Open All Hours

Teapots and Whisky: Charles Wright & Son

Diana Webber

Sometimes just a single object can bring history to life. There’s a stoneware bottle at Wirksworth Heritage Centre, intriguingly marked Old Gran’s Special Toddy. What was in it?

The bottle contained whisky, blended and sold in Wirksworth, a brand famous throughout the land, and widely distributed in the 19th and 20th centuries, using well-organised supply chains nationwide. The tale of Old Gran’s popularity is also the story of the rise of a successful business created by Charles Wright from unexceptional origins. Inheriting the company while still a child, Charles took over around 1860, in his early twenties. Henceforth the business improved and expanded rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The story begins in elegant Georgian Wirksworth, where the first Charles Wright married Mary Toplis, a grocer’s daughter, and set up as a tea dealer in 1795. The tea tax had just been removed and the tea-drinking fashion spread rapidly among the English gentry and middle classes. Tea dealing might sound rather limited, but tea had been a rare and sought-after commodity and was now readily available. A hundred years later, at the time of the company’s centenary, visitors were proudly shown the 1795 cash book with names of the notable local families such as Hurt and Strutt. The ladies of the house were entertaining their friends in the latest fashion. Wright’s foresight paid off and the business expanded. The next generation of Wrights were listed as grocers and wines and spirits merchants as well as tea dealers. There seem to have been two branches of the family trading separately in the early 19th century, one on the Market Place and one on Coldwell St. However, it was the business in Coldwell St that survived into the 20th century as Charles Wright & Son. What was it about this company that enabled it to overtake the dozen or so other grocers in the town over the same period?

Cyril Pearson bottling port in the cellars of Charles Wright, 1950. Courtesy Margaret Kay.

It seems that Charles Wright possessed remarkable business and marketing skills. He gradually steered his company towards wines and spirits and away from general grocery, although they continued to supply farmers with seeds well into the 20th century. To import, sell and distribute large quantities of wines and spirits over a wide area required excellent logistics and networks as well as a well-trained workforce on site. In the course of building up this side of the business, numerous clerks, teams of travellers (travelling salesmen), craftsmen, labourers, packers, carters, basket-makers, even the proverbial bottle-washers, were employed. The company advertised extensively in magazines and newspapers, quoting recommendations by physicians and the patronage of the armed services. During the Boer War in 1902, Wright sent 240 bottles of Old Gran’s Scotch to the Derbyshire Regiment. Wright & Son also sold several other blends of whisky, such as Glen Haddon and Glenlivet, all of which they blended and bottled themselves. They produced their own, very popular, Sloe Gin.

Around 1895 the firm celebrated its centenary and contemporary accounts tell us much about the buildings and lay-out, including a description of the various processes carried out there. The offices of the company were situated in the elegant building, dating from 1800, which now houses Seymour Interiors. However, at the height of its prosperity the site included what is now the Barmote car park, with an extensive collection of outbuildings, wagon sheds, a bottling plant, a carpenter’s shop, a bottle-washing plant, and so on.