We take a look at Ben Shaw’s, finding out how the son of a farm labourer from Huddersfield became one of the biggest names in British soft drinks.
Benjamin Shaw was born in 1837, the son of a farm labourer at Fenay Bridge in Huddersfield. His father couldn’t always get work, meaning they couldn’t afford to send Benjamin to school all the time. He took a job, aged thirteen, in a local mill learning to become a low paid spinner.
In 1871, Benjamin Shaw and his brother George decided to take advantage of Huddersfield’s new found prosperity by starting their own business. They left the textile trade and at first, simply bottled and sold natural Pennine mineral water. They called themselves, Shaw Bros. Manufacturers of Non-Alcoholic Beverages. Their first drinks were a non-alcoholic version of porter (for which they paid £5 for the recipe), and ginger beer made from an old family recipe which they matured in old spirit barrels.
Ben was soon seen pushing his wheelbarrow around town, delivering bottles of their drinks to businesses. One of their first customers was the Thornton’s Temperance Hotel, a regular haunt of teetotal radicals. Within a few months, they had made enough money to buy carts and harnesses for the family’s four shire horses – Bonny, Blossom, Cherry and Dick -which meant they could now expand their distribution area to cover a large part of Yorkshire.
After five years of business in partnership with his brother, Ben paid him the sum of £317-3s-6d, and became sole owner. After 12 years, the business had outgrown its original premises at Elm’s Yard in Charles Street, Huddersfield and moved to a larger building in Upperhead Row on the corner of Westgate. This was soon too small, so he leased a large plot of land on Willow Lane in the Fartown area of Huddersfield, where he built a large factory. Ben Shaw retained an office in the town centre, from where he would telephone orders through to the factory – one of the earliest uses of the telephone for direct ordering.
In the twentieth century, new technologies were embraced by Ben Shaw’s. When radio arrived, the factory workers were allowed to listen to the programme ‘Music While You Work’. Before long, the traditional horse and cart had been replaced by wagons doing regular rounds. These continued well into the 1980s, with children eagerly waiting on a Saturday morning for the ‘pop van’ to arrive on the street so they could rush out to buy large glass bottles of their favourite flavours (and of course get a refund for the empty bottles).
Ben Shaw’s, kept up with the changing tastes of their customers, introducing various flavours of ‘pop’, such as orangeade, limeade and their famous lemonade. Throughout the twentieth century, their range expanded further to include cordials, soda water and the drinks with which they became synonymous – dandelion & burdock, bitter shandy, cloudy lemonade and cream soda. In 1959, they became the first company in Europe to sell canned drinks, expanding their distribution to cover the whole of the UK in the process.
In the 1970s the company became well known locally among the female population for its annual competition to become “Miss Ben Shaw’s.” The winning girl had to show the company’s principles of being “hard working, honest and fun” in their pictures. The winner of the coveted title won a crate of Ben Shaw’s drinks every month throughout the year.
In 2005 the company was taken over by Cott Ltd, with a promise to uphold the traditional brand of Ben Shaw’s and its family values. Latterly they have introduced more drinks to their range including soda water and mixers for alcoholic drinks. The brand has undergone a renaissance over the past ten years with their distinctive cans a common sight in shops and chippies all over the country, but most especially in Yorkshire.
As well as the cans and plastic bottles of favourite flavours and mineral water, the company is one of the UK’s largest suppliers of post-mix soft drinks and wine.
In the next post in this series, we will look at Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.