Rodney Stores – gone but not forgotten

If, in recent years, you have passed along New Street at the back of Mackay’s on East Road you may have spotted a blue painted building. Perhaps you read the inscription high up above its door, “Rodney Stores E. Lacon & Co. Ltd. 1903.”, and wondered about its history. If you haven’t seen it, I’m afraid it’s now too late. At the start of February 2021 it was demolished and currently in its place is an empty plot.

The Rodney Stores, New Street.

So why should CAMRA members be interested in another old Cambridge building that has now gone the way of so many before it? What first made me curious was the company name “E. Lacon & Co. Ltd.” Many of you will know Lacons as a Great Yarmouth based brewery that started production in 2013. You may have had their Encore or Legacy having spotted their pump-clips featuring a falcon in flight. If you are really lucky you may have discovered a cask of their Audit Ale at a beer festival. So Lacons are one of many relatively new breweries. But how does that fit in with the date 1903 on the Rodney Stores? It must be just a coincidence. A regional name echoing from the past. Well that’s where you’d be wrong…..

If you check Wikipedia you’ll discover that Lacons Brewery was founded in 1760. At some point prior to that a John Laycon had married into the Ward family who had been brewers and maltsters in Yarmouth for over a century and owned the Falcon Brewery. When John’s mother-in-law died in 1760 he became sole owner and Lacons Brewery was born with a Falcon as its symbol. By the 1810s they owned three maltings, two breweries and 45 tied pubs in Yarmouth. In 1814 they supplied over 20,000 pints of beer for the town’s festival dinner to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon’s France. By 1866 they were producing 100,000 barrels of a beer year. 50,000 went to London, 20,000 to other locations with the rest for local consumption. There are 288 pints in a barrel. You do the maths! Lacons continued to expand and took over many other East Anglian breweries.

OK. So what about the Rodney Stores on New Street? Where does that fit in? To find out more I turned to my copy of Cambridge Breweries by RJ Flood published in 1987. It’s an absolute goldmine and a testimony to Bob Flood’s many years of research. On page 15 one paragraph deals with the Rodney Brewery.

The Rodney Brewery was at 95 East Road, now occupied by the Cambridge Car and Van Hire Service. It was owned from at least 1881 by Frederick Swann, who was also a lime, sand and gravel merchant. The listing in trade and street directories became H. A. & F. Swann in the late 1880s and Frederick J. Swann by 1891. Brewing ceased late in 1903 and the pubs were sold to E. Lacon & Co. of Great Yarmouth. F. J. Swann moved to the Rhadegund Brewery in James Street at this time but Swann Bros. as lime burners, sand and gravel merchants and general builders merchants remained at the East Road site for many years. Some of the buildings in the yard may originally have been part of the brewery and the brewery tap, although long closed, is still standing in New Street. The other pubs belonging to the brewery, all of which passed to Lacons, are also now closed. They included the “Hare & Hounds”, “Brickmakers Arms” and “Tailors Arms”, all in Newmarket Road, and the “Dog & Pheasant” in Matthews Street.

Cambridge Breweries, RJ Flood 1987
Formerly the Tailors Arms, Norfolk Street.

So, according to Bob, the Rodney Stores was the Taproom of the Rodney Brewery. Cambridge Car and Van Hire Service is now Motor Ace Car Sales and is painted in the same blue as the Rodney Stores in latter days. Perhaps the Swann Bros builders merchants site on East Road may be where Mackays now stands. Apart from the recently demolished Rodney Stores do any of the other buildings referred to in Bob’s paragraph still exist? I checked out James Street for signs of the Rhadegund Brewery. Nothing! I decided to pick the brains of Cambridge & District CAMRA’s pub historian, Steve Linley. He writes the “Lost pubs of Cambridge(shire)” pieces in our ALE magazine. He didn’t disappoint. The Rhadegund Brewery was on the west side of James Street about half way down and had a Tap at No. 6 but the terrace has been rebuilt since. And the pubs? I couldn’t find them. Are they all gone? Steve told me that the Dog & Pheasant on St Matthews Street was where the Cherry Tree Centre now stands. The Hare & Hounds stood where the Elizabeth Way roundabout is now. The Brickmakers Arms was on the corner of River Lane opposite what is now the Corner House. And the Tailors Arms also on Newmarket Road? Steve thinks that Bob may have been mistaken about its location as he knows of no Tailors Arms on Newmarket Road but there was one on Norfolk Street. It was a Lacons pub and the building still exists, it’s opposite the Blue Moon and its fading painted wall sign is still visible.

So what happened to Lacons? Searching the web picked out some notes by local historian Mike Petty. By September 1913 Lacons had 132 pubs in Cambridge. You can still see a Lacons Falcon plaque on many pubs across East Anglia. The Brewery History website has a picture of the one above the front door of the Carpenter’s Arms on Victoria Road although it is now covered by a circular Charlie Wells plaque.

The Carpenters Arms, Victoria Road

Returning to Wikipedia I learned that in 1952 Lacons was floated on the Stock Market and five years later 20% of the company was bought by London based brewers, Whitbread. In 1965 they bought the rest and in 1968 they closed the Yarmouth brewery. Whitbread’s brands and trademarks were subsequently bought by multinational brewers AB InBev. So that’s it? By 1968 Lacons was dead and gone for good? Well, not quite. In 1957 Lacons had deposited a sample of their brewing yeast at the Norwich based National Collection of Yeast Cultures. In 2009 a Lowestoft based drinks distributor bought the Lacons name and intellectual property from AB InBev. Together with some Lacon family members a plan was hatched and nurtured. The yeast was revived from the National Collection and in 2013 Lacons Brewery was back from the dead, brewing Lacons beers with Lacons yeast and, the rest is history….