The Roundhouse’s longest use was as a warehouse for Gilbey’s gin (and wine) from 1867 for 90 years. We caught up with great great great grandson of the Gilbey gin brothers and asked him a few questions about his family’s relationship with the Roundhouse over the years.
The Roundhouse wasn’t always the vibrant arts centre we know today. It was originally envisioned as a railway repair shed, designed by engineer Robert Dockray in 1846. The building was divided into 24 bays, with a turntable in the centre, so that engines could be rolled on, then spun into a bay for servicing and storage. Celebrated as a feat of civil engineering, the Roundhouse would only serve this purpose for less than two decades as the evolution of railway technology would render it obsolete.
In 1869, wine merchants Gilbey’s moved into the Roundhouse to use it as a storage warehouse for their stock of wine and various liquors. Gilbey’s had been founded in 1856 by brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey, upon their return from the Crimean War, under the advice of their older brother Henry Parry Gilbey, already in the wine business himself. The business rapidly expanded, to the point where Gilbey’s took over the Pantheon in Oxford Street by 1867, which would remain their administrative headquarters until 1937. Meanwhile, the bottling department was moved to Camden, commencing the Gilbey name’s long association with the place.
The first buildings they took over where the “A” Shed (known as the Lock House today) and the Roundhouse, which was to be used as a bonded warehouse for whiskey and other spirits. The railway tracks would be removed and wooden gallery would be built around the inside of the building. Gilbey’s would rapidly expand its empire in Camden, building a distillery opposite the “A” Shed in 1871, and three tunnels to connect the two by 1895. In 1876, Gilbey’s built a large triangular building known as the Bottle Stores, which was destroyed by a fire in 1980 and is now the site of the Gilgamesh building. By 1914, the Gilbey empire occupied a staggering 20 acres of Camden Town. There was even a train, the Gilbeys Special, which left for the docks every day to ship Gilbey products on the global market.
In 1962, Gilbey’s merged with United Wine Traders to form International Distillers and Vintners. Then, in 1972, that firm was taken over by Grand Metropolitan. These mergers significantly reduced the influence of the Gilbey family, which had controlled the firm for almost a hundred years. Today, Alfred Gilbey’s great-great-great-grandson, Tom Gilbey, continues the family tradition of selling wine through his company ‘The Vintner’ (www.thevintner.com). We got in touch with Tom and asked him some questions on Gilbey’s and its relationship to the Roundhouse and the surrounding area:
What were the reasons for the abandonment of the Roundhouse and the surrounding area in 1963? Was it because of the merger?
I believe this coincided with the Government of the time urging industrial business to move out of London, hence Gilbeys moving to the large site in Harlow.
How do you feel about the architectural changes to the Roundhouse?
I am so excited to see the redevelopment of this amazing part of London. With all the important history it has had both before and during Gilbeys tenure it is great to see it becoming a desirable destination again.
Have you ever attended a gig at the Roundhouse?
It gives me goosebumps going to the Roundhouse now. Yes I have been to a gig there and I have seen it before the gig too with the posters of my ancestors and the Gilbeys staff bottling wine and loading coaches to distribute their wines throughout the country.
Do you have any family stories from the time the Roundhouse was a storage for Gilbey’s?
I’m afraid I don’t as it really was some time ago. My grandfather was the last chairman of Gilbeys and I would so love to be able to ask him all these questions now – unfortunately he is no longer with us.
Has the history of your family contributed to your decision to become a wine merchant?
Yes it certainly has. My childhood was surrounded with friends of my parents, many of whom were in the wine trade. My childhood holidays were often spent visiting wine growers and I still have a great family friend who is currently running a large bottling company in France. My life has always been wine and it continues to be just that.