Home > Editorial > A brief history of Berry Bros. & Rudd in seven objects
A brief history of Berry Bros. & Rudd in seven objects
In our home at No.3 St James’s Street, you’ll find stories hidden in every corner. They may reveal themselves in the simple chime of the shop bell, a letter pertaining to a lost wine crate on the RMS Titanic, or the unchanging presence of our weighing scales, standing sentinel through the centuries. Let us take you on a tour around Berry Bros. & Rudd, lifting the veil on three centuries of stories. Words by Issariya Morgan
Berry Bros. & Rudd started life as a grocer in 1698, specialising in tea, coffee and other luxury commodities that were fashionable with the St James’s clientele. For much of the first century, the scales were used exclusively to weigh coffee and tea. Then, in 1765, we began to weigh our customers. The increasingly scientific era ushered in a new awareness of health, and it became very fashionable to know one’s weight. Each weighing was carefully logged in our leather-bound ledgers, alongside the customer’s name and the date, and often their height, too.
We have records spanning centuries, documenting the weights of illustrious figures. Among them are the health-conscious Lord Byron, a regular visitor whose weight fluctuated throughout the years; world-champion knuckle-boxer Tom Cribb; and Tadao Yasuda, known as “Takanofuji”: in 1991, the Japanese sumo wrestler weighed 21 stone 6 lbs, remaining the heaviest person to grace our scales.
The shop bell
Step into the Old Shop, and you’ll be immediately greeted by a bright, twinkling ring from the shop bell, its sonorous chime both clear and deep. It was made for us by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which had been crafting bells for the churches and landmarks of London (including Big Ben) since 1570, until it finally closed its doors in 2017. It was a fellow member of the Tercentenary Club, which brings together businesses that have been trading for more than 300 years.
In 2017, we moved the official shop to 63 Pall Mall, commissioning the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to craft a bell for our new space. It turned out to be one of the foundry’s final jobs. The new bell was calibrated to the original; today, when you enter our London Shop, you’ll be met by exactly the same timeless chime that has greeted our customers for the last three centuries.
Number Three magazine
First published in 1954, Number Three was arguably the world’s first wine magazine, pre-dating all the major publications today. The brainchild of then-Chairman Anthony Berry, it was always “a publication designed to promote the appreciation of fine wines and spirits and other aspects of good living”. You’ll find this summary printed on every edition, from the inaugural 1954 edition to the one currently in front of you.
The original magazine was published bi-annually until 1995, covering over four decades of good living. After a 20-year hiatus, it was resurrected in its current format in 2016. Today, it’s a seasonal collection of articles and specially commissioned artwork – designed to educate, entertain and inspire those who share our appreciation for the good things in life, and for storytelling itself.
The Titanic letter
If you ever get the chance to explore No.3 St James’s Street, you’ll find antique bottles at every turn, many marked with a family insignia. Historically, glass was an expensive commodity. To own a glass bottle was the reserve of the very wealthy; far more precious than the wines they’d be filled with, these bottles would be used time and again. It was the job of the bouteillier to draw the wine from a cask in the cellar and bring it, in bottle, to the table. Over the centuries, the French bouteillier became the English “butler”.
These historical bottles – known as “onion” and “mallet” bottles – had wide, flat bases, making them ideal for sitting on a table, but impractical for ageing. The increasing desire to lay wines down for longer periods was the ultimate death knell for these bottles, paving the way for the narrow, straight-edged bottles we know today.
In today’s world, as the concept of reusability gains more traction, perhaps we’ll see the return of the personal wine bottle – although, hopefully, without the need for a butler.
On March 23rd, 1923, Francis Berry, Hugh Rudd and artist James McBey had lunch in The Parlour at No.3, which is where the idea for a light apéritif whisky was born. It was three years into Prohibition. The famous Cutty Sark ship had just returned to the UK from Portuguese waters. McBey, who had previously worked as a war illustrator during the First World War, reportedly sketched an image of it on a napkin during the lunch.
In the years that followed, Cutty Sark was exported to “Rum Row” in the Bahamas. From there, rum runners would smuggle spirits into the Florida Keys for distribution in the USA. One of the most renowned rum runners was Captain Bill McCoy.
Unusually for someone of his trade, he was teetotal, with a reputation for dealing only in the highest quality spirits. It was Captain McCoy who smuggled Cutty Sark from Rum Row into the USA, which led to the whisky being nicknamed “the real McCoy”.
The coffee mill
During our first century of trading, we were referred to not by our name, but by our location: “at the sign of the coffee mill”. Historically, the vast majority of people were illiterate. Businesses, therefore, would be marked by a pictorial symbol – a tradition which continues to this day with pubs.
Coffee was an important commodity on St James’s Street – the historic home of private members’ clubs. These “gentlemen’s clubs” started life as coffee houses, where likeminded figures would gather to share ideas, and discuss current affairs and politics.
Fuelled by coffee, discussions behind closed doors would lead to societal innovations such as the ballot system, the newspaper (born from pamphlets) and insurance, among many other things which now seem commonplace. Until the 19th century, our predecessors at No.3 furnished these clubs with a continuous supply of coffee, ground by mills very much like the one which still stands in the Old Shop today.