Celebrating 50 years of campaigning

Oxford branch started in 1974 when only 23 city pubs served real ale

CAMRA, one of the most successful consumer organisations in Europe, is celebrating its 50th anniversary throughout 2021. The exact date of the anniversary may have passed un-noticed as it fell during the last lockdown, with the dreadful last 15 months of lockdowns and unfair restrictions for pubs and breweries being the worst crisis they have ever faced. But the anniversary is ongoing, and worth celebrating nevertheless.

The organisation has come a long way from its roots, founded by four passionate young men from the North West in 1971. Today we represent beer drinkers and pub-goers and campaign for real ale, pubs and consumer rights across the country. We want to ensure there are quality real ales, ciders and perries, and thriving pubs in every community.

The first meeting of the Oxford branch was in March 1974 at the King’s Arms in Holywell Street, which was to become one of 23 pubs in the city listed as selling real ale in the first local guide, “Real Draught Beer in Oxford”, which cost 5p. Many of those pubs are still with us, though sometimes under different names. The Bear Inn, Bookbinders, Fir Tree, Cricketers (now the Mad Hatter cocktail bar), the two Gardeners Arms, King’s Arms, Royal Oak, Turf Tavern, Wheatsheaf and the White Hart at Wolvercote are going strong, but long closed are the Carpenters Arms in Nelson Street, Jericho; the Coach and Horses in St Clements; the Fountain in Cardigan Street, also Jericho; and the Seven Stars in Lake Street, South Oxford. More recent closures on the 1974 list including the George in Botley Road and Marlborough House in South Oxford.

In 1974 drinkers were pleased to have real ale at all, but there wasn’t much choice of brewers. The vast majority of the 23 city pubs listed were from Morrells Brewery of Oxford or Morland of Abingdon, both long closed although the Morland name lives on as part of Greene King. The only exceptions were the then brewing giant Ind Coope’s pubs, including the Bear Inn, now run by Fuller’s.

In 1974 the pubs scene was dominated by keg bitter and lager, and it was to fight this that CAMRA was formed. Six large brewing groups produced three quarters of the beer in 1971, owning more than two-thirds of an estimated 70,000 pubs. But things were to change due to the rise of CAMRA, and Oxfordshire reflected that. By 1977, the Oxford Mail hailed the county as “the leading real ale area in Britain” with 53 ales available in 350 pubs, an increase of 100 pubs in only one year, including more than 50 in Oxford City.

“Ind Coope, part of the giant Allied Breweries consortium, was one of the arch-foes of CAMRA, now considerably redeemed,” noted the Oxford Mail, which is still a good friend to CAMRA and quotes us on a regular basis. “But the organisation’s real bête noir was Watneys: now even this brewery appears in the guide; its Norwich-brewed bitter is available in Henley.”

In 1977, pubs in Abingdon listed as selling real ale were the Beehive, Stert Street; Fitzharris Arms, Wootton Road; George & Dragon, Stert Street; Old Anchor, St. Helen’s Wharf; Queen’s, Market Place; Railway Inn, Station Road; and Spread Eagle, Northcourt Road. Remarkably, only the Old Anchor and Spread Eagle survive. The Butchers Arms, Eagle Tavern, Griffin, House of Windsor, Red Lion and Three Pigeons were listed in Witney – but the Butchers Arms and House of Windsor are gone. Oxford, Abingdon and Witney have gained new pubs with the rise of Wetherspoon and, more recently, the arrival of brewery taps and micro-pubs.

Oxford CAMRA founders David Longrigg (left) and John Rutherford, pictured in 2014

When the Oxford branch started, it attracted mainly university and academic people – but was soon attracting members from all walks of life. The first chairman, David Longrigg, was a teacher at Dragon School in Oxford, and wife Elizabeth was an Oxford Don who became the first woman to serve on CAMRA’s national committee. John Rutherford, the first secretary, was a Fellow of Queen’s College who also wrote the introduction to local beer guides including “Real Ale in Oxfordshire”, published in 1977.

David, quoted in the Oxford Drinker in 2014, said: “In the old days we had to persuade brewers such as Morrells and Morland to continue putting hand pumps on, but CAMRA has achieved what it set out to do. It is regrettable to see so many pub closures, but that is because of social shifts rather than beer. We were often described as anti-keg beer, but that was not the case. We were not anti-keg – we were simply pro-choice, and choice is what we have today.”

While acknowledging our birthday celebrations, we must reaffirm our commitment to fighting for pubs and consumers now and in the future, to ensure there are good pubs serving good beer in every community for the next 50 years. The hard work of campaigners fighting for pubs is more important than ever. The industry needs more support to ensure it can not only survive, but thrive as restrictions are lifting.

Pubs matter and are a vital part of our communities. We have all looked forward to enjoying the social and wellbeing benefits of being back at the local – and enjoying a pint of delicious local cask beer.

CAMRA’s official birthday took place on March 16, 2021 with a social media celebration using the hashtag #CheersToCAMRA, but we have virtual events, merchandise, awards and other content to share throughout the year. Our publication arm CAMRA Books has published a biography of the first half century of our organisation – 50 Years of CAMRA – written by beer writer Laura Hadland. It contains first-hand accounts from members and industry professionals, detailing the highs and lows.

We are also releasing lists of 50 campaigning milestones over the coming months, with behind-the-scenes insight from the campaigners leading the charge at the time — these can be read on our 50th anniversary hub on the website. You can also get your hands on our celebratory Beer Boxes, a curated box of beer featuring a selection of the best brews the country has to offer and chosen by some of the UK’s leading beer experts. Other merchandise available includes our 50th Anniversary pint glass, clothing including 1970s-inspired CAMRA shirts, badges and more, and on July 1 a virtual pub quiz will be held, celebrating CAMRA’s birthday.

To mark the hard work of people, groups and businesses that have contributed to CAMRA’s aims over the last half century, we will be honouring nominees with our 50th anniversary Golden Awards, recognising 50 recipients throughout the year. We received over 500 nominations of campaigning heroes, pub/club all-stars, beer saviours/custodians and stalwarts, and winners will be announced throughout the year.

Learn more about CAMRA’s 50th by visiting our Anniversary hub: https://camra.org.uk/50-years/

To join CAMRA and contribute to its work, visit: https://join.camra.org.uk/

Left: The Real Ale in Oxfordshire guide, first published in 1977.