Me, hard at work researching

Sir Walter Gilbey – A blog by Craig Paterson

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This month’s blog is by Craig, one of our fantastic volunteers.

Volunteering at the museum has allowed me to gain knowledge of historical figures from Bishops Stortford whom I had previously been unfamiliar with. Indeed, the only Stortfordian whom I was aware of prior to joining the team was the person that the museum is named after, Cecil Rhodes. However, it is one of Stortford’s other nineteenth-century figures, Sir Walter Gilbey, who I would like to talk about.

Me, hard at work researching
 Gilbey, who was born on the 2nd of May 1831 at No. 11 Windhill, Bishops Stortford, was a wine-merchant and philanthropist, and is now widely regarded as one of the most ‘successful, influential and philanthropic men ever to emerge from Bishops Stortford’ ( Prior to becoming a wine merchant, Walter followed in his late father’s footsteps in becoming a coach driver, before joining a parliamentary agent’s office at Westminster.
'Portrait' of Sir Walter Gilbey
At the age of 22, Walter and his younger brother Albert volunteered for service during the Crimean War, where they worked at a convalescent hospital on the Dardanelles. They returned to the UK upon the declaration of peace in 1857. Not knowing what to do vocationally, their elder brother Henry, a wine merchant himself, advised them that due to the relatively light duty on South African wine, compared to European wines, there could be an opening in this market.

I was interested to discover that Gilbey was influential in making wine more accessible to the general public. Traditionally wine had been sold in cases of bottles by the dozen, meaning that it was only the upper classes who could afford to drink it, with beer and ale being the popular drinks of choice amongst the rest. Henry was of the opinion that the middle classes would be happy to drink wine if it was affordable. As a result, Gilbey started to sell single bottles, which, along with the lower duty of Cape wines, opened up the sale of wine to a whole new market. Henry proved to be correct, and within three years the Oxford Street based company had accumulated 20,000 customers, including Charles Dickens.

Once their wine business had proved a success, the Gilbey’s expanded to include spirits, such as gin and port. During his lifetime, Gilbey’s was the largest wine and spirits company in the United Kingdom. The museum has on display a selection of various wine, gin and port bottles, all proudly displaying the Gilbey’s logo.

Gilbey bottles on display in the museum
Although most of the bottles are empty, one of the port bottles is half full. Clearly someone had enjoyed some Gilbey’s port from the bottle prior to its entry in the museum!

As well as being a successful businessman, Walter was also considered a ‘Grand Old Man’, in the respect that he was a philanthropist and a benevolent member of the community. Indeed, it has been suggested that Walter and Albert treated their staff ‘like members of an extended family and employers were assured of a job for life’.

Walter was also responsible for establishing the Working Men’s Club, which now sits in South Street, whilst he also donated land to build Rye Street Hospital.

Rye Street Hospital

In the centenary year of the First World War, it also seems appropriate to acknowledge that the Gilbey’s gave potatoes for planting in brewery fields. A ‘bumper crop’ was sold to buy wool knit gloves for the soldiers on frontline.

The museum holds a great deal of memorial and archives dedicated to Sir Walter Gilbey and his business. In the museum collection there is a book entitled ‘King Edward’s Realm’, which tells the story of the making of the British Empire. Sir Walter gave this book to King Edward VII as a Coronation gift in 1902. Sir Walter was a close friend of Edward, who frequently visited him at his stables near Elsenham Station.

Gift to mark the coronation of Edward VII
What I found fascinating, was how much the book paints colonialism in a positive light, and demonstrates the values held by even the most benevolent of individuals when compared with the values of today.

Sir Walter Gilbey died on the 12thof November 1914, around three months after the outbreak of war. After his death, W&A Gilbey remained in the family. His son, Walter Henry Gilbey inherited the business. The company continued to expand, and became responsible for several household names including Smirnoff Vodka and Hennessey brandy. However, faced with financial difficulties, the firm merged with a smaller company in 1962, becoming International Distillers and Vintners ( The family finally lost control of the business a decade later by Grand Metropolitan. Grand Met merged with Guinness in 1998 to create Diageo Plc.











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