Walter and Alfred Gilbey

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 firm, 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, Blyth 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. The South African trade there was not to recover for a generation. Gilbeys, unlike their competitors, promised1 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, Oxford Street
Now the site of Marks & Spencer’s

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.


The Roundhouse from Chalk Farm Road after Gilbey's took over.

This woodcut is very early and shows the Roundhouse when it was still being used to turn engines round at Camden Town for the return journey. The early engines were not powerful enough to pull the trains back up the slope so they were detached and carriages were lowered down the Incline to Euston on the endless rope. Then the engines were re-coupled with the carriages and the return journey could start. All this is described elsewhere and hauled up again by the steam engine.

This engraving is inaccurate. The yellow brick wall is far too low. In reality, people were dwarfed by it as they are today. The engraving shows a complete range of warehouses but some at least were taller. The only three which still exist have been renamed as ‘The Gin Shop', and they are tree storeys high.

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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 two pence. 'London Gin was flavoured with juniper berries, coriander and other herbs. That Juniper name was to be revived in the 1990s as the name of a housing site on the old Gilbey land.

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 fewer 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.


Gilbey's 'A' Shed at the top of Oval Road

This building had been built by Pickfords but was taken over with the Roundhouse, by Gilbeys.

Bottling in Gilbey's 'A' Shed

The general Colleting and Forwarding Floor at
W& A. Gilbey's Stores, Camden Town , London.

Gilbey's Wine List in 1860.

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 railway 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 labelled 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 whiskey 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 that I could work in comfort. Inside was album after album. The first contained whisky labels. Dozens of different whiskey labels - every village in Scotland seemed to have had its own distillery and Gilbey’s had bought them all. The second album had more whisky labels and so had the third. Almost every album in the box had whisky labels and those that did not had wine labels. At last I realised the scale of Gilbey’s business. I closed the box and came away with little achieved, except that I had glimpsed the sheer scale of the Gilbey empire. By 1914 it had covered 20 acres in Camden Town alone.

The Roundhouse from the North

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Bottling in Gilbey’s ‘A’ Shed

Gilbey’s Wine List in 1860.

The Roundhouse from the north, before Gilbey’s took it over as a Bonded Store.
The engraving shows a complete range of three-storey warehouses , only three of which still exist. These three have been renamed as ‘The Gin Shop’.



  1. See The Growth of Muswell Hill, by Jack Whitehead, 1995. ++check

Piano Manufacture
in Camden Town

The Camden Goods Yard Industrial
Engraving from the north, 1889