How Burton-on-Trent brewer Bass registered the first British Trade Mark

Bass - the world's first pale ale

Bass - the world's first pale ale - Credit: Archant

Trade Mark No. 1 was granted right on Derbyshire’s doorstep to Burton-on-Trent brewers Bass 140 years ago - pioneering the new age of modern brand identity

An 1890s renewal contract of the Red Triangle trade mark shows the historic first registration date 1st January 1876

An 1890s renewal contract of the Red Triangle trade mark shows the historic first registration date 1st January 1876 - Credit: Archant

New years have heralded ‘new beginnings’ since time immemorial. Alas those of the ‘resolution’ type often founder prematurely. But the first of January 2016 marks the 140th anniversary of something that endured so completely that it plays an integral part in our very existence. On New Year’s Day 1876 the first official British Trade Mark was registered in London.

That might sound like an inconsequential landmark – but it began something huge. The historic Trade Mark No. 1 heralded the cut-and-thrust age of brand identity which rapidly pervaded every arm of industry and commerce. Today ‘brand marketing’ with its psychological complexities, legal wrangling and murky counterfeit wars is a global phenomenon impossible to avoid.

So it’s curiously apt that Trade Mark No. 1 was granted right on Derbyshire’s doorstep to Burton-on-Trent brewers Bass. It officially registered the Red Triangle which adorned their extremely popular India Pale Ale. For good measure Bass also bagged Trade Mark No. 2 – the Red Diamond symbolising Burton ales, brown beers and stouts.

Legend has it that a Bass employee spent New Year’s Eve ‘queuing’ overnight outside the Registration Office so that he could be first in line when doors opened the next morning. While the story has never been verified – they may have applied by post – Bass certainly got in first. As such their Red Triangle assumed an iconic place in the history of international brand awareness.

Why they selected a red triangle remains unclear. Some say it was an age-old shipping mark. But an 1880 edition of the Derbyshire Times offered a more romantic notion: ‘A biographer playfully suggested the Bass family descended from the ancient classical deity Bassareus to whom libations were routinely offered. Bass thereafter fixed upon the notion of adopting an ancient and powerful symbol as their mark. They settled upon Egypt’s “Great Pyramid” drenched in a burning sun. The Red Triangle was thus conceived.’

That’s wonderfully seductive but almost certainly entirely fanciful. ‘Good stories’ aside, the Red Triangle and appended Bass signature came to distinguish the company’s most cherished product. The signature also made it the world’s first ‘script logo’ – a device since adopted by Coca-Cola and countless others. These signed ‘logos’ (from the Greek logos for ‘word’) were thought to carry extra weight in fully authenticating the product. That concept of ‘branding’ merchandise was an ancient one. Blacksmiths who made swords in the Roman Empire are considered among the first users of trademarks. Others followed suit to indelibly identify their goods. This naturally led to fraudulent imitation. But centuries elapsed before the first trade mark legislation was introduced – by a 1266 Act of Parliament all bakers were required to use a distinctive mark for the bread they sold.

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Disputes continued to arise but not until the late 19th century did comprehensive modern trade mark laws emerge. France was first to fully address the issue in their Manufacture and Goods Mark Act of 1857. By then Bass were already the leading supplier of beer to the overseas market, while at home their products were an absolute watchword for quality. Indeed the very word ‘Bass’ was almost a generic term for ‘beer’ itself – the poet Tennyson when visiting the Great Exhibition of 1851 asked ‘can one get a decent bottle of Bass here?’

One of a number of beermats produced by the company

One of a number of beermats produced by the company - Credit: Archant

Bass and Co. Brewery had been founded in Burton-on-Trent in 1777 by William Bass (1717-1787). Growing demand led his son Michael Thomas Bass senior (1760-1827) to build a second brewery in 1799 in partnership with John Ratcliff. The business truly prospered under Bass senior’s own son Michael Thomas Bass junior (1799-1884) who assumed control after his father died in 1827. He is the most celebrated of the Bass dynasty, Derby’s MP for 35 years and a hugely generous benefactor to the town – his statue today stands outside Derby Museum.

He brought in another partner John Gretton to create the Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton brewery which became the world leader in beer sales. A vast export market channelled through the British Empire allowed Bass and Co. to boast that their product was ‘available in every country in the globe’. In 1860 Bass was the first foreign beer to be sold in Japan. By their 1877 centenary Bass was the largest brewery in the world with an annual output of over 1 million barrels.

But that progress had not been unchallenged – and some less-principled rivals shamelessly imitated Bass products, passing off inferior beers as ‘the genuine Bass’. In an attempt to protect themselves Bass began using a Red Triangle mark early in the 19th century – and by the mid-1850s they had settled on an official label incorporating the eye-catching shape.

But these ‘exclusive’ labels were sometimes forged or imitated by Bass’s rivals. In addition unscrupulous beer retailers legitimately acquired loose Bass labels only to adhere them to bottles not containing Bass. This was an easy trick, for Bass trustingly sold all their beer in barrels, leaving the bottling to retailers.

The skulduggery damaged the company’s purse and reputation and as a consequence Bass brought periodic cases to court as a warning shot. Trade marks did carry some legal standing at that time – indeed Bass won most of their cases – but more formal legislation was evidently needed. The 1862 Merchandise Marks Act extended protection and this was cemented by the 1875 Trade Marks Registration Act and the opening in London on 1st January 1876 of the Trade Mark Registration Office. Given the troubles Bass had suffered it was little wonder they made their Red Triangle official at the very earliest juncture.

Thus Trade Mark No. 1 began its journey to global fame. Over the years many legends have attached to it – not least through art and literature. Two bottles of Bass Red Triangle are clearly identifiable in Edouard Manet’s celebrated 1882 painting ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergère’. This technically renders it the world’s first instance of the now ubiquitous practice of ‘product placement’. It linked Bass Pale Ale firmly with the exoticism of overseas markets – needless to say Bass on this occasion raised no objection!

The cubist painter Pablo Picasso later incorporated Bass as a running motif in a series of 40 abstract works – hence the gloriously-titled ‘Verre, violon et bouteille de Bass’ c.1914. Lesser-known Spanish cubist Juan Gris followed suit in his 1925 work ‘Bouteille de Bass’.

Master of gothic horror Edgar Allan Poe was said to derive inspiration from a good drop of Bass. The Irish writer James Joyce gave the beer a cameo role in his celebrated work Ulysses (1922). A more stirring testimony appeared in Fortunes Made in Business (1884) by James Hogg. One wonders if the author was ‘looked after’ by Bass – this is but a fraction of Hogg’s lengthy homage:

‘It is no extravagant assertion to say that throughout the world there is no name more familiar than that of Bass. A household word amongst Englishmen, it is one of the first words in the vocabulary of foreigners whose knowledge of the English language is of the most rudimentary description. There is no geometrical figure so well known as the vermilion triangle which is the Bass trademark. It is as familiar to the eye as Her Majesty’s visage on the postage stamps. It would indeed be a difficult task to say in what part of the earth that vivid triangle does not gladden the heart of man.’

Evidently Bass then occupied the same ground as McDonald’s does today. With that came further legend and myth. Showman Buffalo Bill quaffed a pint when taking his Wild West Extravaganza to Burton in 1903. A more dubious claim is that Napoleon acquired the same taste. Definitely true is that when RMS Titanic sank in 1912 it had been carrying 500 cases of Bass Pale Ale. Some 12,000 bottles remain on the bed of the Atlantic – in the 1990s nine were recovered.

The Red Triangle remains the most iconic trade mark linked to our region, but there are other candidates for fame. The sleek ‘RR’ created by Rolls Royce in the early 1900s is listed in the world’s top 100 recognisable logos. And what about the stylised ram created in 1971 for Derby County? For two seasons spanning 1984 to 1986 the Ram and Red Triangle adorned the team’s shirts together when Bass sponsored the club. The combination proved potent – in 1985-86 manager Arthur Cox led Derby to a famous promotion.

The Red Triangle survives today but under different control. Bass Brewery is now owned by US giant Molson Coors who in turn sold the branding rights for the Red Triangle to Belgian conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev. In 2013 ‘to perpetuate its unique history’ that group re-named the fabled Bass Pale Ale to ‘Bass Trademark No. 1’.

Although that disappointed some beer purists the important fact remains that the legendary symbol itself lives on. The Red Triangle retains a global presence into its third century on a journey that all began ‘just down the road’ – that’s well worth raising a glass to.6