150th anniversary

From the twenties to The Society's centenary in 1974

A time of huge change for wine and The Wine Society, and the birth of a modern business.

From the Twenties to The Society’s Centenary in 1974

The Wine Society goes from strength to strength

Perhaps surprisingly, the inter-war period was one of real growth for The Wine Society with membership increasing from 5,000 in 1922 to 10,000 in 1932. Then following the Second World War, when membership reopened in 1948, several thousands of members joined each year, only temporarily slowed by the increase of the share price in 1952 to £5.

Even in the recessionary years of the seventies, The Society continued to grow, all this time, just through word of mouth of existing members. The 55,000th share was issued during our centenary year in 1974.

It’s testament to the quality of the wines offered and our competitive prices, which were clearly attractive in those difficult times. Then as now, this is thanks to our mutual model and our founding principles, which included:

No Dividend will at any time be payable on the Shares, which will form the Working Capital of the Society.
Wines will be sold at the lowest possible price, and for ready money only.

…which together with our other core ‘Objects’ was printed at the start of each wine List at the time.

Wartime conditions

Notice in The List on the outbreak of war
Notice in The List on the outbreak of war

Membership was closed for seven years – even King Haakon of Norway, resident in Britain during this time, was refused membership!

Members were asked to reduce their orders and the Lists carried a notice regarding shortages.

In 1940 our offices in Holles Street, Cavendish Square were badly damaged in a bombing raid on Oxford Street (destroying our earliest wine Lists and other documents). The office was moved to a rented house in Woodville Gardens, Ealing.

Our archives revealed some interesting bottles which tell something of the lengths gone to keep the wine coming in even when imports were restricted:

It’s well documented that the occupying forces in France were rather fond of Champagne and apparently preferred to keep the original label as a mark of quality, overprinting with ‘property of the Wehrmacht’.

This label from our archive shows that our own private cuvée Champagne from Alfred Gratien was also commandeered. Incidentally, the team at Alfred Gratien still call our wine ‘Cuvée 33’ and this legacy lives on in the wine’s reference number.

(R) Society Champagne label acquired by Germans during Occupation with (L)  Wartime bottles shipped under government licence including Algerian 'Claret Type'
(R) Society Champagne label acquired by Germans during Occupation with (L) Wartime bottles shipped under government licence including Algerian 'Claret Type'

Expansion of The Society’s cellars

In 1934 a lease was signed on cellars in Joiner Street, underneath London Bridge Station to add space to the existing cellars in Hills Place. Then in 1959 we became shareholders and tenants of St James’s Bond, Rotherhithe which also had a bottling plant. Unfortunately, the cellars flooded on the high spring and autumn tides, creating all sorts of problems (though the water didn’t get into the wine!)

Cellars at Joiner St, SE1 under London Bridge Station, including thebutts pipes and bottles in sherry and port bottling section
Cellars at Joiner St, SE1 under London Bridge Station, showing butts, pipes and bottles of sherry and Port in the bottling section

Operating out of three different sites across London was becoming expensive and impractical and offered little room for expansion. By the 1960s the Committee started to look for new premises. A grant from the New Towns Commission eventually brought about the move to Stevenage in 1965. Described as a ‘life-saving’ move for The Society, it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without the drive and vision of then Chairman Edmund Penning-Rowsell.

Edmund had joined The Wine Society in 1940, was elected to the Committee in 1959 and served as Chair from 1964 to 1987. He was passionate about The Society and transformed it into the modern business it is today.

View the newsletter featuring an obituary of Edmund Penning-Rowsell

The move to Stevenage

The Stevenage corporation built, to our own specification, temperature-controlled bonded and un-bonded warehouses, including a bottling line, and an office block. The buildings cost £180,000 and were given to us on a 60-year lease. There was work for around 70 people and many of the staff in London relocated to the new town.

More than a million bottles were transferred from the ancient cellars in London to the new above-ground facility in Stevenage, all over the course of one weekend!

Photos courtesy of Stevenage Museum

Read more about the move to Stevenage in this article by then Chairman Edmund Penning-Rowsell

Our own van fleet

First fleet
In 1971 we bought out our carriers and soon the familiar red vans were delivering to members

When we moved out of London, the Hamer family, who had run The Society’s transport since 1912, carried on delivering within a 50-mile radius of Stevenage. In 1971 we acquired the business and soon the familiar red vans appeared, delivering to London and the south-east and to railway terminals.

A more modern-looking Society

Spring List news around 1971-2
Spring List news around 1971-2

In the post-war years The Wine Society was not in great financial shape. Penning-Rowsell was instrumental in turning things around, transforming the business by reinvigorating the management team, persuading the Committee to move out of London and influencing an expansion in the variety and quality of wines listed.

There were several appeals to members for interest-free loans to help finance the purchase of new vintages and for building work. Crowdfunding, once again making an important difference to the future of The Wine Society and our members generously coming to its aid.

A new looking Wine Society

He also encouraged artist Peter Probyn and designer Christopher Bradshaw (who would succeed him as Chairman) to join the Committee.

The Wine Society’s publications saw a dramatic change and in 1960 typographer Diana Bloomfield was commissioned to create our distinctive logo.

What about the wine?

1952 Château Cantermerle
1952 Château Cantermerle

There was a surprising number of liqueurs, fortified wines and aperitifs taking up several pages in the Lists with recipes for cocktails and cups from the days of the Roaring Twenties to the cheese and pineapple period of the 1960s and 1970s.

The 1930s saw the introduction of appellation contrôlée regulations in some key production regions, dramatically improving quality standards. In the post-war period, Wine Society buyers started to visit more wine regions and improved foreign travel generally saw an increase in wine drinking in Britain. As well as the classic French regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, our buyers actively sought out good wines from regions like the Rhône and Loire as well as French Country regions.

In 1950 the London-based Wine Society Dining Club was formed (Edmund Penning-Rowsell was a founder member). They produced a report on the wines offered by The Society and were quite critical of the lack of choice in higher-quality cru Bordeaux. From 1953 there were significant improvements in the number of clarets offered.

Albert Cable, General Manager 1955 -1966
Albert Cable, General Manager 1955 -1966

It was at this time that a Wine Society buying team really began. Albert Cable, Wine Society manager from 1955-1966 was instrumental in instituting the buying function. He had started as a junior clerk in 1926 at the age of 18 and moved to Buying in 1933. He was a prodigious taster much admired by those Masters of Wine that came after him, including Christopher Tatham in 1959 and Sebastian Payne, who originally joined as Promotion Manager in 1973.

1970 also saw our first paid members’ tasting (of claret and Burgundy, perhaps predictably!), and in 1971 we imported Lebanon’s Chateau Musar for the first time and the first merchant to import it into the UK.

1967 Musar in Spring 1971 List for the first time and a first for the UK
1967 Musar in Spring 1971 List for the first time and a first for the UK

New Society’s wines

The 1960 List saw the introduction of a series of wines ‘from the principal winefields’

'A Short history of Wine Society labels' published in 1999, gives some more background to our own labels.

The design of the gin and vodka labels in particular, showed the design flair of the era:

Early Society wines in 60s and 70s including the 1963 List showing range of Society wines
Early Society wines in 60s and 70s including the 1963 List showing range of Society wines

The Society celebrates its centenary

We celebrated our centenary with Champagne parties, a reception in the Royal Albert Hall, a dinner at Vintners Hall and a prize-draw giveaway of 500 bottles, all pre 1900 vintage!

Just as in 2024, a special range of celebratory bottles were produced especially for the occasion.

Earliest wines in our cellars, with labels for Centenary Claret 1974 and Crusted Port
Earliest wines in our cellars, with labels for Centenary Claret 1974 and Crusted Port

The inside story on how the Centenary Claret came about was written about in Sebastian Payne MW’s retirement piece and is a wonderful tale of a creative thinking after a bit of a slip up on the bottling line!

Sebastian Payne MW's last Last Word | The Wine Society

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Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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