That’s the Spirit, Gilbeys Gin of Camden Town

The Roundhouse.  Image Paula Pickin January 2019

Camden Town is probably most famous for its music heritage and entertainment venues, something it still embraces today. It was also the site of a Victorian Goods yard which is today a lively indoor and outdoor shopping market. But from the late 19th century up until the swinging sixties Camden Town was also home to Gilbeys enormous gin and spirit empire.

So how did it all begin?

On returning to England after service in the Crimean War, Walter Gilbey and his younger brother Alfred were in need of work. First of all they followed in the footsteps of their elder brother Henry in the wine trade, initially importing good quality inexpensive wines from South Africa. This was so successful they quickly acquired over 20,000 customers, and by 1867 premises in the famous Pantheon Building on Oxford Street (site of today’s Marks and Spencer). They began distilling Gin in 1872 and would soon outgrow the Pantheon, although they would keep the building on as an administrative centre well into the 20th Century.

Expansion to Camden

Walter and Albert decided they would make their base in Camden Town and built their own distillery there in 1879. They also acquired so many other buildings that by 1914 they had over over 20 acres of floor space on the site.

One of these buildings was the Legendary Roundhouse which had actually started life as an engine shed. Fortress-like with thick walls, bricked up arches and no windows, it was the perfect building for a bonded warehouse. A bonded warehouse was where goods liable to Excise Duty (Wines, spirits, tobacco etc) would be stored before being distributed for sale - any tax would have to be paid before the items were removed by the owner. This was the reason why they would need to be a) secure and b) have Customs and Excise officers stationed at them. This bonded warehouse was one of five on site and was used for whiskey, which was also distilled by the Gilbeys.

Other buildings used by Gilbeys

Both images Paula Pickin January 2019

The triangular shaped building in Camden Lock Place which is today a restaurant specialising in South African food, called Shaka Zulu, is on the site of what was once a bottle store for Gilbeys. There was also another bottle warehouse designed by William Hucks in Jamestown Road which is now an apartment block called Gilbey House. Next door to Gilbey House is another block called Academic House, which used to be called, wait for it……….Gilbey House! The latter was the work of modernist architect Serge Chermayeff.  Close to these two buildings would have been the actual gin distillery.

What is Gin?

It’s an alcoholic beverage flavoured with juniper berries and other botanicals and it was actually invented as Genever in  Netherlands. When William of Orange became King, Genever was already established in London, but he encouraged the culture by lowering the tax on it so as a nation we became blind drunk for many years, but at least it was safer than drinking the water.

During the 30 Years War soldiers drank Genever to boost morale hence the saying ‘Dutch Courage’.

Back to the Gilbeys

Camden Town was the perfect spot for the Gilbeys ever-expanding empire, as it was close to the goods yards with all their transport links: canal, road and railway. They even had their own train - ‘The Gilbeys Special’ - doing daily runs down to the docks where liqueur was shipped all around the world. This brings me on to the era of prohibition in the USA during the roaring 20’s. Apparently Gilbeys had a small department of staff employed to sew bottles of gin and whisky into sacks that could be smuggled into the shallow waters off the US coastline. A member of staff called Mrs Moore said this job was so well paid she was able to afford to go to the cinema, in Camden of course, every Friday night to watch gangster films about speakeasy’s in the USA.

Eventually the Gilbeys outgrew Camden Town and moved further out to Harlow in the 1960’s. I guess you could say in a way that the business was going home, as the family were originally innkeepers and coachmen from the nearby town of Bishops Stortford.


Gilbeys Wine and Horses………………….Jane Kidd

The Growth of Camden Town…………..Jack Whitehead

Camden Goods Station Through Time………….Peter Darley

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