We are fortunate to have an unbroken series of minutes from Committee meetings, plus written histories, from one of the founders and our longest-serving Chairman on which to draw. A complete archive of wine Lists dating to 1880 reveal the developing wine world and changing tastes of members over the years.
Where it all began: The International Exhibition of 1874
The International Exhibition of 1874 was the last in a series of annual exhibitions to promote science and art, and was a legacy of the Great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862. Their purpose was to ‘have been some means of advancing the happiness and prosperity not only of this but of all other countries, and of strengthening the bonds of peace and friendship throughout the world' (© RAH archives). The exhibitions were largely held in the halls and gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, with the Royal Albert Hall used for concerts and displays. The 1874 exhibition included food and wine, with the brick-vaulted cellars of the Hall deemed perfect for storing the wooden vats of wine.
The public were invited to taste different types of ‘foreign wines’ and could buy a glass or bottle of those they liked. The majority of the wines came from Portugal and Spain, with the former occupying a whole cellar to itself with thousands of different examples on display. There were also wines from Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, Australia, Russia, California, Serbia, and Greece.
Unfortunately, a large amount of Portuguese wine remained after the exhibition closed, having lain entirely out of view of the visitors. The Portuguese were understandably upset, contacting their government to appeal to the British Foreign Office on their behalf. They had gone to great lengths and incurred considerable expense to organise their exhibits.
Although nothing could be done officially, to avoid a diplomatic incident, the Foreign Office asked Major General Henry Scott (architect of the Albert Hall and Secretary to the Great Exhibition Commission) if he could organise some large lunch parties to display the wines left over in the cellars. He in turn asked Mr George E. Scrivenor, a senior official of the Board of Customs (and presumably therefore someone who knew his wines) and R. Brudenell Carter, an ophthalmic surgeon and fellow of the Medical Society of London, to taste through the barrels of wine with him to select the best to show at the lunches.
Major General Henry Scott
Not just a founding father of The Wine Society, Major General Henry Scott is known for the construction of the Royal Albert Hall and its unique domed roof. Born in 1822, he was what the Victorians might call a 'man of parts’ and a Royal Engineer by profession. His design for the Royal Albert Hall and the roof in particular was seen as eccentric and many predicted it would not stay up. So, in 1870 when the building was finished, Henry Scott ordered everyone out of the building and remained alone in the building, knocking out the final roof support himself, such was his faith in the design. After playing an instrumental role in the founding of The Wine Society, Henry Scott was also our first Treasurer. He was commissioned to design the new South Kensington Museum but after his salary as Secretary to the Exhibition Commission was abruptly cut, his health was severely affected (probably not helped by having a family of 15 to support) and he died in 1883.
A wine club is formed
Our founders knew a good thing when they tasted it, as Brudenell Carter stated in a brief history first printed in the 1913 List: ‘...and we each ordered a cask or two of wine which had appealed to us in the course of our tasting, and arranged for division among ourselves in accordance with our several requirements.’
On 4th August 1874 this ‘Committee of Gentlemen’ met in a room in the Royal Albert Hall and, at the suggestion of General Scott, and much to the good fortune of generations of members to come, decided to form a ‘co-operative company’ to purchase the wines for their future enjoyment.
When those attending the lunch parties heard of this wine club, they too wanted to be a part of it and a Friendly Society was duly constituted.
Crowdfunding – the Victorian way
From the very beginning, The Society’s policy was to supply wines and spirits to its members at the lowest possible prices that working expenses would allow, with the capital required to do this lent on debentures by members. A debt paid off in full by the time Brudenell Carter’s first history appeared, with the stock in wine recorded as worth £14,000. Importantly too, it was stated that ‘no member derives any pecuniary advantage from the sale of wines and spirits; nor is any profit made upon the sales beyond what is necessary to secure a margin of safety'.
Our founding principles
There is no record of why our founders decided to form a co-operative or mutual society. Perhaps they were following in the footsteps of the Rochdale Pioneers, or maybe it was because the first stocks of wine were tasted and bought collectively. It may have had more to do with tenets of the first co-operative shop in Toad Lane, Rochdale which were anti-adulteration and falsification. Certainly, it has had long-term benefits, not just for the soundness of our mutual model, but also for the continued belief in sourcing wines that are authentic and true to themselves.
In 1875, 23 members attended the AGM and drew up the ‘Objects’ of The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society (to give us our full name), which remain at the foundation of everything your Wine Society stands for.
Credit: RAH archives and Edmund Penning-Rowsell ‘History of The Wine Society’