Mushroom Wine Shops: Selling Wine to Meet the Postwar Needs of London
During the Second World War wine imports into England dramatically fell due to lack of transportation and the German occupation of wine producing regions. Advertisements in The London Times illustrate such reductions. W & A Gilbey advertised on January 20, 1942, that the “inevitable result of the war condition is a rapidly increasing scarcity of Wines and Spirits.” The EMU Wine Company advertised on May 22, 1945 that “All good wines are scarce and EMU is no exception. Restricted supplies are being fairly distributed and perhaps ‘your turn’ has now come. Ask your Dealer.” With the end of the war the demand for wine continued to outpace the supply so the Ministry of Food announced they would begin importing wine from the dominions and continental Europe. The Ministry of Food imports were to take place outside the normal wine import system which dealt with larger volumes. The expenditures of the normal wine import system were limited by the Treasury which controlled both the timing and quantity on the imports.  Outside of the legal wine trade the demand for wine was met by sales from private cellars, smuggling, theft, and adulterated wines. One example of adulterated wine was “British Wine Port Type” which was manufactured by chemical then bottled and sold as Algerian wine. In this post I take an introductory look at the sales of wine in postwar London.
BRITAIN QUEUES FOR FOOD: RATIONING AND FOOD SHORTAGES IN WARTIME, LONDON, ENGLAND, UK, 1945© IWM (D 24990)
On October 17, 1945, it was reported that an additional 1,400 tons of wine both from Australia and South Africa would be brought in that year in addition to the 3,600 tons of wine already announced. This amount would increase to 7,000 tons per country in 1946. There were to be 450 tons of wine from Cyprus, 500 tons from Algeria, 3,000 tons of Sherry, 1,000 tons of Port, and 100 tons of Madeira. It was the hope of Sir Ben Smith, Minister of Food that there be adequate supplies of beer, spirits, and wine for the first postwar Christmas. By December 1945 a £1 million shipment of wine and spirits from France had been permitted with the possibility of a second shipment. This first French shipment was to contain cheaper Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. There were difficulties importing this wine because the growers preferred exchanging farm implements and fertilizer instead of cash and there was also a shortage of bottles. Black market shops started to appear in “hastily repaired buildings”, one of which sold Australian port at 37/6 per bottle.
The wine imported by the Ministry of Food was to be sold at an established retail price. This included Australian port and sherry at 12s. 6d. per bottle, French vintage Champagne at 35s. per bottle, and Algerian wine at 8s. per bottle. Whereas retail shops were to sell at the established prices public houses, restaurants, and hotels were allowed to dictate their own prices. When prompted about establishing a maximum price for such establishments so as to control escalating prices, Dr. Summerskill, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Food replied, “I think the consumer has the answer in his own hands. The answer is not to drink it.”
A Party in a Peasant’s Cottage© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 4794)
Throughout 1946 Mr. Strachey, Minister of Food, continued to be asked about the establishment of price controls. On July 17, 1946, Mr Cluse asked why the Ministry could not control the price of homemade spirits. On August 2, 1946, Mr. Frollick reported on his study of 31 large hotels and restaurants in the West End and South-West of London. West End establishments which originally sold bottles of wine at 6s to 7s were then charging £4-£6 per bottle. They claimed to charge high prices because wines were being auctioned off and they had to purchase them at the inflated retail prices. But Mr. Frollick determined these establishments had large prewar wine cellars from which they were still drawing from. For government controlled wine the establishments were allow to add approximately 10s to the price, which Mr. Strachey felt resulted in an average gross profit less than prewar profits. By December 1946 merchants developed an unofficial rationing scheme for wine and spirits. The ability to purchase a particular type of wine and its quantity was determined by the customer’s prewar purchases with that merchant. Despite this scheme Mr. Strachey, Minister of Food did not feel an official rationing scheme should be introduced for wine and spirits.
Despite the efforts of the Ministry of Food the actual amount of wine imported did not meet the intended amounts and the black market for wine thrived in England. In May 1946 Lord Ammon expected to import wine at only half of the typical prewar levels. As of September 1946, only 2,500 tons of the 5,000 permitted tons of wine from Australia had been shipped. While 3,000 tons from the 1946 quota had been shipped in April 1946 there were still 4,000 permitted tons left to be shipped. This left a total back log of 6,500 tons of Australian wine alone. It is interesting to note that the 1946 quota was comprised of 80% sweet wine and 20% table wine. To make up for the shortage of wine “mushroom firms” began to pop up selling wines purchased from private wine cellars at exorbitant prices thus fueling the black market. The mushroom reference was linked to the seasonal nature of the “wine and spirit shops, which mushroomed, apparently to cash in on the festive season.”
In October, 1946 only Italian and Algerian wines were being imported by the Ministry of Food. In November 1946, additional Ministry of Food shipments began to arrive. By the end of November 1946 all of the imported Algerian wine had been sold. In an advertisement by The Fair Trading Committee on November 20, 1946, it was noted that supplies, “are now arriving but there may not yet be enough to go round. Your wine merchant will do his best to distribute them fairly and you may be lucky.” These authorized wines were to contain a set price on every bottle. It was requested that empty bottles be returned to the merchant. The government prices listed such examples as:
Empire Sherry 12/6
Champagne 23/- to 28/-
Bordeaux and Burgundy 10/- to 22/-
Rhone Wines 10/6 to 17/6
Alsatian Wines 13/6 to 22/-
Algerian Red Wine 8/-
On November 23, 1946 The Times noted there were import problems with the French wines arriving in small quantities. The amount of Algerian wine imported was reduced because there was a shortage of glass bottles for the wine. It was anticipated that higher quality wines would eventually be available and be given higher priority over Algerian wine by merchants because the glass bottle shortage would continue. The Ministry of Food would attempt to balance the types of wines imported because Algerian wine was “wine for the masses.”
With the 8th Army: HQ in a Wine Cellar at Nettuno, 1944© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3871)
The British trade in Algerian wine developed in 1943 when it was used as ballast for vessels returning from North Africa. In June 1943 this wine was not yet distributed for sale. By July 22, 1943, the Ministry of Food had worked out a retail price for the wine which would cover all expenses and include a small profit. It is interesting that Mr. Mathers asked Mr. Marbane, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, “How comes it that wine is a matter for the Ministry of Food? What is its food value?” Commander Locker-Lampson was a bit more practical in asking, “Can we have a sample of Algerian wine in the House of Commons?” French wine growers typically blended Algerian wine to produce table wine. The British postwar Algerian wine trade could continue because the British had access to tankers for transporting the wine. It was anticipated that this trade would diminish once more French tankers became available.
The shortage of wine drove up wine prices during the 1946 Christmas season. Bootleg Australian wine was available at 45/ per bottle and fake sherry at 50/ per bottle. The term Mushroom Wine Shops first appears in the Australian expose “Sherry is £3/15/- In London Mushroom Wine Shops” published in The Advertiser on January 4, 1947. In this article the journalist searched these new stores looking for Australian wine. He notes that these, “new shops, mushroom businesses, opening on three-month licenses to cover the Christmas period” sprung up everywhere. Some shops were selling out of wine within weeks. There were stocks of Australian wine available but no bottles for them. There was no government sherry at 15/6 instead there was British wine “sherry type” at £1/2/6 per bottle, South African sherry at £2/3/5 per bottle, and Spanish sherry at £3/15 per bottle. “Best ports” bottled by the operators and sold at 20/- per bottle were in demand. A Wine and Spirits Trade Official said they “may be a mixture of Algerian and British wine of the port type or just British wine controlled at 6/6 a bottle.”
Upon returning from London Mr. T. Harry Bull, managing director of Emu Wine Company commented in January 1947 that there were many more retail shops selling wine at the licensed prices as compared to the mushroom wine shops. Between May 10, 1945 and February 19, 1947 there were 165 applications for wine store licenses in the West End. These stores could only obtain wine through purchase at public auctions. These public auctions included wine and spirits sold from stocks at bonded warehouses. It appeared the normal wine importers had to ration their sales to retail customers due to low stock from the traditional wine importers. Mr. Harry Bull postulated that the mushroom wine shops would disappear once Australian wine imports started to arrive in England. In the meantime the Wine and Spirit Association in London allegedly sent a letter to Mr. Strachey, the Minister of Food, asking to halt auction sales of wine and spirits in order to close the mushroom wine shops. In June 1942 the Ministry of Food limited the auction of wine and spirits to only those with a license to prevent racketeers from making a quick profit. When the Minister of Food was asked to prohibit wines and spirits from being sold at public auction without price limits, he said he would not for it would drive sales underground to the black market.
The British wine shippers began to urge the Treasury to make earlier decisions on the amount of expenditures allowed on wine. The shippers were ready to schedule imports beginning in January but the financial year of the Treasury did not begin until April. Thus the wine shipments for the 1946 Christmas season all arrived in September causing congestion at the docks. At the end of March 1947, Mr. Strachey, Minister of Food, announced that wine shippers could import wine at pre-war levels up to a limit proscribed by the Treasury from soft-currency countries. Despite this allowance wine was smuggled from France into England. Six men dressed as a British naval party used a LCT (land craft, tank) to bring wine and spirits from Cherbourg to the English coast. They then sold the wine on the black market. The group was eventually caught and fined the equivalent of $75,000. There were limits to what the Ministry of Food could expend, for example, they did not have the budget to import wine from Chile.
In 1939 some 3 million gallons of mostly Port was imported from Portugal being valued at £890,000. In 1947 some 2 million gallons had be imported at the significantly increased price of £1,576,000 representing nearly tripling of price. Despite all of the efforts The New York Times reported that for Christmas 1947 weak beer or fruit pop would take place of the customary bottle of Port. With no ceiling on the black market prices of wine and spirits the Christmas season had seen a surge in crime resulting in £250,000 worth of purchases. Thieves reverted to stealing by the lorry load with values reaching £10,000 worth at a time. Organized gangs broke into hotel cellars, broke through the walls of warehouses, and robbed country towns. Mushroom wine shops in the West End continued offering wine and spirits at high prices through the Christmas season.
The outlook appears to have improved starting in 1948 due to a combination of an increase in wine imports, a change in the habit of drinking less wine at dinner, and a devaluation of currencies lowering wine prices. The mention of mushroom wine shops disappears from the press. Whereas advertisements by the EMU Wine Company through the end of 1947 recommend you list” your name for a bottle now” those beginning in 1948 are without such recommendation.