Few food and drink brands last 150 years or more, but R. White’s Lemonade belongs proudly in that elite club.
The drink, made then as now with real lemons, was first concocted in the home of Robert and Mary White in the London district of Camberwell. Its subsequent history encapsulates the food and drink industry in this country: from home manufacture in 1845 to a serious family firm within quarter of a century; that family firm incorporating others to grow further (Robert White took over H.D. Rawlings in 1891); then entering the world of the mega-corporation with its purchase by Bass in 1980, that entity merging with the kings of the UK soft drinks market Britvic in 1986.
R. White’s Lemonade still refreshes, and still makes a great shandy – how many of us have graduated from a childish glass of lemonade in the beer garden to a daring glass of shandy at about age 11? And how often have we as adults secretly fancied a lemonade in hot weather, but ordered a beer to avoid disdain?
Which leads to the biggest reason to celebrate the drink: one of the great ad campaigns of all time. In 1973 the company launched its “Secret Lemonade Drinker” adverts on TV, complete with the song composed by Elvis Costello’s dad Ross McManus. The ad and the song were as tacky as spilt lemonade on a purple shag-pile carpet: tacky in both senses of the word – a pastiche of emotive rock and roll and as the firm found to its benefit, sticking to the brain like a limpet on steroids: "R. White’s lemon-a-hay-hayed". Legend has it that the young Elvis Costello pre-fame and pre-name change, so plain Declan McManus, sang backing vocals and maybe played the drums on the song, dad Ross doing the lead vocals. It’s like discovering T.S. Eliot wrote Bagpuss.