by Charlie Leary

Vintage Intrigue

One-time Deputy Paymaster to the British Forces, Richard Hill (1655-1727) had an honest soul and functioned as a forthright servant of His Majesty’s Government. For although he loved wine, perhaps to a fault, he dutifully reported his related expenditures abroad. Thus in January 1700, he catalogued a bill: “Sold and delivered For ye Uze of ye Right Honourable Richard Hill, Esq., one of ye lords Comms of ye Treasiuree” for Champagne, “volvet” wine “etc.” Total: £69. And he scribbled on the receipt: “Mons Chaigneay for wine…” In May 1700 he produced another receipt “For wine – champagne, burgundy, arboys wine” for a total of £12. He was a stickler, in fact, for precise accounting and wrote on it, “paid 11 guineas £11.16.6d.” This was docketed in Hill’s hand alongside, “Chaigneau’s account and quittance for wine, May 9, 1700.” Back in Britain, his wine habit continued. In April 1719 he bought “¼ hogshead champagne, ½ hogshead burgundy, 2 hogsheads claret. One dozen Hermitage.” Total: £92.2.0d.

Hill faithfully saw to supplying the British naval ships. In 1704, one captain wrote to him about “having 4 months’ and 4 days’ provision onboard, at whole allowance, beer excepted, of which we have but 12 days’, then must drink water, unless you will please to give some direction about wine for both ships.” The prospect of having to drink water drove the captain to boldy request wine, which Hill indeed provided.

Hill’s new colleague in 1705 had a rather less scrupulous nature. James Brydges (1673-1744), Paymaster General of the forces abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession, became infamous for growing extremely, extremely wealthy by skimming from His Majesty’s accounts and other various forms of what we would call corruption. During his time as paymaster, Brydges is estimated to have accumulated £600,000 for himself. He became the Earl of Carnarvon and then the 1st Duke of Chandos.

Brydges adored wine too, perhaps more than Hill; he could afford it and typified the eighteenth century connoisseur. The historians Charles Ludington and Aaron Graham have documented his wine consumption habits: “From 1706 to 1711, Brydges ordered Pontac, Margaux, and Haut Brion, as well as champagne, Cahors, red and white Hermitage, and Capbreton wine,” writes Ludington. He developed a wine tasting vocabulary and knew the value of bottle maturation. There was “good,” “bad” and “most particular” wine but also “noble,” “racy,” “excellently good, and rich in the mouth.” “The red Syracuse,” he wrote, “does not fill the mouth as much as Monte Pulciano, and has a better body and tast [sic] than Syracuse Sarragosa.” Unfortunately, some of his purchased Champagne turned out “thick and ropy.”

The period during which Hill and Brydges had intensive contact with the continent required them to enter into relationships with a cosmopolitan array of characters, including many exiles and expats. This was a liminal realm resembling a border town milieu full of eclectic, sometimes quixotic cosmopolitanism. It produced broad taste in wine. Brydges’ extensive correspondence includes mentions of not only “champagne, burgundy or Hermitage” but also “a hogshead of Laverdie”; “the best old hock that is”; “a hogshead of the best Banabar”, “‘tis extraordinary wine”;  and Calcavella, “[a] very good, rich white.” Notably, however,  fine Bordeaux claret and Champagne appear most prominently in Hill’s and Brydges’ purchases.

Although Brydges fulfilled a critical role in the British government and served as an MP, he almost totally disregarded restrictions on importing French wine, including purchasing large quantities, either smuggled or entered using falsified customs declarations. He also, partially out of necessity, transacted with the enemy, including French and Jacobite traders who could facilitate international credit when he needed it to care for British prisoners and others abroad.

The 1714 Warrant Books

This brings me to a curious note in the British Warrant Books in December 1714, the same year Brydges ascended to the tile of the Earl of Carnarvon. Tracing eighteenth century wine purchases can sometimes lead to peculiar discoveries. There was a request for a “Treasury warrant to the South Sea Company to permit James, Earl of Carnarvon, late Paymaster of the Forces Abroad, to transfer 640l. of South Sea Stock standing in his name for the use of the public to Col. Clement Nevill in discharge of three bills of exchange drawn by him when in Spain on James Brydges, now the said Earl.”

Why is this intriguing? First, because of Brydges’ investment in the South Sea Company, which would, in 1720, become the source of the disastrous South Sea Bubble, one of the two first examples of disastrous stock speculation in history. The other was the Mississippi Company, known as “The Scheme,” of John Law (1671-1729), which occurred simultaneously on the French side of the channel.

Second, because in 1714 Brydges asked to be reimbursed by the British government for £640, a considerable sum, for amounts purportedly spent “for the subsistence of the prisoners there,” that is, supposedly, in Spain. Third, because of the people involved in this complex transaction: “viz. one bill dated 2 March 1713 payable to Robert Gordon or order £100; one bill dated 3 March 1713 payable to Sir Richard Cantillon £290; and one bill dated 4 April 1713 payable to Isaac Lenoix.” Mr. Lenoix is hard to trace, and his surname may have been Lenoir or Lenois. “Isaac” hints that he might have formed part of the large Portuguese Jewish finance community in Bordeaux, which lent to the wine trade, but maybe not. Notably, the Lenoir surname also appears in Champagne. Robert Gordon and Richard Cantillon, by contrast, are easy to identify if one knows about Brydges’ penchant for French wine.

Robert Gordon (d. 1737) of Esslemont and Hallhead, Aberdeen, had by 1714 built an empire trading in Bordeaux wines. He has settled in Bordeaux in 1705, where he joined a coterie of expat traders including Thomas Walsh and John Black. Robert displayed large portraits of King James Stuart III and Queen Clementina in his Chartrons offices, leaving little doubt regarding his political persuasion to anyone he did business with.

Richard Cantillon could have been the “Chevalier” Cantillon, a Paris banker; but more likely in 1714 this was Richard Cantillon (late 1680s-1734), the younger genius who gave birth to modern economic theory with his 1730 Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général and redefined the meaning of “entrepreneur” for succeeding centuries. He traded in French wine throughout his life. The two Richards were cousins from Ireland, both naturalised as French citizens. The Cantillon family had numerous members, including in the wine trade at the British Factory in Cadiz. Another was Daniel Arthur, Richard’s uncle, who controlled a third of the wealth of Ireland and lent money to King James III. Richard Cantillon’s biographer refers to a Cantillon “mafia” mostly engaged in trade and credit transactions, progenitor of modern international banking. Like Gordon, they were all Jacobites, helping finance efforts at violent regime change at the Palace of St. James in London.

Thus, Paymaster General Brydges had some strange bedfellows. Notably, Richard Hill’s son Thomas would show up working for Cantillon and in the company of both Daniel Arthur’s son, also Daniel, and John Law in 1720 Paris, just before the stock crashes of Law’s System and the South Sea Company. He tried to convince his father to invest, but ultimately gave in to his father’s wise counsel to avoid speculation.

James Brydges’ Celebration Wine and His Majesty’s Treasury

This leads to the kicker: When Brydges became the Earl of Carnarvon in 1714, he celebrated by ordering six hogsheads of fine Bordeaux claret, two of Bourgogne, and two of Champagne from Richard Cantillon in Bordeaux, as well as six hogsheads of “the best Bordeaux” and one of white Langon from Thomas Walsh. Walsh and Cantillon both formed part of the close circle of expat négociants in Chartrons, alongside Robert Gordon. These traders often cooperated, supplying wines when a neighbour might be out of stock. The Scots-Irish John Black, for instance, wrote of “the remarkable benevolence the Scottish people reciprocally shew each other of the principle they so firmly & generally adhere to, of preferably promoting their Countrymen’s Interests.”

So, the same year Brydges made huge purchases of French wine from Bordeaux he also suddenly remembered £640 he was owed by the British Treasury from early 1713. What’s more, the bills were from négociants in France, not Spain, particularly Bordeaux and possibly Champagne. And £649 divided by 17 hogsheads of wine comes to about £38 per hogshead, a reasonable amount for this amount of quality wine in 1714.

Brydges would go on to lose a lot of money in the South Sea Bubble, while in contrast Richard Cantillon became independently wealthy by conducting perspicacious trades in both Mississippi Company and South Sea Company shares. Both continued with their love of wine. When Cantillon purportedly died in 1734 he was a “wine merchant” on Albemarle Street, London. Authorities concluded he was murdered in bed and his house set ablaze. Another theory is he faked his death and absconded to South America with his wealth, but that’s another story.

In the age of Brexit’s reverberating impact on the British wine scene, it’s intriguing to look back at this earlier epoch. Hill’s meticulous record-keeping and adherence to accountability stand in stark contrast to Brydges’ opulent tastes and dubious financial dealings. The web of relationships invites us to ponder the intricate interplay between personal preferences, political power and the alluring world of fine wine that defined an era where borders blurred, alliances shifted, and taste transcended numerous boundaries.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash 

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