Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Victoria Wine Company, South Norwood

Last October it was announced that after 144 years the Victoria Wine Co. would disappear from our streets after its parent company, First Quench, went burst. In a last minute deal the brand has been bought by a property investment group but the few shops they purchased will be rebranded as Bottoms Up. One more victim of the current economic crisis.

The Victoria Wine Co. was founded in 1865 by William Winch Hughes, four years after the Chancellor of the Exchequer William Ewart Gladstone introduced the first off-premise licences and reduced the duty on imports of French wine. Until then wine was drunk mostly by the upper classes but Hughes believed he could convert the lower and middle classes. To do so he kept prices down by importing his own wine instead of resorting to intermediaries. He also offered free delivery and guaranteed his products were unadulterated (*). From its beginnings in the City of London, the company expanded into East London and the middle-class suburbs of the capital. By 1879 Hughes had 63 shops, a growing number of which were managed by women. Indeed Hughes, and later on his wife, believed women to be more reliable and sober than men. By the time of his death in 1886, Victoria Wine controlled 98 shops across southern England and offered its customers a wide range of wines. They included cheap Spanish and Portuguese wines at 11d a bottle or 3d for a quarter of a pint in the customer's own jug, as well as more expensive ones like a Saumur 'champagne' (actually an inappropriate name since Saumur is not in the Champagne region, but at the time, the name was not protected as it is today) at 25s for a dozen bottles for those who had been persuaded that a glass of wine was a more genteel thing than drinking a glass of beer for a Sunday dinner. In the 1880s the phylloxera epidemics reached its peak and decimated many European vineyards. Consequently to compensate for the scarcity of wine and brandy, Victoria Wine, like other wine merchants, began to offer blended whiskies to its customers. By 1896 it stocked 14 different whiskies priced from 2s 9d a bottle upward.
At Hughes's death his wife Emma inherited the company and managed it until she died in 1911. During that period the company continued to do well but didn't expand: by 1911 there were 96 branches.
Following Emma's death the company was bequeathed to the senior managers. Soon afterwards, one of them, Frank Wood, bought out the other beneficiaries of Emma's will and assumed full control. Wood introduced a few changes to the way the company was run: first, he stopped leasing properties, opting instead for an outright purchase of the premises, especially if they were in a lucrative area, and then in 1920 he turned Victoria Wine into a private limited company. Wood died in 1924 and the company was bought by Sir Charles Edward Cottier, Chairman of Booth's Distillery and John Watney and Company, who turned it into a public company. In 1929, following Collier's death, the company was taken over by Taylor and Walker. Thus Victoria Wine became the first of many wine merchants to be bought by brewers. In spite of a short boom immediately after the First World War in the consumption of alcoholic drinks, demand for wine declined throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The upper classes in particular reduced dramatically their demand and, at the height of the 1930s crisis, some even sold their cellars at private auctions. In that context Victoria Wine, who had opted to sell cheap wine to the mass market, performed better than most wine merchants and thanks to innovative advertising campaigns some of its brands such as Golden Galleon or Victoria Tarragona became relatively popular. In 1934 the company even diversified into tobacco sales.
The post-Second World War years witnessed an impressive restructuring of the brewing sector with a whole series of amalgations and takeovers. As part of this trend Taylor and Walker was taken over by Ind Coope in 1959, which in 1961 joined Tetley Walker and Ansell to form Allied Breweries. Following this amalgation it was decided that most of the group's wines would be sold through Victoria Wine outlets, while another subsidiary of Ind Coope, Grants of St James's, would be in charge of importing and bottling them. Then in 1978 Allied Breweries merged with the food and catering group J. Lyons and Co to form Allied Lyons. In 1994 the latter merged with Pedro Domecq to form Allied Domecq. Four years later Allied Domecq decided to merge its wine retail branch with Threshers, owned by Whitbread, and in 1995 it sold its 50% share of the company to Punch Taverns. Since then the parent company of Victoria Wine passed through several hands and changed its name a few times before adopting the name First Quench Retailing one year before it collapsed.

Victoria Wine
Co. Ltd.
Wines, Spirits, Beers,
Mineral Waters

(*) according to a 1868 article published in The Lancet:
The Victoria Wine Company propose to open in the thickly populated regions of the City a number of stores for the sale of cheap wine; and already they have succeeded in selling to the poor of Hackney, Bethnal-green, islington, and the Old Kent-road port and sherry at one penny per glass, or fourpence per quarter of a pint, including the bottle. These and the other wines on sale are surprisingly good for the price, and, as the subjoined analysis which we have made will show, are far superior in purity to others of much more pretension.
It would, of course, be affectation to assert that the wines of the Victoria Wine Company are made wholly from the grape; but they may be confidently recommended as sound, agreeable, and charged with a sufficient amount of alcohol to render them usefully stimulant and restorative. We Wish the company success in making their wines popular, and in deflecting the current of sound port and sherry into channels hitherto flowing with deleterious brandy and corrosive gin.
Location: Penge Road / Picture taken on: 17/06/2008

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