founder and chairman, Mr. J. Pickup.

It is quite unusual to find a brewery tour during World War II. I still haven’t found one for the United States, or Canada. But a few did take place in Britain, in 1939-1945.

Guinness in Dublin hosted at least one, which I will come to later, and earlier I described a tour in 1944 in Mandate Palestine, then under British control.

All these concerned the war directly or otherwise, the Burnley example no less given the patriotic aims of the Society of St. George.

The Pickup name is well-known in the Burnley area, later an Albert Pickup was the Mayor. Perhaps the founder of Burnley St. George’s (created 1939) was his father, or another relation.

Massey’s even by 1940 had a long history, commencing c. 1750. It was one of hundreds of regional brewers to survive by World War II, in part by acquiring other brewers such as Astley’s.

Here I am more concerned with the 1940 tour and its decorous report in the press. One may note any reference to drinking is absent.

This is characteristic of wartime tour reports except when the soldiery were guests. I am sure beer was served to J. Pickup and friends, but as beer was a luxury and sometimes short then, publicising such public tippling would have been seen as inappropriate.

In the mid-40s Burnley was a busy place due to manufacturing and other activities connected to the war, but largely escaped bombing, while the Blitz still raged in London in 1940.

Two London theatre and a ballet company had temporarily relocated to Burnley’s Victoria Theatre, which added to the increased trade due to the war.

Taste descriptions of the revived Golden Bitter suggest a fine, well-hopped drink. (The term golden is more proof the adjective is venerable in English beer-naming, one of numerous examples from the early 20th century).

The Golden Bitter in its salad days was sometimes called “GB”. An illustration of a pint bottle so-adorned, featuring also the brewery’s owl logo, appeared in the Barnoldswick & Earby Times on September 19, 1952. 

Next to it is an ashtray holding a plain-end cigarette. No ad copy is included, no human figures are shown. Austere it was but the image said it all, in Lancs in 1952.

Five years later we see the same beer, in the Nelson Leader, July 12, 1957 (via British Newspaper Archive).



Here, a couple lounges at a spare table of modern design, all thin top and long legs. She wears a pretty dress of below-the-knee, bell design. The man is white-shirted, looking as if back from work. They both raise a glass.

The ad copy is profuse but bland, the power comes from the artwork. Much had changed in Britain in only five years. Rock and roll, skiffle, and jazz combos were of the time, the beats of the big bands a fading echo.

Rocker Pete Townshend’s saxophonist father Cliff was still touring with his respected Squadronaires, but the son was learning the guitar that would confer greater fame in time.

Change would finally come to Burnley Massey Brewery too,** but the Fifties was still glory days for the siren scent of English hops, for the nougat of English malt.

A 1940s Golden Bitter label appears in a collection posted in 2018, see top-right panel.

We conclude with Part II.

Note re image: source of image shown is identified and linked in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*It appears a Massey’s Mild has been brewed as well.

**Acquired by Charrington United Breweries in 1966, just ahead of its merger with Bass, Mitchells & Butlers (1967). Massey’s, known formally as Massey’s Burnley Bridge End Brewery, Westgate, was closed in 1974.




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