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Bulmer's Cider

How it all began

Bulmer's was started at Credenhill to the west of Hereford City by Mr. H.P. Bulmer (Percy) in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee.

When he was young Percy Bulmer suffered from asthma, which prevented him from attending school. As he grew older and he found it harder to find employment, due to his lack of qualifications, he decided that he would have to come up with a business that he could run himself. The reasons for his choice of cider were threefold. Firstly, his father - the Reverend C.H. Bulmer - was interested in the land and had written a book on local varieties of apples and pears called the Herefordshire Pomona. Secondly, his mother has advised him that the business would be more successful if it had something to do with eating or drinking as these activities "do not go out of fashion". Thirdly, Dr. Hogg, a prominent pomologist (a botanist who studies and cultivates fruit), often stayed with the Bulmers. Hogg had founded the Journal of Horticulture and the Rev. Bulmer was a frequent contributor. In later years Dr. Hogg kept an advertisement for Bulmer's cider on the front page of the Journal for as long as he lived.

Percy and his brother Edward (known as Fred), who had been educated at Cambridge University, used to make a cask or two of perry and cider using a neighbour's stone mill propelled by their pony Tommy. In the autumn of 1887 Percy had managed to make about 40 casks, around 4,000 gallons, of cider. By 1888 Percy had begun to carry out the majority of his business from a property in Maylord Street, next door to where the Hereford Times newspaper was based at the time. The landlord of the Maylord Street property is said to have drunk a great deal, and he was the first person to take advantage of Percy's naivety after Percy gave him verbal notice to quit his tenancy, not realising (and not being reminded) that the notice should have been in writing. For a year after Percy moved location he was still paying rent for Maylord Street, which he were no longer using.

Percy Bulmer had now moved to Ryelands Street and bought a one acre site from a Mr Lane of The Ryelands, Leominster, after whose house the street in Hereford was named. The site was part of a field of 11 acres on the east side of the present road. At the time that the Bulmers moved to Ryelands Street there were no houses on the east side and very few on the west side. The present Breinton Road was a lane about 12-14ft wide and corn still grew where the rectory for St Nicholas's church now stands.

In 1889 Fred Bulmer became a full time worker in the firm at Ryelands Street. Fred had been planning to become a teacher and had even been offered a post teaching the sons of the King of Siam (as Thailand was then known). The brothers were able to get off to a good start at the new premises with a £1,760 loan from their father, which he raised by taking out a loan on his life insurance. Their original workshop was no more than a shack with a cellar underneath, put up by a local builder, and it cost between £700 and £800. Fermentation of the cider took place in 100-gallon casks and filtering was accomplished with linen bags, similar to those used in jam making. No draught cider was sold, it was all bottled.

In June 1889, straight after leaving King's College, Cambridge, Fred went to Windsor Great Park, where Percy had entered some bottled cider in the Royal Agricultural Show. The Bulmers took second prize in every class they entered and Fred tried to pick up orders from visitors to the show.

The staff of the business at his time, besides Percy and Fred, consisted of one old man named Thomas Kennett. He could not read or write but was a loyal worker. In the beginning the finances of the firm did not quite stretch to a steam engine or hydraulic presses and the work was quite strenuous, with the mill wheel being turned by hand.

In order to try and drum up more business Percy started on a tour of North Wales but returned fairly soon, discouraged by the way he had been received. Fred soon became a sort of travelling salesman and visited every small town in Great Britain "between the Isle of Wight and Dundee". He made some useful trade contacts on his travels. In spite of Fred's efforts on the road it became evident that cider was not known and therefore not wanted in the greater part of England. Many of the people Fred was trying to sell cider to had never heard of it but said that they would stock it if it was asked for, and so the Bulmer brothers realised that they would have to create the demand for them to supply. They could not afford publicity and so they started to write booklets, sending them out to addresses obtained from trade directories. In the course of some years the brothers gathered over 20,000 private customers, creating demand and enabling the business to go wholesale.

In 1890 the Herefordshire apple crop was a failure due to overly wet weather and Percy was unable to get more than a ton of fruit in the whole county. Fred went to Somerset, visited farmers and bought apples at high prices. They had enough to carry on for the next year and at this point were still only selling cider in bottles, not casks.

In 1891 the Bulmers' solicitor (who was also their uncle by marriage) deviously went against the brothers and, knowing that they desperately needed to expand to keep the business viable, approached the landowner behind their backs and bought the remaining ten acres of the Ryelands Street field for £3,000. Fred offered his uncle £1600 for two acres, but his uncle's response was that he meant to bleed the brothers dry. The Bulmers did not know enough to report him to the Law Society for breach of professional conduct but in the end fortune smiled on them and their uncle and the landowner both died on the same night (of natural causes!). The solicitor had become insolvent since buying the land so the land reverted to realty and someone was needed to take on the contract. Another of the brothers' uncles, this one honest and decent, took over the contract and conveyed it to his nephews, having mortgaged it himself. He let them pay him back as they could. A boom in building followed and in about three years the Bulmers had sold off three acres of the frontage for housing at the cost of the whole ten acres.

At this time there were no engineering companies offering to fit out beginner cidermakers as there were for other growing industries. In 1890 the Bulmers installed a mill and cider press that they had bought from France. The mill was continually being broken by stones, while the press was of the wine variety and not wholly suitable for cider pressing. In 1891 the Bulmers hired a second-hand Clayton & Shuttleworth steam engine of "great antiquity", of the type which was used for driving threshing machines. The next year they put in hydraulic pumps and an accumulator, and a second and third press. The hydraulic pumps and one of the presses were made by a firm in Leeds, while the third press came from a candle factory and weighed about 17 tons. The pressure exerted by this press was such that Fred described trying to press apple pulp in it in small crates, with the result that the pulp flew out between the bars. In 1892 the brothers made the acquaintance of Robert Worth, an engineer from Stockton on Tees who they came to call "Uncle Robert". He helped with engineering advice and made machines for the company, charging them very reasonably.

In 1893 the Bulmers dug out large diffusing vats, and into these vats cast the pulp after first pressing in the crates, putting water on it to make a light cider for the public house trade, and then re-pressing it in the second press. A new mill was also installed, bought from an English firm who were beginning to specialise in cider-making equipment.

Bulmers had a farm at Broxwood where they planted their first 60 acres of cider orcharding. They used this area for experimenting so that when they began to supply trees to growers in Herefordshire they were using varieties that they could recommend. To start the company the Bulmers got a £1,700 mortgage on their freehold and their bank manager, who had known the family for years, lent them £3,000 without asking for security. In addition, several of Fred's college friends helped out. Arthur Berry sent his £1,000 inheritance and A.M. Daniel (who later became Director of the National Gallery) sent nearly £2,000. N. Webb (later a Classics tutor at King's College,Cambridge) sent £500 and another friend, Sir John James Withers, did nearly all the legal business for the years that the company was not making enough money to pay for it.

The loans enabled the brothers to experiment with the storage of cider in large oak vats. This in turn enabled them to make an additional 200,00 gallons of cider in a year when apples were cheap and plentiful, and then re-sell it in years when apple prices were high. When they excavated for increased cellar space they were at an advantage as the land was on sand and gravel beds, making it easy - and therefore cheap - to dig, plus they could sell the sand and gravel for building.

In the early 1890s Percy and Fred acknowledged that they would have to learn the "science" of cider making if they were to be truly successful and competitive. Percy, who had taught himself during his absences from school, decided to go to Rheims and Epernay in France to see what could be learnt. The only firm that they knew in Europe was Taillard of Epernay, from whom they had once purchased a corking machine. Percy chose this as a place to start, and turned up and introduced himself to Mr Taillard, who subsequently introduced Percy to a firm of champagne makers called Desmonet. They invited Percy to stay with them and showed him how champagne was made. They then sent him to the Head of the Municipal Wine Laboratory at Rheims where he learnt how to make the most important estimations in the production of good cider; he also brought back literature on wine- and cider-making. The Bulmers later returned the hospitality of their French hosts by giving the step-grandson a £200 loan for inheritance tax, which he duly repaid in twelve days.

In 1894 the brothers decided that they should employ a travelling salesmen. Fred put an advert in the Daily Telegraph and went down to London to interview applicants. The chosen applicant was a Mr. Edwards from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, who was a jovial man and the son of a Shropshire gardener. He was an immediate success for the company. In 1897 Fred and Mr. Edwards attended the Royal Agricultural Show in Manchester where they took orders worth over £1,000 in four days.

In 1904 Percy was invited by Mr. Prince, Chairman of the Directors of the English branch of the Apollinaris Company, to go to the factory in Germany where Apollinaris was bottled. The methods of boiling that Percy learnt there led to the Bull Brand being launched on the market. Mr Prince also suggested that the Bulmers might benefit from a knowledge of beet-sugar making, and he set up an introduction with the owner of the one of the largest beet-sugar making factories in East Prussia. Percy came back with lots of ideas for the business, one of which was the method of floating the apples to the mills, while at the same time washing them. The floating also enabled them to separate out stones and other foreign bodies.

The visit to Prussia also helped the Bulmers make contact with the maker of a machine that dried beet chips, who then made a machine for Bulmers that could dry apple skins. Apple skins left in their natural state formed a product called pomace; until this point pomace had been difficult to get rid of and they had been relying on farmers willing to have it dumped on their land until it had decayed enough to be spread on the fields. The pomace had to be carted from the factory on a daily basis. The machine-dried pomace, however, could be sold on to manufacturers for use in cattle cake. In later years the dried skins became one of the raw materials from which pectin was extracted, and Bulmers brought in two large machines which between them could dry the pomace from 500-600 tons of apples in 24 hours.

Fred Bulmer had political interests in housing, education, health, law and order and women's rights. In 1901, appalled at the slum conditions in Hereford, he founded Hereford Dwellings Ltd and built twelve cottages for the poor in Moor Street. In 1908 he founded Hereford Co-operative Housing and built Garden City, a series of modern family homes with gardens in the Penn Grove area of the city.

In 1898 Fred had created a pension scheme for Bulmers employees, with the investment of £100 per annum by the company. In 1920 this was extended, with £1,000 being given to trustees to provide for pensions and gratuities for men over 50 who had served the company well.

In 1905 the brothers were fortunate again when an old college friend of Fred's, who had studied science and become resident surgeon at Guy's Hospital in London and also studied tropical medicine abroad, returned to England and came to visit Fred. He never left and was in charge of the Bulmer's laboratory for the next 30 years until he retired in 1935, when he was made a Director.

In 1906 Bulmer's started to produce champagne cider, marketed under the name of Cider De Luxe until 1916 when it was cleverly renamed Pomagne. The techniques that Percy had learnt during his visit to the Desmonet Champagne makers in France enabled the whole cider champagne process to be done by hand. Only the juice from the first pressing was used to create Pomagne. This juice was sterilised with sulphur dioxide to kill off any natural wild yeasts present in the fruit, and then specially selected sugars and yeasts were added to achieve the flavour. Bulmer's continued to produce and market Pomagne as champagne cider until Bollinger (a famous French champagne maker) took them to court in 1974 as they wanted to prevent Bulmer's from using the word "champagne" when referring to their cider. Although Bulmer's won the case they stopped making Pomagne by the expensive champagne process in 1975 and switched to a process of bulk fermentation in which a 6,000 gallon tank was used. In 1979 the EEC (European Economic Community, now known as the European Union or EU) ruled that "Champagne" was a designated area of origin and not a process, and could only be used to refer to products made within that area.

Bulmer's was first granted the Royal Warrant in 1911 and continues today as Cider Maker to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. George V introduced a drink that was pomagne and brandy and this increased its popularity among the upper classes.

In 1918 the Rev. Charles Bulmer and Percy's son Geoffrey both died. Percy himself was also terminally ill and so the Bulmer brothers decided to turn their partnership into a limited company with £70,000 in £1 shares. Three-quarters of the shares were held by Fred and Percy as governing directors, and loyal employees and family were offered the rest.

The papers were completed on 27th June 1918, and in 1919 Percy died and control of the company passed to Fred. By the end of 1919 Bulmer's employed over 200 people. In the same year Bulmer's began to carbonate the cider themselves. The fermented cider was filtered and sweetened and then compressed carbon dioxide was forced into it during bottling to give the cider fizz. In 1926 they started to sell Woodpecker cider in two quart flagons, sealed by internal screw stopper and rubber rings. Before this they had been supplying Woodpecker draught cider in bulk to brewers who had bottled it themselves.

Fred was later joined in the business by three of his and Percy's sons. Howard Bulmer (son of Percy) was Chairman of the firm from 1941 to 1967. Edward Bulmer (another son of Percy) was a Director of the company from 1929 to 1944 but was killed in active RAF service. Bertram Bulmer (son of Fred) became a Director in 1925 and Chairman from 1967 to 1973.

In a paper entitled "Cider Orchard Restoration in Herefordshire; 1923-1947" (published in 1947), Edward Ball (a cousin of the Bulmers) made a forecast about planting needs for the next 20-30 years, on the premise that trees planted before 1923 would have disappeared or become useless in 40 years' time. He estimated that more than 5,000 trees a year would have to be planted between 1947-1951 if supplies of cider apples were to be adequate for the years 1966-1981.

In 1938 Fred retired from active participation in the company, though he remained Chairman for another three years. He marked his retirement by donating 10,000 old £1 shares in Bulmer's to set up a Welfare Trust to provide family allowances to each permanent member of staff with two or more children and who were in need. Provision was also made for non-contributory sickness benefit and for holidays with pay.

In 1924 Bulmer's had installed reinforced glass-lined tanks capable of holding 100,000 gallons (compare this to the 60,000 capacity of the largest wooden vat). Twenty-two of these tanks were erected on the Ryelands Street site between 1929 and 1935, and they were not decommissioned until 1999.

The food shortages of World War II saw a canteen open in 1941 to ensure that every Bulmer's employee had at least one good meal a day. Raw materials and bottles were in short supply, leading to the company launching a consumer awareness campaign with the slogan "You Can Replace The Stopper, We Can't" to encourage people to return flagons and stoppers for re-use. The company also bought in bomb boxes for crates and sourced second-hand bottles. There was also a shortage of cider fruit as imports had been banned, so cooking and dessert fruit was used and the production of some brands suspended.

Fred Bulmer died in 1941 and was buried in a part of Credenhill churchyard that had once been the garden of the rectory, his childhood home.

In 1948 Bulmer's acquired Godwin's Cider of Hereford, along with their premium perry brand "Golden Godwin", which they hoped to market in smaller-sized bottles as a rival to the popular Babycham. In the same year they also took over the Gloucestershire Cider Company which produced G.L. Cider.

A new bottling hall was erected at Plough Lane in 1957, and by 1964 most of the bottling operations had moved there. By the 1960s the two bottling lines at Moorfields were capable of packaging 800 dozen flagons per hour of Woodpecker and 2,000 dozen per hour of Golden Godwin. Cider was pumped to the bottling plant from the Ryelands Street site along bitumen-lined pipes.

In 1938 Bulmer's had purchased 17.5 acres of land on the Moorfields side of Whitecross Road. In 1954 the first steel storage tank was erected at Moorfields. The tank was 45ft high, 56ft in diameter and capable of holding 550,000 gallons. It was named Jupiter. By 1960 there were seven tanks, each named after a planet. In 1969 an eighth tank, Apollo XI (after the rocket which landed on the moon in this year), was added. It was followed later by another tank, Taurus. In 1975 Strongbow, with a capacity of 1.6 million gallons, was added - and entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest alcohol container in the world.

In 1960 Bulmer's also took over the goodwill of W.M. Evans and Co., of Widemarsh Common in Hereford. Evans' most popular brand of cider was Golden Pippin and until 1925 they had had a mill in Devon as well as Hereford. It had also acquired the interests of cidermakers Ridler's of Clehonger. The purchase gave Bulmer's an extra 558,000 gallons of cider storage, as well as the right to sell Bulmer brands in all of Webb's licensed premises - Webb's of Aberbeeg had bought Evans' in 1946.

The major interest in Evans was the production of pectin, used for setting jams and jellies and in the production of confectionery. Since the early 1900s Evans had been pioneers of pectin production in the UK and had one of the largest pectin plants in Europe, which by 1960 was capable of producing 25,000 tons of liquid pectin per year.

Up until 1938 Bulmer's had been sending their pomace to Evans for reprocessing, but then they discovered that it could be sold in Germany for twice as much. Bertram Bulmer set up an experimental pectin production site and during World War II Bulmer's were granted a permit by the Government to construct a pectin plant due to the cost of Canadian imports. In 1967 a citrus pectin plant (the fruit was imported from Mexico and Spain) was installed on the Ryelands site and this was capable of producing 400 tons of powdered pectin a year. Bulmer's now accounted for one-seventh of the world production of pectin.

In 1965 Peter Prior became a Director. This was the first time Bulmer's had had a Director from outside of the family. In 1966 Peter Prior became Managing Director and in the same year the company was restructured into a group consisting of HP Bulmer Ltd, two property companies, the Gloucestershire Cider Company, a wine and spirit agency - Findlater, Mackie & Todd, plus a citrus peel processing plant in Ghana. Peter Prior also abolished the "clocking in" system for employees, and in 1968 the Woodpecker Social Club was established.

On December 7th 1970 Bulmer's was floated on the London Stock Exchange. The family retained 65% of the shares and offered employees first chance to purchase up to 10% of shares - 200 did so.

In 1973 Peter Prior was made Chairman of Bulmer's, and by the 1980s Bulmer's had 60% of the UK cider market and was the world's second largest pectin producer. In 1988 they purchased Symonds Cider from the brewers Greenhall Whitley. Symonds had been founded in 1727 and had remained in family ownership until 1984. Their most popular brand was Scrumpy Jack, a dry, slightly rough cider. In 1996 Bulmer's bought Inch's Cider in Devon for its brand "White Lightning", a strong (7.5%), clear, sparkling cider. Production of Inch's Cider was stopped two years later, though Bulmer's retained the company's orchards and contract growers. White Lightning now became a Bulmer's brand.

In 2000 Bulmer's acquired The Beer Seller, a wholesale drinks distribution company, giving them a direct line through which to deliver their brands into pubs and clubs across the UK. The Annual Report of 2001 showed that Bulmer's had 60% of the UK cider market and that Strongbow was the tenth most popular drink.

By the turn of the millennium storage at the Bulmer's plant is on an immense scale. Some cider is stored in original oak casks holding up to 272,760 litres (60,000 gallons), but for sheer size look to the west of the city and you will see the Bulmer Strongbow tank, which represents the largest alcohol container in the world and can store 68,190,000 litres (15,000,000 gallons) of cider.

In September 2002 Bulmer's share price collapsed and at one point it dropped as low as 75p. A company that had once been worth £250 million was now worth £60 million. 280 of the 1,000 employees were made redundant to try and cut costs, and many of the apple-growing farmers agreed to being paid over six months. In 2003 Bulmer's sold their Australian business.

In 2003 Bulmers was bought by the Scottish and Newcastle Brewery for £278 million. Today Bulmers makes 65% of the five million hectolitres (110 million gallons) of cider sold annually in the UK. 45% of the apples produced in the UK today are used in cider making, and apple juice concentrate is brought in from the EU to make up the shortfall but the amount of this used is falling. Today the sales of cider in the UK are steadily increasing. This is in part due to advertising campaigns that promote cider as a modern, refreshing drink.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]