Copyright © 2004 the Brewery History Society
Anthony Avis: An Appreciation
by Geoffrey Ballard
Few people can have had a more unorthodox introduction to the realms of brewery management than Anthony Avis, universally known as Tony. This third generation of Norfolk publicans who found himself running the family pub (and farm!) at the age of fifteen had also to find time to study for his School Certificate.
A strong friendship had continued since schooldays between Tony's father and Harry Lawrence and persisted after the latter had moved north to become agent to the Ackroyd family, who owned, among many other things, Hammond's Bradford Brewery. At some point Harry Lawrence added Bradfer-Lawrence to his name and since Tony's parents death in 1943 he had kept, in Tony's own words, "a guardian watch" over him, they corresponded and Tony had visited him at regular intervals at his Yorkshire home.
Nonetheless, it was a surprise when Harry Lawrence Bradfer-Lawrence, known to friends and colleagues alike as HLBL, called unexpectedly upon Tony at his solicitor's practice in Thetford, he had been in Kings Lynn on business. The pleasantries completed, he went on to describe the difficulties running the ever growing business virtually single handed with the assistance of an aging company secretary, he was looking for an assistant to relieve him of some of the day to day management. At an appropriate pause when Tony thought it was incumbent on him to speak, he ventured to say that if he was being offered the job he would be interested. It was all settled there and then but, there was much after-thought as in those times many people still expected to take a job for life, nonetheless six months later Tony presented himself at the brewery.
A man as astute and experienced as HLBL would have been well aware that Tony had many desirable qualifications. First, the two had known one another for a number of years on a very personal basis, he knew is pedigree. Tony was now a qualified solicitor while HLBL had an aging company secretary. As a third generation publican Tony knew the practicalities of cellar management and beer dispense and he would inevitably have acquired a working knowledge of distribution together with a more than rudimentary knowledge of beer production, all very useful to his new position. However, there was, perhaps, the greatest attribute Tony brought with him to Hammonds United Breweries, his experience as a publican. A publican has to be all things to all men, a friend, a confidante, a good listener, giving carefully considered advice, genial and discrete, and master in awkward situations which occasionally arise the other side of the bar, a very useful training ground for his subsequent meanderings through the brewing industry.
As I was getting my thoughts together, one has continually recurred, speculating whether either of these two gentlemen, at the outset, had any idea of where their "partnership" would end up? One of Tony's principal activities was to establish contacts with all the brewery companies in which HLBL might wish to have influence but also to size up the state of play from the midlands to beyond the Scottish border, and further south exemplified by the failure to acquire the Bristol breweries in 1961. It is as well to remember that this was the time that the Canadian Edward Pluncket Taylor was foraging around endeavouring to get a substantial foothold in the British brewing industry, and, reflecting upon the difficulties has was encountering, I recall at the time he was quoted as saying something to the effect that he only had to hand his card in at a brewery's reception for the directors to rush headlong into the arms of their long term adversaries. While many of his visits to other breweries were cordial and informative others, for example, Westoe Breweries, posed difficulties and sometimes outright opposition. It may seem strange that such a naturally gentle person could engender, in some cases, such a severe attack of paranoia but brewing was a laid back traditional, conservative and wealth-generating business, change was not readily accepted. It had, however, that most desirable of assets, "cash flow", and there was plenty of scope and incentive for the acquisitive. Persistence rewarded, on the retirement of HLBL in 1962, E.P. Taylor was to become Chairman of United Breweries! Tony enjoyed his role of roving ambassador in the days when breweries large and small were being swallowed up by larger competitors, and I, as an allied trader and almost exact contemporary, can still vividly recall those days when many of the takeovers involved the closure of the smaller brewery, sometimes not so small. The changes throughout the industry were massive and as time went on so did Tony's enthusiasm for his role and latterly he became somewhat disillusioned.
To his everlasting credit, Tony has done what so many of us ought to do, but have yet to get round to it, he has recorded his experiences in his own book The Brewing Industry 1950-1990, sub-titled notes and reflections. It is a fascinating record of his time at Hammonds United Breweries, thence through HLBL's vehicle Northern Breweries, to become United Breweries, so to Charrington United and ultimately to Bass Charrington - all the time Tony was very closely involved. The situations and personalities described so vividly in his thumbnail sketches strike a chord with my own memories. It gives great insight into a period when expansion into ever larger Groups through acquisition was the norm and gave rise to concern to allied traders as to whether their business prospects were to be enhanced or endangered. There are books and articles relating to most aspects of the brewing industry, all but a few conceived in retrospect, so an autobiographical account such as Tony's, at such a crucial time, covering forty years as a major player himself, is a rarity and his observations, assessments and opinions in the later Essays must be worthy of serious consideration. I am very well aware that there are other senior players who have differing views while some may not always appreciate the light in which they were portrayed, but this is history on the hoof, so to speak, and a rarity at that, so let them put pen to paper for posterity, as Tony has.
He was a modest man, and upon his retirement he eschewed several directorships, preferring to devote his time to his family and writing for them and himself, his only one other brewing-related book being Timothy Bentley, Master Brewer. There were about twelve other books, of which several appeared in print.
In the Brewery History Society we are grateful for the various contributions he has made to our activities and publications, in particular his presentation to our symposium at the Guinness Park Royal Brewery, where he was supported by his wife, Lela, and many appreciated the opportunity to meet him for the first time. In addition to Lela, Tony has left a son and daughter and grandchildren to all of whom we extend our sincerest sympathy.