Sir Walter Gilbey - Encyclopedia

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SIR WALTER GILBEY, 1ST Bart. (1831-), English wine-merchant, was born at Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire, in 1831. His father, the owner and frequently the driver of the daily coach between Bishop Stortford and London, died when he was eleven years old, and young Gilbey was shortly afterwards placed in the office of an estate agent at Tring, subsequently obtaining a clerkship in a firm of parliamentary agents in London. On the outbreak of the Crimean War, Walter Gilbey and his younger brother, Alfred, volunteered for civilian service at the front, and were employed at a convalescent hospital on the Dardanelles. Returning to London on the declaration of peace, Walter and Alfred Gilbey, on the advice of their eldest brother, Henry Gilbey, a wholesale wine-merchant, started in the retail wine and spirit trade. The heavy duty then levied by the British government on French, Portuguese and Spanish wines was prohibitive of a sale among the English middle classes, and especially lower middle classes, whose usual alcoholic beverage was accordingly beer. Henry Gilbey was of opinion that these classes would gladly drink wine if they could get it at a moderate price, and by his advice Walter and Alfred determined to push the sales of colonial, and particularly of Cape, wines, on which the duty was comparatively light. Backed by capital obtained through Henry Gilbey, they accordingly opened in 1857 a small retail business in a basement in Oxford Street, London. The Cape wines proved popular, and within three years the brothers had 20,000 customers on their books. The creation of the off-licence system by Mr Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer, in 1860, followed by the large reduction in the duty on French wines effected by the commercial treaty between England and France in 1861, revolutionized their trade and laid the foundation of their fortunes. Three provincial grocers, who had been granted the new off-licence, applied to be appointed the Gilbeys' agents in their respective districts, and many similar applications followed. These were granted, and before very long a leading local grocer was acting as the firm's agents in every district in England. The grocer who dealt in the Gilbeys' wines and spirits was not allowed to sell those of any other firm, and the Gilbeys in return handed over to him all their existing customers in his district. This arrangement was of mutual advantage, and the Gilbeys' business increased so rapidly that in 1864 Henry Gilbey abandoned his own undertaking to join his brothers. In 1867 the three brothers secured the old Pantheon theatre and concert hall in Oxford Street for their headquarters. In 1875 the firm purchased a large claretproducing estate in Medoc, on the banks of the Gironde, and became also the proprietors of two large whisky-distilleries in Scotland. In 1893 the business was converted, for family reasons, into a private limited liability company, of which Walter Gilbey, who in the same year was created a baronet, was chairman. Sir Walter Gilbey also became well known as a breeder of shire horses, and he did much to improve the breed of English horses (other than race-horses) generally, and wrote extensively on the subject. He became president of the Shire Horse Society, of the Hackney Horse Society, and of the Hunters' Improvement Society, and he was the founder and chairman of the London Cart Horse Parade Society. He was also a practical agriculturist, and president of the Royal Agricultural Society.

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