An inside out history of soft drinks

  • The Trust's Collection

    One of the UK's most dynamic industries, the commercial production of soft drinks dates back to Victorian times.

    Using images and memorabilia from the Trust's collection, this story shows how the industry has changed over the years.

    Click the timeline below to find out more information, or alternatively click here to download the 'Inside out history of soft drinks' booklet.

  • Hydration hasn't always been easy

    Although what we drink may have changed over the years, our need to stay hydrated has not.

    Clean drinking water was not widely available in Britain until the 1880s.

    Until then, water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery were common.

    Alcoholic drinks were a principal source of hydration for many, drunk by adults and children well into the 1800s.

  • The science of soft drinks

    Commercial production of non-alcoholic or 'soft' drinks began in the 1800s, prompted by the invention of carbonation and the Victorians' dislike for alcohol.

    Thought to have health giving qualities, they were often made by chemists who mixed sparkling vitamin drinks or 'pick me ups' for their customers to drink on the premises.

    Britvic, Pepsi and Coca-Cola all began life in chemist shops.

    As demand increased, thousands of drinks makers started developing their own recipes, mixing fruit juices, sugar and other ingredients.

  • The industrial revolution

    The advent of steam power and the development of the production line in the late 1800s revolutionised the production of soft drinks.

    New factories were built and machines developed for each stage of the production process, which quickly became mechanised from start to finish.

  • Soft drinks hit the streets

    Many of today's most popular brands date back to the 19th century:

    1845: R.Whites – made in the home of Robert and Mary White in London
    1886: Coca-Cola – first sold at the soda fountain in Jacobs Pharmacy in Atlanta
    1895: Corona – made in Wales by Thomas Evans
    1898: Pepsi-Cola – invented by Caleb Bradham in North Carolina
    1901: Iron Brew (later to become Irn Bru) – made by AG Barr in Scotland.

  • The turn of the century

    Although mechanised, the early factories still depended on a large workforce.

    In 1900 it is estimated that the soft drinks industry employed over 70,000 people and 22,000 horses.

    By 1990, this would be reduced to 18,000 people and no horses.

  • World War I price ledger

    As this pay ledger from 1916 shows, production of soft drinks continued through World War I, although rates of pay weren't high!

    Manufacturers needed a licence to operate, and pressure on transport resulted in the production of concentrated fruit squashes over the more bulky ready-made alternatives.

  • Between the wars

    Despite the Depression, the period between the wars was a time of innovation.

    American colas arrived on the scene in the 1920s followed by grapefruit juice, concentrated blackcurrant drinks and famous health brands like Lucozade and Robinson's Barley Water in the 1930s.

    Coca-Cola is often credited with creating the image of Santa Claus.

  • Anyone for tennis?

    Old Hether's who features in the early Wimbledon advertising was created in the 1920s.

    But it wasn't until 1935, Robinson's became the official soft drink provider to the Wimbledon Championships, beginning one of the longest running sponsorships of British Sport.

    Robinson's has sponsored Wimbledon for over 75 years - and continues to do so today.

  • Product development

    Recognising the effect of the Great Depression on the health of his customers, Ralph Chapman, owner of the British Vitamin Products Company conceived a way of bottling fruit juices in order to supply much-needed vitamin C to the British public.

    Unfortunately, World War II meant he had to put his plans on ice for a few years.

  • World War II

    World War II brought sugar rationing and restrictions not just on the bottling of fruit juices but on the soft drinks industry in general.

    The government nationalised the industry and allowed production of just six permitted 'standard' drinks, including squash and blackcurrant cordial, which provided much needed vitamin C for Britain's children.

  • The post war era

    Rationing ended in 1948 and, with restrictions lifted, the British Vitamin Products Company commissioned its first factory just outside Chelmsford.

    When it opened, it was the first in England to bottle fruit juices and the small format bottles marketed under the Britvic brand became an instant success.

  • The baby boom

    The 1950s saw the return of carbonated drinks and a steady rise in the consumption of soft drinks.

    The first supermarkets opened in this decade, enabling shoppers to buy all their goods in one place.

    Other 1950s innovations included the introduction of soft drink cans, cartons and vending machines - all catering to consumers' emerging on-the-go lifestyles.

  • Speeding up production

    Aided by new technology, factories continued to increase production to meet growing demand.

    In 1959, Britvic's factory in Widford employed 600 people and produced 1.5m cases of product per year.

  • The low calorie option

    The 1960s saw the arrival of the first low calorie drinks in response to consumer demand for sugar-free options.

    By 2015 53% of Britvic's portfolio was Low sugar vs regular full sugar brands.

  • The golden age of advertising

    Right from the early days, advertising and promotions have played an important role in the soft drinks business.

    The 1970s saw the beginning of the golden age for British TV commercials, with large audiences and budgets to match.

    R.White's famous campaign featuring the notorious Secret Lemonade Drinker was launched in 1973 and remained on screen until 1984.

    In 2012, the iconic ad was recreated with its original cast to launch a new R.White's Lemonade ice-lolly.

  • Making more of less

    Minimising the consumption of energy and raw materials is a goal for all responsible manufacturers.

    In the 1980s Britvic invested in new production facilities enabling them to reduce transport significantly by blowing, filling and labelling their own PET bottles on site.

    The process involves inserting small custom-made preforms like the one on the left into a mould, heating it to a high temperature and shaping it using hot air.

  • You know when you've been TANGO'd

    This controversial campaign for Tango was first launched onto Britain's TV screens in 1991.

    The first commercial in the series was voted the 3rd best TV commercial of all time in a 2000 poll conducted by The Sunday Times and Channel 4.

  • Pepsi gets the blues

    Pepsi made headlines in 1996 by turning itself from red (the traditional colour for cola) to blue.

    It also made history by repainting a Concorde and changed the colour of the Daily Mirror blue.

  • Catering for the adults

    The end of the 20th century saw the introduction of bottled water, sports and nutritional drinks and a growing demand for drinks that were more adult in taste.

    Launched in 1998, J2O rapidly became the biggest selling soft drink in the UK's licensed trade.

  • Picking up the pace

    By the turn of the century, technology had shifted up several gears.

    In 1959, it took 600 people to produce 1.5 million cases of product per year at Britvic's factory in Widford.

    50 years later, with many efficiency improvements in place, 130 people could produce 16m cases per year.

  • From empty bottle to pack in 15 minutes

    Nowadays the production process is completely mechanised.

    Plastic bottles are blown, filled, labeled and checked without being touched by human hand.

    By 2010 the four production lines at Britvic's Beckton factory were capable of producing 100,000 bottles per hour.

  • The future

    Since the early 1800s the soft drinks market has continued to develop in line with consumer demand and it shows no sign of stopping. 

    Last year the soft drinks market grew by 2%, becoming a massive £10.3bn category.

    From squash to smoothies, pineapple to pomegranate, to the introduction of sugar -free drinks with Stevia, we predict consumers will continue to look for and enjoy new flavours and innovations.