The Corona Man Cometh

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Strange that the first time I came across the word corona was as the name for a bottle of fizzy pop. The van used to turn up once a week – as far as I remember – and the corona delivery man used to come door to door taking orders. Mum usually got a few bottles which in a house with four kids rarely lasted till the next time the van arrived. Somewhere back in my past the Corona man disappeared, but now sometimes when I hear the Corona virus mentioned, I hear the clink of bottles.

And of course Corona fizzy pop (carbonated beverage if you want to be posh about it) has a bit of a story to tell, which starts in South Wales back at the end of the 19th century. The Rhondda Valleys at this time were in the grip of the “coal rush.” They were full of coal mines and the pubs of the region did a thriving business as men, after a day down the pit, were desperate to quench their thirst.

The photo of colliers in a public house in Cwmbach, Aberdare (above) taken in about 1910 shows that the pub was pretty popular with men coming straight off shift, but it wasn’t much liked by the strong Welsh temperance movement. This scored a significant victory against alcohol in 1881 when (without much opposition) a Liberal government passed the Welsh Sunday Closing Act. Pubs had to stay shut on a Sunday, except to genuine travellers. I imagine that could turn out to be a fairly loose definition.

But all this led to the arrival of Corona. Artificial carbonated mineral water had been first produced by Joseph Schweppe in Switzerland in the 18th century but the problem had always been how stop the drink losing its fizz. Cometh the hour and cometh the man and American inventor Hiram Codd devised a revolutionary new system. Each bottle was fitted with a glass marble, a rubber washer and a swing top that forced the marble into the neck of the bottle, so forming a tight seal. The rest, as they say, is history.

It was Rhondda grocers, William Evans and William Thomas who started production of what eventually became known as Corona. In the 1890s they operated under under the name of Welsh Hills Mineral Waters. Relying on sales from shops around their Porth factory they quickly realised that defeating drunknessness needed a more robust approach. And so was born the prototype of the Corona man.

Salesmen, equipped with a horse and cart, were soon operating across south Wales. They sold a wide range of drinks, starting with the original orangeade and then moving on to others such as limeade and cherryade. More exotic flavours such as American cream soda and dandelion and burdock were eventually added to the list.

I’ve no idea how many Welsh miners switched from beer to lemonade as their tipple of choice but they were a huge hit with children. As well as drinking more of the gassy liquid than was good for them, kids also add to their pocket money by collecting discarded bottles and taking advantage of the company’s ‘money back on the bottle’ scheme.

In the early 1920s Evans decided to re-brand the drinks as Corona. At its peak the company had 82 distribution depots and five factories. The horses and carts were phased out during the early 1930s and replaced by a fleet of lorries. By 1934 the Porth depot had 74 vehicles and three years later that number had risen to 200.[6]

During the second world war most of the lorries were commandeered for war service, and the horse and cart service returned for the duration.  In the late 1950s the company was bought by the Beecham Group but the Corona brand was retained. However by this time the growth of supermarkets and tv advertising was really sounding the death knell for door to door delivery. The company was taken over again this time by Britvic, and the Corona brand ceased appearing on shelves in the 1990s.

And I hadn’t thought of it for years – until news stories about somewhere called Wuhan started appearing at the beginning of 2020…

Anyway, if you’re too young to remember the Corona man, and the clink of the bottles on his lorry – here’s a piece of film (from the late 1940s, or early 1950s) that I found on Youtube.