Setting a story in a historic location: Berry Bros. & Rudd –Wine Merchants in Regency London
By Regan Walker
When I decided to write a Christmas story, I knew it would be set in London and I thought it would be fun to have an English heroine (“the holly”) and a Scottish hero (“the thistle)—but where to begin?
I had heard about a wine shop that had a long history—going back to the 17th century. Perhaps it would be interesting to have them meet in just such a shop. And so on one rainy December day, Lady Emily Picton stumbles into George Berry’s wine shop having nearly been assaulted by a carriage and splattered with mud. In her pique, she mistakes our hero, William Stephen, for the clerk (who had gone down to the cellar) and directs William to get her a bottle of Madeira. Thinking to do a good deed to what to him looks like a charwoman, William gets her the wine. Who knew they were to meet again at an elaborate Christmas party given by the Dowager Countess of Claremont that evening?
Today you can find Berry Bros. & Rudd wine merchants still located at No. 3 St. James Street in London—just as you could during the Regency period from 1811 to 1820, though the name over the door then was “George Berry.” The current owner, Simon Berry told me the shop has changed little since it opened. So, in my story, it is described as it was then. (Mr. Berry read those scenes to verify authenticity!) Though the fireplace has now been abandoned for central heating, and the cellars are now a place for wine dinners, it still has the original oak plank floors, and it still honors its roots as a merchant selling provisions, exotic spices, tea and coffee—as well as wines from around the world.
Berry’s was first established in 1698 by the Widow Bourne as a grocer’s shop, “The Coffee Mill.” By 1765, Berry’s not only supplied the fashionable “Coffee Houses” (later to become Clubs such as Boodles and Whites), but also began weighing customers on giant coffee scales. Records of customers' weights, including those of the Royal Dukes, Lord Byron, former Prime Minister William Pitt and the Aga Khan.
Berry’s first supplied wine to the British Royal Family during King George III's reign, and today holds two Royal Warrants for H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales.
The owner in 1788 had no son, but his daughter, Mary had married John Berry, a wine merchant in Exeter. Their son, George Berry, although only one year old, had already been designated by his grandfather as heir to The Coffee Mill. Before he died, John Clarke found as a suitable "caretaker" to manage affairs, the Brownes of Westerham, a rich and prospering family of lawyers and yeomen into which John Berry's sister had married, and they agreed to look after the business until George was old enough to take over.
George Berry was only sixteen in 1803 when he made the two-day journey from Exeter. For seven years he must have played the part of apprentice, for it was not until he was 23, in 1810 that his name was stretched across the double-fronted fascia of No. 3 St James's Street.
In 1815, St James’s Street was a very masculine domain (Georgette Heyer describes her heroine in The Grand Sophy as risking her reputation just by driving her phaeton down St James’s Street): however, there is an etching of the shop front, which dates from that same year, that shows women amongst the male passers-by, and they do not seem to be causing too much scandal. They are either walking with a male companion or as a pair, so perhaps some form of protection was still the norm, which is why in my story Lady Picton was concerned about being seen alone.
My new Regency Christmas story, The Holly & The Thistle, begins in Berry’s where the hero and heroine meet just before Christmastide, each believing the other is someone else. It will put you in the mood for Christmas, I promise!