Gilbeys Desert Camden Town and Move to Harlow

Gilbeys, which had been a major employer in Camden Town for almost a century, moved away, leaving a desert of empty buildings. In May 1962 there was a major amalgamation of wines and spirit firms. Gilbey's, Justerini & Brooks, Gilbey Twiss, Twiss & Brownings & Hallowes, Croft, and The Wyvern Property Company, became International Distillers and Vintners (IDV). This brought together J & B Whisky, Hennessey Cognac, Gilbert's Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, and a dozen other names. At the same period, the firm moved to Harlow and the influence of the Gilbey family, which had dominated the firm since the 1850s, was reduced.

In the 1960s there was a major government endeavour to move industry out of London and to zone any industry that remained. Retail Price Maintenance had been abolished a little earlier, so that competition within the trade threatened to become more intense. A move to a new site, with government help, made economic sense to Gilbey's whatever economic blight it might create in Camden Town. And Gilbey's were not alone. Carreras, with their enormous cigarette factory opposite Mornington Crescent Tube Station, employing hundreds of people, was moving to Basildon. The Aerated Bread Company in Camden Road, on the site of what is now Sainsbury's new store, was losing money as the London tea shops were closing. Moy's, in Banham Street, engineers who seem to have made everything under the sun, including film cameras which were used on the First World War battlefields, were going. Airmed, a specialist engineering firm in Parkway, which made equipment for the RAF and hospitals, was going to Harlow. Suddenly all the large firms were moving away, leaving the mass of small sub-contractors and self-employed craftsmen who had depended on them, high and dry. It was to take thirty years for Camden Town to revitalize itself and then in a way which nobody could have imagined.

Unlike most other firms which moved to the New Towns, Gilbey's were able to buy a ten acre site in the centre of the town. Others had to be content with one on the town edges. A fine new distillery was built, floodlit at night, while a separate distribution centre was opened, three miles away, capable of handling vast numbers of lorries each day.1

By 1964, the new buildings in Harlow were complete and 184 staff and their families moved from Camden. A number of employees felt unable to do so. Some had children settled in local schools, preparing to take exams. Some had dependent relatives rooted in Camden, while others were themselves too near retirement to relish facing the end of their lives in a completely new town. Many regretted having to part from Gilbeys, which had always been a good employer and where they had many friends. The Company had been established in the area longer than anyone could possibly remember. It had become a 'family' firm, where nobody could get a job without someone inside to speak for them. Thus, when Gilbey's and similar firms moved away, it altered many lives.

Harlow New Town was still a building site, set down in a green field, with families arriving every day: a small old town with a new' planned one around it. And planned it was, on the old Ebernezer Howard lines, with housing separated from Industry. There were also wide verges to the roads, with sewage, electricity and other services buried on either side. The roads would never have to be dug up, which was a fine concept on paper, but it used up vast amounts of land, created wide verges of grass with small houses in the distance and a sense of isolation. Shops were often a long walk away, with transport scarce, or non-existent.

Some people could not accept the change. As a housemaster in a large London school, I had a number of families which returned with the mother - always the mother - deeply depressed. Their craving for family and friends left behind in London was too great to bear Drawn, desolated faces, hoping that I could find places back in the school for their children. Other families enjoyed the new life and flourished.

"We had come from the rats, an outside toilet and no bathroom in Gospel Oak, and a right ramshackle place that was I can tell you. If I wanted a bath I had to go down to the Prince of Wales Baths, line up on the stairs and pay about five old pennies for a bath. You took your soap and flannel, towel and a scrubbing brush if you wanted it. You sat in the bath and if you wanted more water you shouted out, or banged on the side of the bath with your brush. “More water please!” They poured it in through a nozzle to the tap at the end of the bath. You couldn't control the taps. If you have not lived in a house without a bath you don't know what it is not to have a bathroom. You really don't. From this in Gospel Oak, we went to Harlow where we had two bedrooms, a bathroom and TWO inside toilets. There were about a hundred houses in a block. At first there were no pavements, no street lights, no fences between the houses. It was pioneering really, though the children don't know anything different do they?"

'Gilbeys has been a London-based firm for a century. It is hard to imagine Camden Town without the Oval Road offices and the Camden stores.

Without disrespect, it is like Regent's Park with no Zoo. — The move to Harlow is now complete. It is a start on a clean sheet with traditions still to be formed for Gilbey's as a member of the IDV Group.'

IDV News, Christmas 1963

Lord Mancroft and Walter Gilbey, having stepped off a helicopter, arrive in Gilbey style for the opening ceremony.

Gilbey's and International Distillers and
Vintners in the 1990s

To bring the story of Gilbey's up to date, there have been two major changes since 1960. In 1972, International Distillers & Vintners, (IDV) which of course included Gilbey's, combined with Grand Metropolitan the large hotel group, to form an enormous company. The company took the name of Grand Metropolitan, but continued to manufacture in Harlow for only about thirty years. The site there was land-locked and did not lend itself to modernisation. What had been a state of the art factory in 1960, did not fit in with modern ‘rationalised' production. The factory itself was still modern, but the pattern of distribution and handling had changed dramatically.

Grand Metropolitan had decided to give up its retail operations and had sold the Peter Dominic chain of shops. Individual shops were no longer to be the direct responsibility of the company. Its customers had become the big supermarket groups and brewers who required large, centralised distribution ‘drops'. Enormous lorries, capable of travelling long distances, dominated everything. Instead of importing in casks and then bottling in Britain, bottling moved to the sources, i.e. sherry to Jerez, in Portugal; vermouth to Italy; and whisky to Strathleven, in Scotland. For this international type of distribution, Daventry was a far better centre than Harlow. As result of all these changes, the bottling lines and distribution department at Harlow closed in 1990-91, with the loss of many jobs2

At the end of 1997 there was a further change. Grand Metropolitan and Guinness merged to create Diageo, a Branded Goods Company worth £30 billion.3 In 1996, when Grand Metropolitan and IDV combined, IDV was selling 85 million cases, with global annual sales of £3.5 million. Berger King, part of Grand Metropolitan, was the second largest hamberger chain, with 8,700 outlets in some 56 countries.

The name DIAGEO comes from DIA, Greek for across, and GEO, Greek for the earth. Thus the name summarises the world-wide nature and ambitions of this new partnership. This is the latest piece of the story of Gilbey's, a firm started by two brothers unemployed at the end of the Crimean War and, no doubt, the stories of dozens of other food and drink firms which are now part of the Group and probably arose in similar ways.


  1. ++ Missing Foot Note

  2. Information from IDV, 26 Sept. 1995

  3. The Guardian 13 Nov. 199
John Walker at Purfleet Wharf.

Motorway Blight