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Whitbread Brewery Oakley Road Luton

Oakley Road Brewery about 1970 [WB/W/4/5/Lu/ORB35]
Oakley Road Brewery about 1970 [WB/W/4/5/Lu/ORB35]

When the words Luton and industry are mentioned people normally think of hats or Vauxhall Motors. However, until the latter part of the 20th century brewing was also a very important industry in the town although now defunct. There have been four large breweries in the town over the years: Burr's Brewery in Park Street, the Crown and Anchor Brewery in New Bedford Road, the Phoenix Brewery in Park Street West and the Whitbread Brewery in Oakley Road.

The Oakley Road brewery was the last of these and must be one of the shortest-lived major breweries of the 20th century. Whitbread's plan was to close all its smaller breweries around the country, acquired by numerous purchases of smaller, regional and local brewers, like Flowers and concentrate production in three huge breweries, of which Oakley Road was to be the first. The old Phoenix Brewery in park Street West was duly closed when the new brewery opened and was demolished in 1977. It had been built by Henry and Frederick Pearman in the 1850s and bought by John William Green in 1869. J.W.Green Limited, as it became, merged with Flowers Breweries in 1954, taking the latter's name. Flowers had been taken over by Whitbread in 1962.

 A plan of part of the Oakley Road Brewery WB-W4-4-5
A plan of part of the Oakley Road Brewery [WB/W4/4/5] for a larger picture please click on the image above

When Oakley Road opened in May 1969 News from Whitbreads stated [WB/W4/5/ORB7]: "The new Whitbread Brewery at Luton is the largest fully-automated brewery in Europe. The brainchild of Colonel W, H, Whitbread, Chairman of the Company, it is the first complete major brewery, capable of producing a variety of beers, to be built in Britain for over 30 years".

The newsletter went on: "Although Whitbreads are one of the biggest brewery groups in Britain, and the largest exporters of beer in this country, the Luton brewery is, surprisingly, the first to be built by the famous brewing family since the original Chiswell Street Brewery was opened in 1750 by Samuel Whitbread I, the founder of the Company".

"Before plans were laid, Colonel Whitbread and other members of the Board, and technical executives of the Company, visited modern breweries all over the world to study and assess the best techniques and facilities that were then available".

"All my life, I have wanted to build a brewery" says Colonel W. H. Whitbread, the great-great-great-grandson of the founder. As a young man, Colonel Whitbread foresaw that the need for such a great project would arise in his lifetime". The new brewery encountered difficulty almost straight away. The Luton News of 26th June 1969 reported that the company would have to spend a further £5,000 to combat the smell. Sixty people in Leagrave complained and it was reported that at least four people had been made sick by the odour. £20,000 spent on a vapour condenser to kill the smell had been only partially successful and the smell arose from drying grain, it was claimed, not from the brewing process itself".

 Oakley Road Brewery warehouse about 1984 [WB/W4/5/Lu/ORB38]
Oakley Road Brewery warehouse about 1984 [WB/W4/5/Lu/ORB38]

What's Brewing, newspaper on the Campaign for Real Ale announced in May 1981 that Whitbread were cutting 250 jobs at Oakley Road (dismissively referred to as "their giant fizz-only plant at Luton").

Industrial relations at Oakley Road were not good, in common with much of British industry in the 1970s and early 1980s and in March 1983 Hop Gossip stated that the future of the plant seemed brighter after two years without unrest [WB/W6/6/8]. This, however, proved over-optimistic and in June 1984 Whitbread News announced the plant's closure, just fifteen years after it opened. What's Brewing triumphantly announced, under a heading of "Alas, poor Luton - I knew it well…" that the brewery was closing: "Two cheers for the end of a Megakeggery - because it is never good to see 300 jobs disappear overnight". At the time the plant was closed due to a strike and Luton News reported in November of that year that the managing director of rival brewers Bass, Mitchells and Butler had stated that poor industrial relations had led to Whitbread's closure of Oakley Road Brewery

Part of the site was sold to the Asda supermarket company in 1987 and in August 1992 the Luton News announced that Whitbread, jointly with neighbours on the site Electrolux, had planning permission for a housing development on sixty four acres off Oakley Road.