Department Index

Hop Exchange before 1920 fire

Showing the Auction Hall before the 1920 fire

The Auction Hall after the1920 fire.

Hop Cellars - 500 gallon vat.

Hop Cellars. John Brownsdon (right)

Hop Cellars - Processing. 1963 picture


The Hop Cellars

Of all the company's departments the Hop Cellars is probably the most romantic. It was situated beneath the Hop Exchange in historic Southwark, London, covering an underground area of nearly one acre. It was acknowledged as one of the finest and largest private cellars in the country. The company moved from earlier premises, under St Philip's Chapel in Regent Street, to the Hop Exchange, Southwark, in 1903. Known as Hop Cellars, this department was responsible for the buying and storing all of the company's wine and spirit needs. Most red and white wines, ports and sherries were shipped in casks (hogsheads, butts, drums and pipes) and bottled by the Hop Cellars staff.

Although Lyons had used the extensive cellars from 1903 until 1972 (when the stock was moved to Greenford) they did not own the Hop Exchange until 1944 when they bought the entire freehold of the building which was ultimately transferred to their subsidiary Auriol Property Company. This company was responsible for the redevelopment of the Groups properties. The Hop Exchange was built in 1860 as a hop and malt exchange and offices. A fire effectively reduced the height of the building by a half and practically destroyed the Exchange Hall with its domed glass roof where auctions were held. In the 1960s it became apparent that the upkeep of the was becoming greater than the revenues from letting. A plan was put forward by Auriol, supported by the Royal Fine Art Commission, to restore the front of the building to its original height and form, together with the Exchange Hall and replacement of the offices with new ones.

Meanwhile work continued in the cellars of storing and bottling wines for the Lyons businesses. In those days it was important to use the right shaped bottle for a particular wine. Staff were taught to know the difference between a sloping-shouldered Burgundy bottle and a white Sauterne bottle. Bottles were returned after use, cleaned and re-used. There average life was six fillings. Bottling was done by machine for filtered wine and spirit, or by hand for 'fined' wines, which cost more. In a single day a hand bottling team would fill 96 dozen bottles, while a team working on automatic bottling would fill 300 to 350 dozen bottles. Only an experience cellar-man was allowed to bottle by hand. Before corking, the hand filled bottle was held against a candle flame to ensure that the wine was perfectly clear. Electric light was too harsh and did not show up any imperfections in the wine.

After bottling came binning, or the art of stacking bottles for storage. This consisted of laying the bottles in rows between iron partitions and building up, placing hardwood laths between each row. The average bin held about 2,000 bottles, and the upmost skill was needed to ensure that the bin would not collapse. Nearly all the red wines were stored for a minimum of five years before the bottle was sold. Although the cellar temperature did not vary much between summer and winter it was necessary during colder periods to light gas jets to keep the temperature at an even 60 degrees. Labels were not attached to the bottles until they were ready for dispatch when they were cleaned up and given a bright new label. The bins were in 25 large vaults opening off from the main passages. The cellars were reputed to be part of the notorious Clink Prison (hence the slang word for prison-clink) and the vaults were previously used to house the wretched souls who had strayed.

While most of the work was undertaken in the vaults of the Hop Exchange, it was the Catering Office who calculated the value of the company's wine and spirit stocks. To calculate the value of the stock the Catering Office needed to know what wines and spirits had been received and issued by the Hop Cellars. Nearly all the white wines, clarets and bugundies, ports and sherries were bought in barrels, and all champagne and liqueurs in cases. For barrel wines the Hop Cellars notified the Catering Office the quantity received and the number of bottles they themselves produced from it. With this basic information, and the other labour and incidental charges, the cost of each bottle was calculated. Over 1,500 stocks cards were kept for each bin and onto these was entered the quantity and price of every consignment. In addition to paying the supplier the company also had to pay excise duty. Issues to restaurants and hotels were also recorded on the stock cards so that a price per bottle could be calculated.

In later years the Hop Cellars became part of the Central Buying Group. Because the wines had a good reputation, connoisseurs began to buy their wines direct from the cellars and the trade gradually increased until, in the 1970s, Hop Cellars were supplying 8,000 customers. Manager and buyer at this time was John Brownsdon who succeeded Ted White in 1968 and there were another 46 staff supporting him. New working practices were brought in to increase the number of wines sold to the public. Tankers brought much of the wine from France, Germany, Spain and Portugal and the old method of binning was replaced with boxing and storing on pallets ready for transporting. The old traditional method was replaced with mechanization and as a result the quality suffered. The restaurants, hotels and steak houses, were still supplied from the Hop Cellars, which by now had changed its name to Lyons Wine Cellars, but by now they were also supplying supermarkets and cash and carry stores and there was also an own label and mail order business. As a result of the changes that took place the business outgrew their premises and it moved to Greenford in 1972.


© Peter Bird 2005