Gordon’s Wine Bar is thought to be the oldest wine bar in London having been established in 1890. The bar is very much a family affair, owned by Wendy Gordon who is the wife of the late much loved Luis Gordon, and now overseen by Luis’ eldest son Simon. The Gordon’s wine bar family includes the bar staff many of whom have been with us for years under the caring management of Gerard who brings French joie de vivre to the atmosphere and ensures our customers are well looked after. We try to maintain the bar as our customers like it which basically means “no change!”. We have maintained the original décor and sell only wine, whilst providing traditional and well priced grub…. easier said than done in a world dominated by rules and regulations!
The bar is loved by old and young alike due to the totally unique atmosphere in which time seems to have stood still. As you enter the bar you find yourself in a room with old wooden walls covered in historical newspaper cuttings and memorabilia faded with age. Make your way to the cellar and you need to stoop to get to your rickety candlelit table – anonymity is guaranteed! If the sun is out you can also sit outside in Watergate Walk and enjoy watching the world go by. The bar is loved by many because it has something to offer to each and every one of its customers.
The award winning wine list is varied and full of interesting wines at very reasonable prices. Sherries and ports are served from the barrel. Food comes in proper portions ranging from homemade pies to wonderfully mature cheeses.
Arthur ‘Staff’ Gordon, the previous owner of the bar, was one of the few remaining ‘free vintners’ who were able to set up and sell wines anywhere without applying for a license as a result of Edward III’s Charter to them in 1364 – granted as a result of Edward’s financial embarrassment at being unable to repay a loan made by the vintners to him some years earlier. The current Gordon family who own the bar are not actually related to Angus Gordon but it was a happy coincidence that Luis Gordon discovered the bar and took it over in 1975 so was able to maintain the Gordon name.
For those of you who are interested in history Kipling House, in which the bar is situated, was home to Samuel Pepys in the 1680’s and more recently (1820) was occupied by Minier & Fair, a firm of seedsmen who used it as a warehouse. This came to an abrupt end, when in 1864, the river was embanked and the warehouse became landlocked, following which it was turned into accommodation and Gordon’s Wine Bar began its life. Rudyard Kipling lived in the building in the 1890’s as a tenant.
The bar has many associations with the literary and theatrical fields. In the room overhead Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘The Light That Failed’ and both he and Chesterton wrote some of their works in the little parlour of the Wine Bar. Previously the original Player’s Theatre stood almost directly opposite, and the bar was (and of course still is) patronised by many illustrious thespians.
To explore in more depth the history of Gordon’s Wine Bar why not browse our timeline?
Luis Gordon, wine importer, publican and owner of Gordon’s Wine Bar, was born in Crawley on 21 May 1933. He died of cancer in Henfield on 22 October 2002, aged 69.
Wednesday 30 October 2002
Luis Gordon, owner of the oldest wine bar in London and former chairman of the family sherry shippers who for more than 200 years remained sole importers of Domecq to Britain, has died at 69 after losing a four-year fight against cancer.
Father of six, many of whom worked behind his bar located in the cellars beneath Charing Cross at 47 Villiers Street, Gordon was an exuberant, gravelly-voiced character who bought this historic watering hole in 1972 after a lifetime in the wine trade.
Gordon’s Wine Bar drew literary figures like Chesterton, Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling, who wrote The Light That Failed in the room above the bar. Later its dusky vaults have hosted numerous celebs including Lord (Lawrence) Olivier and Vivien Leigh drawn by the unobtrusive atmosphere.
During his 30-year ownership Gordon preserved the Bar’s special character – fine wines, old oak casks of port and sherry, memorabilia and crusting walls – even keeping the cobwebs after a six-month closure for what was supposed to have been a “revamp”. A tradition that will continue to be preserved by his family who have now taken up the mantle.
After school at Downside where he crashed a gigantic model jet in a ball of flame in the centre of the 1st XI cricket pitch, Gordon gained his private pilot’s licence at just 16 and joined the RAF three years later as a rear-gunner in Shackleton aircraft.
He had already experienced his first “crash”. Aged 17, he was given an Avro Prefect bi-plane which he dismantled, towed home from nearby Gatwick Airport and tried to fly. He taxied around a field behind his house, but the plane was so unstable that it lifted off, then hit the deck and turned upside down. Gordon walked away unscathed.
In his early twenties Gordon joined the family sherry business Luis Gordon & Sons as a salesman and in 1971 became Chairman. The Company was sole importer of the Domecq range of sherries.
Under Gordon’s reign the company became the biggest player in the fast-expanding UK sherry market with the distinction of receiving a Royal Warrant from the Queen and also from King Alfonso of Spain.
The company back in the 1960s was among the first to embrace the spirit of corporate entertainment, typically hiring a Comet to take more than 200 guests on wild trips to Jerez, an awesome combination of wine traders, publicans and journalists. Typically these three-day marathons would end with a demonstration of small-scale bull fighting – testing out young, but fierce animals – in a private ring on the Domecq estates. When Gordon judged that his watching guests had sipped enough sherry he’d invite them to have a go themselves as matadors, roaring with laughter as tipsy hacks staggered about waving handkerchiefs and diving for cover. Once he took over the rooftop of the five-star Hermitage Hotel in Monte Carlo for the annual Powerboat Race. Only halfway through lunch the claret seemed in short supply. Gordon summoned the waiter for more wine to be told: “But Sir, we have run out of Latour”.
After just a year as Chairman, his company was floated on the UK stock market and Gordon moved into the retail trade, buying his eponymous wine bar.
Outside business Gordon was extremely creative with a great talent for painting and sculpting which he pursued throughout his life with vigour. Among his many commissions was a bust of building tycoon Sir Norman Longley, and a complete set of decorative furniture for couturier Anthony Price who was later photographed for Vogue by Lord Snowdon seated in one of Gordon’s chairs.
Throughout his life, Gordon’s dynamic entrepreneurial spirit ranged across wonderful eccentricities. They included a company well ahead of its time in the late 1970s which converted cars from petrol to LPG.
In total contrast when he lived at Outwood, Surrey, he bought the Village Stores, had it fitted out by CP Burge of Sloane Street in traditional style and showcased his extensive collection of Victorian and Edwardian period stock and gadgets like Bromo toilet paper, Sunlight soap and the real highlight, a fully operational Golden Syrup vending machine. He dabbled with an antigravity device powered by electric motors and gyroscopes. And when bored with that, thundered around the village after Sunday lunch in his Second World War tank, vintage fire engine or racing car.
His dearest love, though, was wife Wendy whom he met and fell for when he was only 15. He said that when he first saw her he knew it was not necessary to approach her immediately because he also knew he was destined to spend the rest of his life with her. They were married eight years later and during 47 years together their family extended to six children and 13 grandchildren. They started their married life at Henfield, Sussex, and returned there 12 years ago.
Reproduced by kind permission of W H H Van Sickle
Topographical and Building History Researcher
This report details the history of 41-47 Villiers Street, a building which was built as a warehouse in the 1790s and converted to residential and office space in 1880.
Villiers Street was developed in the 1670s on the site of York House, one of the great waterside houses of the Strand, with its front and gardens facing the river and its rear towards the Strand. (Villiers Street was apparently built on the line of the entrance from the Strand to York House).
The report, which is based upon a rates-book search as well as the Survey of London and other standard references, outlines the history of York House and the development of the estate (Section 2), and then details the development and changes on this particular site (Section 3).
A summary of the history is given in Section 4, and a full list of site tenants follows in Section 5.
2. YORK HOUSE AND THE BUCKINGHAM ESTATE
The first reference to York House — then Norwich Place, the town-house of the Bishop of Norwich — dates to 1237. The house remained with the Bishops until the Dissolution in 1536, when it was granted to the Duke of Suffolk; 20 years later, it was given to the Arch-bishop of York, from which it took its name for the remainder of its life as a private mansion.
At this date, the estate included a total of 50 houses, 10 cottages, 4 stables and 7 gardens; it was not used long by the Archbishop, however, and from 1558 to the 1620s was given to successive lord keepers of the Great Seal. (This association led to the intriguing situation whereby Francis Bacon was born at the house in 1561 – when his father was lord keeper — and lived here in his own right when he held the post in 1617-20.)
York House and its grounds were given to the Duke of Buckingham in 1624. He apparently repaired the old house and in 1626 added the existing watergate (Figure 1), but was murdered in 1628. The swings of fortune during the Civil War meant that his widow, their son and her second husband lost the house when it was sequestered, but it was retrieved in the 1650s when the son (the 2nd Duke) married the new owner’s daughter. It was then given back to him in his own right at the Restoration in 1660.
The second Duke of Buckingham mortgaged the house heavily to help pay his considerable debts, and in the early 1670s developed the estate to raise more money. As is often noted, the streets and lanes of the new development contained the Duke’s name and title: George, Villiers, Duke, Of and Buckingham. (Villiers and Buckingham Streets still exist; Duke Street is now part of John Adam Street, George Street became York Buildings, and Of Alley is now York Place.)
The best houses were undoubtedly in Buckingham and George Streets: the east side houses in Villiers Street were often used in conjunction with the larger Buckingham Street houses, while the appeal of the west side was eroded almost immediately by the building of the York Buildings Waterworks in 1675 and the opening of a market on the site of Hungerford House in 1682.
3. 41-47 VILLIERS STREET
For the first century of its life, the site at 4l-47 Villiers Street formed part of 14 Buckingham Street – a large private house occupying a south-facing site fronting the river (Figure 2 and Figure 3). Although always well-occupied, the history of this house was not straight-forward: the site was first leased in 1674 when the foundations were said to have already been in place, but it was apparently not occupied until 1680 and burnt down four years later (in a fire which started in the York Buildings Waterworks).
The house was rebuilt on the same site in 1687-88 — perhaps re-using the earlier foundations — and was occupied by the diarist, Samuel Pepys. He remained until 1701, and for the next 30 years the house attracted aristocratic tenants. In 1732, however, it was taken over by the Salt Office to collect the tax on that substance, a use which remained here for over 50 years.
The Salt Office moved out of the house in 1788, and the building was demolished shortly afterwards — a change which perhaps reflected an initial 99-year lease of the 1670s. In 1792, it was replaced by two new buildings (Figure 4): 14 Buckingham Street, which was let out in chambers, and 19 Villiers Street, a warehouse owned by Minier, Minier & Fair, a firm of seedsmen with a shop at 63, the Strand.
Minier and its successor firms appear to have improved the building in the 1820s and 1830s, and remained here until 1880 (a tenancy which again suggests the running-down or expiry of a 90- or 99-year lease). During this occupancy, however, the changes around the building were drastic: Hungerford Market was rebuilt in 1830-33; Hungerford Bridge was added in 1836-45; in 1853-64 the market and bridge were removed to develop Charing Cross Station and its railway bridge, obliterating the west side of Villiers Street; and — most importantly — the river was embanked and the warehouse landlocked in 1864-70.
This latter change undoubtedly decided the fate of the Minier warehouse, as the loss of access to barges would have made the facility of little use to the company. In 1880, the upper floors of the building were converted to a rooming house with up to 50 rooms, while the ground floor was turned over to shops and the whole of the building was renamed “Embankment Chambers”.
Although the mix of uses in the building has varied over the past century, it remains largely unchanged aside from some modernisation in the 1920s and after World War II. The nature of the uses are discussed in Section 4, but some are of particular interest: the longest-established is the wine bar, opened in the 1890s by Angus Gordon, while others — including a brothel of the 1920s — have since been replaced by offices.
4. HISTORICAL SUMMARY
The site is that of York House, and Villiers Street is believed to lie on the line of the main entrance to the house from the Strand. Until 1790, the site formed part of a large house in Buckingham Street which had been built in the late 1670s, burnt down in 1684, and was rebuilt in 1687-88. The site was redeveloped in 1791-92 for chambers in Buckingham Street and a seed warehouse at what became 41-47 Villiers Street.
It is not known if foundations or vaults from York House (now comprising Gordons wine bar) were used for the first house of the 1670s, nor if vaults were re-used in the 1680s for the house occupied by Samuel Pepys, nor if the vaults which now exist were again re-used again in the 1790s. Given the nature of the various rebuildings, however, it seems likely that the existing vaults date to the late 17th century.
The warehouse was occupied in 1792 by Minier, Minier & Fair, a firm of seedsmen; its successor firms remained here until 1880, when the building was redeveloped as a rooming house and shops. Rudyard Kipling famously stayed here from 1889 to 1891, and the building’s longest tenant, the wine bar, was first established here in the 1890s.
In the early 20th century, the residential population of the building levelled out at 17 or 18 but the clientele deteriorated: one Alfred Frederick Joyce was convicted and fined in 1923 for keeping a brothel at this address. (Disorderly houses were more common, however, at other addresses in the street and, particularly, in Craven Street.)
Offices were developed in about 1925; the present street numbers were assigned in 1926; and in 1950 the building was presumably upgraded when it was renamed “Kipling House”.
5. SITE TENANTS
York House (to 1674)
by 1237-1536 Bishops of Norwich (Norwich Place).
1536-1556 Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (Suffolk Place).
1556-155S Archbishop of York (York House).
1558-1579 Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper of the Great Seal;
1579-15S7 Francis Bacon born at house, 1561(probably) Sir Thomas Bromley, lord keeper.
c1587-1594 Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex.
1594-1596 Sir John Puckering, lord keeper.
1596-1617 Sir Thomas Egertan, lord keeper.
1617-1620 Sir Francis Bacon, lord keeper.
1622-1640s Duke of Buckingham (to 1628) and family.
1640s-1660 Thomas, Lord Fairfax, and son-in-law, 2nd Duke of Buckingham.
1660-1674 George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham.
With 14 Buckingham Street
1674 Site leased to Six Thomas Estcourt.
1680-1684 Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset.
1684-1688 Burnt down and rebuilt.
1688-1701 Samuel Pepys.
1701-1714 Robert Harley (Earl of Essex, 1711).
1714-1716 Arthur Herbert, Earl of Torrington.
1717-1732 George Henry Lee, 2nd Karl of Lichfield;
1732-1788 Edward Harrison, postmaster general. Salt Office.
As 19 (now 41-47) Villiers Street
1792-1880 Minier, Minier & Co, seedsmen.
1880-1950 Embankment Chambers. Up to 50 tenants including:
Angus Gordon, wine merchant, (1890 – bar now longest serving tenant)
17 to 18 private residents
1923 Brothel prosecution!
1923 Renumbered as 41-47 Villiers Street.
1925 offices introduced
1950 Renamed Kipling House.
History of Villiers Street courtesy of In and Around Covent Garden.
Angus Stafford Gordon, a Free Vintner, started Gordon’s wine bar in 1890. His son took over after him and his grandson after him (all 3 had the same name!). The grandson worked there for 3 years as a young man, but went off to become an actor – something he loved. In March 2009, Angus Stafford junior came to the bar and met me, Simon Gordon (Luis Gordon’s son), and kindly brought along a batch of wonderful old photographs.
Although we don’t think we are related, there are family likenesses, so you never know! It was lovely to meet Staff (as he likes to be known) and I am delighted that he says he is very happy that Gordon’s is keeping alive the traditions which his grandfather and father tried to instil – good service, discretion and a wonderful atmosphere! He will be returning!
Read some of our customer’s memories of Gordon’s here.
Here is a selection of articles that have featured Gordon’s Wine Bar. If you know of any interesting articles or excerpts from books please let us know!
You may also know that Gordon’s nearly closed in the 1990s due to the huge upheavals in Villiers Street but managed to hang on thanks to the help and support of many of our stalwart customers. Here are some of the articles and papers at the time: