The Medieval English Economic History paper was the one I looked forward to least. Sure enough, when I glanced at the list of questions I realised that of the three I had to answer one would have to be on a subject I knew next to nothing about. First things first: I got up from my desk and walked out of the exam hall to the lobby, where I lit a cigarette – it was 1985, and that sort of thing was possible. As I smoked, I settled on a question about the wine trade during the Hundred Years’ War. I knew about the wars; what I knew about the wine trade was that I knew what I didn’t know. Quotations were helpful if you were in a fix: ‘The drinking habits of any society, reflecting as they do the interplay of social convention and economic forces, are an instructive field of study.’ Those are the words of one economic historian – I didn’t know them at the time.
Another way to phrase the same exam question would have been: ‘Have you read Margery James?’ I’m sure I hadn’t; I have now. I was reminded of the exam question when I went to the wine cellars at Berry Brothers & Rudd on St James’s Street in early December, and as I ordered James’s 1971 book on the medieval wine trade at the British Library later that day. That older trade tends to be skated over. Nicholas Faith’s The Winemasters of Bordeaux (1978) begins, more or less, with Pepys’s visit to the Royal Oak Tavern on Lombard Street in 1663, where he encountered ‘a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with’ – that would be Château Haut-Brion, still one of the most sought-after Bordeaux. James showed through investigation into the Exchequer and Chancery records the real extent of the French-English wine trade: in the early 14th century England was bringing in nearly twenty million litres of wine a year from France, mostly from its possessions in Gascony; the wine trade accounted for a third of all annual imports.
The cellars at Berry Bros are three floors deep in places and once housed wine casks whose contents were decanted in the shop. Now there are only bottles in the cellars – thousands of them. Millions more are stored at Berry Bros’s warehouse in Hampshire. Some of the cellars have been converted into dining rooms, others into a classroom, with displays of jugs and glass bottles from the 17th and 18th centuries, when wine for the table was decanted from barrels as necessary. One type of bottle was known as a bladder – it was oval and had a long neck. Another, squatter and rounder, was called an onion. These bottles were irregular: not every breath used to blow the glass could be the same. A label says: ‘Two bottles with seals showing the name P. Bastard 1725. The Bastard family, who were French, settled in England after the Conquest. One of the Bastards married the heiress of the Polloxfen family of Kitley in Devonshire, and these two bottles were undoubtedly made for them.’ They are popular exhibits. The Berry Bros cellar man, Allan Perry, called Amyl by his colleagues because he once worked at a chemical factory, told the shop’s in-house magazine: ‘We used to not see anyone for months. Now we help lost customers find their way back to their table.’
Berry Bros’s reputation rests on its longevity as a company, but the history is complex. It didn’t begin business under that name; nor was it exclusively a wine merchant. A figure known only as the Widow Bourne founded the shop in 1698 at the southern end of St James’s Street; one of her daughters married William Pickering, and the shop remained with the Pickering family until 1810, when George Berry renamed the shop after himself. It was an ‘Italian warehouse’, as grocers’ shops specialising in imported goods were known. The shield hanging above the front door has the emblem of a golden coffee mill painted on it – the original was stolen a few years ago – because Pickering’s shop also supplied many of the busy coffeehouses nearby. The building now at 3 St James’s Street was put up in the 1730s. In the 1990s, a tunnel linking the shop to St James’s Palace was rediscovered: relations between the shop and the royal household had obviously been close.
In the wood-panelled hall of Number Three is a large pair of scales hanging from the ceiling – it was used to measure bags of coffee, tea and sugar sold at the shop. But it was also handy for weighing customers. In part of London society in the 18th century interest in weight became a measure of male hypochondria. Joseph Addison imagined a weight-obsessed man who spent all day checking his weight by sitting on a pair of scales: ‘I do not dine and sup by the Clock, but by my Chair; for when that informs me my Pound of Food is exhausted I conclude my self to be hungry, and lay in another with all Diligence. In my Days of Abstinence I lose a Pound and an half, and on solemn Fasts am two Pounds lighter than on other Days in the Year.’
Weighing yourself to assuage your fears was one thing; gambling on your weight or someone else’s was another. G.M. Trevelyan described Regency St James’s as ‘a giant casino’, such was the popularity and extent of gambling at clubs like Brooks’s. As one club history says, ‘there was no event or experience in the whole compass of human existence which the members of Brooks’s thought it necessary to exclude from the field of legitimate speculation.’ ‘The rage of play’ was Gibbon’s phrase for what he witnessed. For a long time the scales were a reason to go to Pickering’s shop, though it’s unclear when the gambling dimension stopped. The ledgers with the weighing records are stored in an old safe and inside them are the figures for Beau Brummell, the younger Pitt, Charles James Fox and hundreds of others.
It seems to me, after a cursory inspection, that the average weight of the Englishmen listed in these two books increased by about twenty pounds over a hundred-year period. In July 1807, Byron, wearing only his shoes, weighed 10 st 13 lb. Two weeks later he weighed 11 st. He was heaviest in 1809 (11 st 5 lbs), lightest two years later (9 st 11 lb). Henry Angelo was a fencing master and the author of a memoir about his friends and his father, Domenico, a Tuscan swordfighting legend who had moved to London and started a fencing and equestrian school in Soho. Fencing matches were yet another way to gamble. ‘In no period in our domestic history,’ Angelo wrote in 1830, ‘has so universal a change in manners and habits of the people generally taken place, as within the last half-century.’ But his weight stayed much the same; on 4 October 1789 he weighed 11 st 5 lbs; on 16 September 1806 he was 11 st 10. Going to Berry Bros to be weighed remained fashionable for the well-to-do Londoner through the 19th century, but the practice fell away in the 20th. In 1991, the Sumo wrestler Takanofuji was weighed at 21 st 6 lbs. In 1924 John Rodney Bastard weighed 2 st 9 lbs; ten years later he was 8 st 10 lbs.
Trust in Berry Bros counted for a lot: that a hundredweight of coffee really was a hundredweight has always been everything; that Byron really did weigh 11 st 5 lbs; that the contents of a cask of wine were as Berry Bros said they were. At the British Library, I read Margery James on ‘the medieval wine dealer’. ‘What distinguished the specialist,’ she wrote, ‘was not so much the size of his trade as the regularity with which he engaged in it. Wine was an expensive and perishable commodity, calling for expert knowledge and great experience in selecting, blending, tasting and assaying.’ (English wine merchants would blend red Bordeaux with wine from the Iberian peninsula.) ‘Whenever wine was bought or sold, special precautions had to be observed, for slight variations in appearance denoting different types, good or bad, were often only visible to the eye of the expert and the amateur was often duped into buying a mixture of the dregs of many good wines, or bad wines mixed with white of egg, honey and other sweetening matter.’ Honey and egg may have vanished from the adulteration of wine, but the expertise required of a wine expert is not now so different.
Wine adulteration has never completely disappeared. Eleven years after the Widow Bourne opened her shop on St James’s Street, Addison wrote in the Tatler about the practice of tampering with wine:
There is in this city a certain fraternity of chemical operators, who work underground in holes, caverns and dark retirements, to conceal their mysteries from the eyes and observation of mankind. These subterraneous philosophers are daily employed in the transmigration of liquors and, by the power of magical drugs and incantations, raising under the streets of London the choicest products of the hills and valleys of France. They can squeeze Bordeaux out of sloe and draw Champagne from an apple.
Berry Bros’s records aren’t complete; if you’re running a wine business, you’re not thinking about the archive. Some survive, such as the records of customers who bought wine and spirits during the Second World War. These ledgers indicate that whisky was then the main seller, especially Cutty Sark, a pale blend created by Berry Bros in the 1920s. The company made a fortune during Prohibition, shipping consignment after consignment to the Bahamas, from where it was smuggled into the US. On VE Day and the day that followed Berry Bros was closed, but it reopened on Thursday, 10 May 1945, and people poured through the door. The publisher William Collins, whose offices were just off St James’s, bought one bottle of five-star brandy, two of Berry’s best whiskies, one of dry gin and six bottles of sherry. Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, bought one bottle of whisky; a representative of the US Air Force 3rd Bomber Division ordered six. Mrs Randolph Churchill bought a bottle of claret and another of Chablis, both of 1933 vintage, along with gin, whisky and sherry. Paul Mellon, then a captain in the OSS, bought half a dozen bottles of gin and whisky – ‘to be packed in case of travelling’, a note next to his order says.
The wine shop recently moved around the corner to larger premises in Pall Mall so that more of its bottles can be put on display; through the south-facing window you can see St James’s Palace, a reminder of the ancient connection between the monarchy and the wine trade. In the years that James was writing about, the royal household was by far the largest purchaser of imported wines: Berry Bros has had a royal warrant to supply the Crown with wine since George III. This new shop is interconnected with the original site on St James Street.
When I came up from the cellars a group of Italians had gathered in the hall. They were about to be sent down to their boozy lunch in the former Italian warehouse. I was shown the small parlour at the back of the original building, a wood-panelled room with a window looking out onto a small paved courtyard. There was no one in the room, but a coal fire glowed in the grate. Old photographs of the Berry family were on the mantelpiece. Bottles of whisky, armagnac, port and gin stood on a table next to half a dozen upturned glasses. In a bookcase were copies of the Survey of London’s two volumes on St James’s as well as André Simon’s history of wine, and a further collection of old bottles took up a couple of shelves. If the intention is to persuade customers that whatever happens there will always be wine and spirits then the parlour doesn’t convey its message too badly.
I left the building. James Gillray, who once lived up the road, and Gainsborough, who was around the corner on Pall Mall, give two very different pictures of St James’s societies. Christie’s, Fortnum’s, Hatchard’s, Brooks’s, White’s, Boodles are some of the clubs and businesses that began in Regency casino society, or just before, and carry on. So does the speculation: hedge funds have moved to St James’s. On the corner of Jermyn Street is the London shop of the gunmaker Beretta, a company that’s been in the same family since 1526 – they made the cannons for the Venetian fleet that fought at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Italians do old differently: the Antinori family have been making wine continuously since 1385. But that’s nothing compared to the Lampedusas. They are descended, one of them told me, from the soldier who stabbed Christ on the cross.