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Berry Brothers, the oldest wine shop in the world

by Vic Keegan

The building with an arrow pointing to it on this 1658 map at the corner of Pall Mall and St James’s Street was a royal tennis court built by Henry Vlll. But for over 300 years it has been home to Berry Bros & Rudd, the oldest wine shop in the world which in the course of its brushes with history has managed to help establish the state of Texas, supply wine to the Titanic, survive the Gin Craze and smuggle Scotch to America during Prohibition. Its customers have included Winston Churchill and a long list of kings and queens that might have come straight out of Westminster Abbey.
In 1698 Berry Bros was started on the same spot by a woman only known as Widow Bourne. It commenced as a grocery shop selling coffee and other goods then for over 300 years has been operating from the same premises forging an astonishing link with olden days. The sign outside the shop today is still the sign of a coffee mill.

The tennis court was part of St James’s Palace situated opposite where Henry Vlll’s then lover Anne Boleyn was installed. You can still see bits of that tennis court today on the right hand wall if you walk down Pickering Place next to the entrance to Berry Bros. They form part of one of the walls of the fascinating head office of the company which almost breathes history having been on that spot so long.

Pickering Place passage + tennis court remnants, the Texas Embassy and coffee mill

The map shows that the house opposite the tennis court (with a garden) in St James’s Street was Berkshire House which was purchased in 1668 by Charles ll for his then favourite mistress Barbara Villiers.

The name was changed soon after to Cleveland House (Barbara Villiers was Duchess of Cleveland) but though it was altered in appearance British History Online says that “the carcase of the original building appears to have survived until 1840 or 1841) so it would certainly have been there when the Widow Bourne set up her grocery and coffee shop in 1698.

I was shown around by Geordie Willis, an 8th generation member of the Berry family, who soon put me right on one point. I had known for some time that the company has an astonishing two acres of cellars and I had imagined that they were spread out underneath hence giving rise to stories that there was a tunnel into St James’s Palace opposite so illicit meetings between monarchs and mistresses could take place. It turns out there are two acres of cellars but they are vertical rather than horizontal and recent evidence suggests that the buildings of St James’s Palace in olden days stretched across to the tennis court so there was no need for illicit tunnels.
Berry Bros.and Rudd, though still on the same site in London, is now a global company with a vast store and shop in Basingstoke and branches in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Berry Bros claims to employ more industry qualified wine experts than any other merchant in the world and boasts a portfolio of more than 4000 different wines. It is advised by eight full time Masters of Wine. Although, unquestionably, a posh retailer you can, at the time of writing still buy bottles for under £12.

Walking around the labyrinthine cellars, festooned with wine bottles and historic engravings is like being shown around a time-warp, not least the Napoleon Cellar where the future Napoleon lll, exiled from France, held secret meetings plotting his eventual return as Emperor of the Second Empire after the revolution of 1848.

Berry Bros is on the verge of major change itself. The oldest wine business in the UK has acquired Hambledon a prestigious vineyard in Hampshire which was the first in England to make wine successfully on a commercial scale. Hambledon also invented the game of cricket. Berry Brothers is partnering with Symington Family Estates,the prestigious port wine group founded by two Scottish brothers in 1820, which has vineyards in Portugal. Between them they have a global reach which should be a great help for, among other things, exports from Hambledon.
In a previous existence I used to write about economics and industry. Almost all of the top ten companies in those days don’t exist anymore having gone under or been swallowed up by bigger companies. It is amazing that Berry Bros has survived and thrived as an independent family business for over 300 years. And it is not the only one in St James’s Street. Its neighbours on the same side of the road in St James’s Street include the oldest cobbler in England, John Lobb and the inventor of the bowler hat, Lock & Co. There is no street in London quite like it, a living time-warp if ever there was one.


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