Wine for sale: Victoria Wine and the liquor trade, 1860-1984.
By Asa Briggs. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. ix 192 pp. $22.00.)
The Victoria Wine Company, the oldest liquor retailers in Britain now with over nine hundred stores, is a subsidiary of Allied Lyons, one of the United Kingdom's largest conglomerates, with interests in retailing, manufacturing, and recreational services. Few of Victoria Wine's archives have survived, and in writing the company's history Asa Briggs has not had the opportunity to analyze its operations in the merciless and unreadable detail that has characterized some other recent British company histories. The development of the Victoria Wine business instead is traced in terms of British contemporary culture and social history: the company's history is intertwined with the evolution of both national palate and of the British class structure, so that any paucity in material for the business historian is amply compensated by the other insights provided by Briggs.
The company was founded in the City of London in 1865 by W. H. Hughes, who was responding to the recent and long-delayed reduction of the heavy duties levied on French wines. Although established wine merchants regarded it as a delusion to suppose that the lower or middle classes would drink wine, Hughes determined to sell wine in shops to people who were ignored by existing wine merchants. Importing his own wine without intermediaries to keep down costs, he required cash rather than credit for all sales, offered free deliveries, and guaranteed that his products were unadulterated. Expanding his retail network into East London and petit bourgeois suburbs of the capital, he controlled sixty-three shops by 1879 and ninety-eight throughout most of southern England by his death in 1886. The company was then inherited by Hughes's widow, who managed it until her own death in 1911. She in turn bequeathed it to several of her senior managers, and after other changes of control, its shares were floated to the public in 1924.
The brewing company of Taylor & Walker bought control of Victoria Wine in 1929, and though Briggs is correct to call brewers "the most somnolent' business sector in Britain before 1939 (p. 105), Victoria Wine was enterprising in its commercial and advertising strategies during the 1930s. For many years it held the exclusive sales agency of Britain's most popular (but nauseating) liqueur, Warninck's Advocaat. It diversified into tobacco sales in 1934 and in the 1960s was at the forefront of a marketing war which, by popularizing wine, has revolutionized British drinking habits and has otherwise helped to reduce the monotony of the national diet.
Hughes was an outstanding retailing innovator whose importance has been neglected. Although without counterparts in the United States, Victoria Wine in 1897 claimed itself to be "quite American' in its efficiency and hustle, and contrasted itself with other vintners: instead of being housed in a "grim, mouldy, spider-webbed excavation,' it mounted "storey upon storey to the sky' (p. 79). Hughes himself preferred to hire women as managers of his branches, believing them more sober and reliable; his widow, when owner of the business, extended this principle until all branches were managed by females.
Asa Briggs writes with grace and wit: his quotations are felicitous, and every page is luminous. Dour mechanicians in the business history community may despise this book; others will delight in it.
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|Publication:||Business History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1986|
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