In 1856, two young men discharged at the end of the Crimean War, were in need of jobs. Walter, aged 26 and Alfred 24, returned to England without capital or special skills, but into a rapidly expanding economy. Their older brother, Henry Parry Gilbey, was a partner in a wholesale wine merchants, Southard, Gilbey & Co. and he advised them to set up as retail wine merchants. Less than a year later they leased some cellars in Oxford Street, at the corner of Berwick Street.
They concentrated on good, cheap wines from Cape Town as these could be imported at half duty. The wine was so good and so cheap that Gilbey's had 20,000 customers within months and two years later new premises were opened. Extra branches were opened in Dublin, Edinburgh and Belfast. Relations were drawn in to run the new branches, so that it expanded as an interlinked family business from the start, with the names Gold, Blyh and Grinling recurring time and again over the generations.
In 1861, Gladstone, as part of his foreign policy, reduced the duty on French wine, which had been prohibitively high. The tax fell from twelve shillings to two shillings per dozen bottles. Clearly this would undercut South African wines with their greater transport costs. Gilbey's immediately changed tack and concentrated on importing cheap Bordeaux wines at the expense of their South African ones. South African trade was not to recover for a generation. Gilbeys, unlike their competitors, promised to pass on the full reduction in duty to their customers. As a result, Gilbey's French wines fell to 18 shillings a dozen, far below the prices their competitors were offering. Imports from France rose from a quarter of a million gallons to four and a half million in eight years. The firm's expansion was so rapid that they were able to take over the Pantheon in Oxford Street, the site of the present Marks & Spencer's building.
The Pantheon had opened in 1772 as a place of entertainment, with an enormous hall and domed roof, painted pillars, the walls spectacularly decorated with frescoes and lit with green and purple lamps, it had quickly became the rage. James Wyatt, the architect, had built an exotic extravaganza. Everyone flocked to it. Later it was a theatre and an opera house, but was destroyed by fire in 1792. Rebuilt as a theatre it failed, became a bazaar and then an art gallery. Gilbey's bought it in 1867 for £67,000.
Gilbeys began distilling gin in London in 1872. Cheap and easy to produce, in Hogarth's day it had an appalling reputation. 'Drunk for a penny and dead drunk for twopence.' London Gin was flavoured with juniper berries, coriander and other herbs. That Juniper name was to be revived in the 1990s when a block of flats would be erected on part of the site.
The firm had always concentrated on the mass sale of reliable wines - not top vintage, but good quality. As this depended on the bulk purchase from dependable suppliers, they decided to deal with the French wine growers direct, cutting out the middle-man. Henry Parry Gilbey, the older brother who had first advised Walter and Albert, now joined the firm, bringing with him his expertise as a wholesaler.
James Blyth and Alfred Gilbey toured French and other Continental vineyards, buying and shipping direct to England for bottling at the Pantheon, and later at Camden Town. They also visited cork growing districts in Portugal, where again the firm bought direct from the growers. As a result of these annual excursions, the family ties became even more complicated. No less than three of the Gilbey family married into Spanish wine firms and soon their wines too were on the Gilbey lists.
In their travels Alfred Gilbey and James Blyth discovered the sparkling wines of the Lower Loire valley. These were cheap, not unlike champagne, and became highly popular in Britain. In 1875, Gilbeys bought the 470 acre Chateau Loudenne, in the Gironde, north of Bordeaux, which produced claret. Here they made their own wine and stored purchases from elsewhere.
This engraving is very inaccurate. The complete section between the end of the vaults and the Roundhouse, now occupied by the access road and garage, has been omitted. Secondly, the yellow brick wall is far too low. In reality, people were dwarfed by it as they are today.
Quickly even the Pantheon was outgrown. It was to remain as the administrative centre until 1937, when Chermeyeff built Gilbey House in Jamestown Road, but the bottling department was moved to Camden Town and Gilbey's long association with Camden Lock began. In the railway arches, always at a cool, even temperature, were butts of sherry holding 108 gallons and pipes of port holding 117 gallons, together with butts of whiskey and rum, so that Camden Town became a veritable lake of wines and spirits.
The Roundhouse, long after the engines had gone, became a bonded warehouse. Fifteen gigantic vats of whiskey and other spirits were maturing there under the control of the Customs Service. As orders came in, vats were tapped, bottles labeled and duty levied. Until this was paid not a dram could be moved. What a place for a party!
By 1905, Gilbey's had bought three whisky distilleries, Glen Spey, Knockando and Strathmill, all in the Glenlivet district of Strathspey, where they produced nearly 300,000 gallons of proof spirit. At the same time they held large stocks of Irish whiskey in Dublin and had opened plants in Canada and Australia.
In 1997 I went to a secure documents store where I presented a letter from Gilbey's giving me permission to see the Camden Town files. Two large men carried in a huge wooden box with a hinged lid. I was warned not to move it or I would give myself a hernia. Instead, they carried in a table and chair so the I could work in comfort. Inside was album after album. The first contained whisky labels. Dozens of different whisky labels. The second album had more whisky labels and so had the third. Every village in Scotland must have had its own distillery and Gilbey's seemed to have bought them all. Almost every album in the box had whisky labels and those that did not, contained wine labels. I closed the box and came away with little achieved, except that I had begun to recognise the size of the Gilbey empire. By 1914 it had covered 20 acres in Camden Town alone and stretched across all of Great Britain and much of Europe.
The Engraving of Camden Goods Yard from the north, 1889
The steel engravings of the Goods Yard from the north and south, come from ` W. & G. Gilbey, A Complete List of Wines, Spirits and Liquers, with names of 2,510 Agents in the UK ', and show the extent of Gilbey's buildings at Camden Town alone. The book was printed and published by Gilbey's in 1896, at their printing works in Poland Street.
The engraving from the north looks from Chalk Farm Road, with the enormous block of Gibley's 'A' Shed in the distance, on the other side of the Canal. The picture was drawn at the end of the nineteenth century, when Gilbey's already owned much of the site, but were yet to develop the Oval Road area. 'A' Shed stands between Oval Road Bridge (now Pirates' Bridge) and the Southampton Road Railway Bridge. The barges are probably delivering barrels of wine from France or Spain.
The original drawing must have been made over several days, probably from the top of the piano factory in Ferdinand Street, or perhaps from the roof of The Lock public house, in Chalk Farm Road. In the foreground, the high yellow buttress wall ran unbroken from the railway bridge by Camden Lock Place to the Roundhouse. Today it has been breached to make way for the new road under the North London Railway line, to Safeways and for the petrol station, while all the goods lines have disappeared. The W. A. Gilbey's Bonded Store parallel to the road is now part of the Stables Market, but the triangular Bottle Store was destroyed by fire in October 1981. The modern Interchange Building had not been built when this engraving was made. Instead, there is the earlier single-storey railway transfer building, with its pitched roof and open sides. The wharf basin below cannot be seen, but it had been cut long before.
Most of the horses and carts seen on the site would have belonged to Gilbeys', Pickford's, or the L&NW railway. All these competed fiercely in the local horse shows. Gilbeys in particular were famous for their horses, breeding enormous Shires and winning many prizes. Indeed the horses dictated the site design for years. For example, the semicircular windows in the wall along Chalk Farm Road are stable windows, built above the mangers inside.
Mr King, an elderly man, wrote to me saying:
The Tunnels Map
This plan of the underground structures at Camden Lock is based partly on one made by Martin Tucker of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society (GLIAS) which shows the position in 1990. The position was modified later when the developers demolished the western branch of the horse tunnel. London Borough of Camden 1990 updated the plan in 1997.
The vaulted brick basement below the London North Western Railway Goods Shed was also filled in and Gilbey's Yard Houses built on it. Areas demolished have been tinted.
The Stationary Condensing Engine Vaults under the railway main line are shown. Many of the other buildings on the map, such as the Horse Hospital, are referred to in the text.
The Bottle Store in Jamestown Road, 1894.
In 1894, Gilbey's Bottle Warehouse was built by William Hucks. he was a natural engineer who submitted no estimates and built as he went along. The building was one of the first examples of ferro-concrete and, according to the legend, was reinforced with old iron bedsteads. If so, they were good ones because the building is immensely strong. Soon it housed two steam engines, the engineering shop and the carpenter's department which made crates for the enormous export trade.
In this engraving of 1889, the Stanhope Arms stands at the corner of Oval Road and Jamestown Road. In 1937 Chermeyeff will build the new Gilbey House on the Stanhope Arms site. When, in 1960, Gilbey's had left Camden Town and moved to Harlow, the building stood empty. Then Gilbey House was renamed Academic House and the media, including Classic FM, moved in. In 1996, a century after it was built, William Huck's Bottle Store was converted into flats and called `Gilbey House'. Thus the name `Gilbey House' moved along the road.