Wine-making in Worplesdon
As surprising it would sound today, it must have really raised a few eyebrows in the late 19th century: Wine was made and sold in Worplesdon. As an added twist, it was made by a John Christmas, a distant relation of the Christmases of Bakery fame. Here is the story:
In the 1860’s, a Scotsman by the name of Peter McFarlane had started a business as a wine merchant in Perry Hill, having previously operated as a Sprits merchant in Guildford.
He was declared bankrupt in 1868, but perhaps John Christmas, a farmer in Burpham, took the opportunity to buy what remained of the business, since in 1881 he was not just selling wine, but actively making his own wine at Nortons Farm. Newspaper adverts gave his address simply as Perry Hill. 2 adverts for his wine are shown below. The left-hand ad is from 1883, while the right-hand ad dates from 1899.
They show a startling variety of flavours, and, in 1883, a forward-looking appreciation of how consumers might be attracted by the absence of chemicals and colourings. I’m not sure what traditionalists would have made of orange or lemon wine, but the idea of Worplesdon Grape Champagne does sound rather exciting. The price in 1883 - 1/8d per bottle - is equivalent to £5 today, which sounds very reasonable, and was a little lower than the price of French champagne at the time. However by 1899, the price of champagne had risen by 25%, but -disappointingly - was now being made from foreign grapes.
The later ad shows an impressive-looking award. But on closer inspection, it is a tad vague. If it was referring to The Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington, then that would have been some achievement. However it could have been referring to some exhibition held in a local hall, which would perhaps be less noteworthy.
We can only guess what John Christmas’s original home-grown champagne tasted like. Champagne grapes are usually grown on south-facing chalky ground, which does not sound much like Worplesdon. That is probably why he had resorted to "foreign grapes" by 1899. Of course we all like to support local enterprise, but if a bottle magically appeared at auction today, I’m not sure I would place a very high bid...
In 1891 John was living at “Wine Stores” in Goose Rye Road as a wine merchant. In the census record, his house is next to the Jolly Farmer, so perhaps his wine store was attached to the pub.
By 1901 he was living at Norton Farm as a “British wine grower and assistant overseer”. He died in 1903. The newspaper report of his death refers to him being “well-respected in the district” and his wine growing activities as a “well-known and prosperous business”. He had been an assistant overseer (of the poor) and left a widow, a son and 5 daughters.
Albert Enever (whose memories start from 1905) refers to the wine making from “fruit, parsnips, elderberries and dandelions”. He may have been relying on hearsay, as it does not seem as though any of John’s children maintained the wine business. In any case, British winemaking dwindled during the First World War (because land was needed to produce food, not wine), and didn’t really recover until the 1950’s. I’m not aware of any other wine-making initiatives in Worplesdon since. Beer-making, yes, but not wine-making. Perhaps someone will give it a go one day, but please don’t use dandelions.