Cork's Merchant Princes

Cork City takes pride in its Merchant Princes, a cadre of influential, monied, Anglo-Irish businessmen who built the trading and industrial backbone of the city in the 18th. Century.

 

They included importers of timber, coal, steel and other essential raw materials as well as exporters of Irish butter, bacon and grain. Many of these families continued to trade for four and five generations with names like Sutton, Crawford, Musgrave and Nicholson still prominent in local commerce.

 Woodford Bourne, which traces its origins back to 1750, was Cork’s most influential wine importer for more than a century and its story has now been lovingly recorded by David Nicholson, a fourth generation family member who was a key figure in the sale of the company’s wholesale wine and spirits business to Wardell Roberts in 1988.

 Woodford Bourne was originally a grocery company founded in 1838 by John Woodford and managed by James Bourne. It built up a strong trade with local gentry, professionals and the British army supplying loose leaf tea and coffee beans. It suffered a decline during the Famine Years 1845-1850 during which John Woodford died from fever contracted while helping famine victims. Following a decent interval James Bourne married the widow of his former boss and the company was named Woodford Bourne in 1850. A Royal Warrant to supply the naval base at Haulbowline further boosted business and the company appointed a former Postmaster General of Cork, James Adams Nicholson from Maidenhead, to manage the business. James Bourne and the former Mrs. Woodford retired to England in the 1860s, leaving James Nicholson to run the company which he did with considerable aplomb.

 The wine connection was made in 1869 when Richard Sainthill, who ran a Cork wine importers called Maziere and Sainthill died,  leaving the equivalent of €630,000 and an instruction that the business should be sold to Woodford Bourne if his heirs did not wish to continue its operation. They didn’t- so Woodford Bourne went into the wine and spirits business.

 The Mazieres were Huguenots who settled in Cork in 1750 (the date claimed for the foundation of the business). Peter Maziere began by bottling porter at Falconer’s Lane and then began importing brandy, marsala and port. He was also involved in shipping and other ventures. He built up the wine and spirits business in a Cork city that had a thriving population of more than 100,000 with no shortage of wealth. Richard Sainthill, from Devon, joined in the early 1820s and took over when Peter Maziere died in 1824. Shortly afterwards he became friendly with James Adams Nicholson.

 

The Nicholsons developed the business through four generations, building bonded warehouses and shops and acquiring agencies for a wide range of wines and spirits. James Adams was succeeded by Frederick Norman and then James Frederick. They established a reputation for stocking and distributing Irish whiskies and were the preferred supplier to generations of Cork families and businesses, operating from a landmark building at the corner of Grand Parade and Patrick Street. Ups and Downs included the loss of Government contracts (1921), purchase of the famous Oyster Tavern in Cork (1943), equity and ownership difficulties within the family (1930s), closure of the Limerick shop (1946), purchase and later closure of the Brazenhead bar and grill in Limerick (1950s), catering contract with Bunratty Castle (1960), opening of a new cash and carry warehouse in Cork (1966), joining of Irish Vintners (‘early 70s), opening of Reardons pub in Cork (1974),achieving No 2 spot in Irish wine market (after Gilbeys) in 1978, involvement in C and C (up to 1980), leaving Irish Vintners (1980), opening Mandys fast food restaurants in Dublin (1980s), opening James Adams Vintners in Dublin (1985) and selling the wholesale wine and spirits  business to Wardell Roberts (1988).

 

 

David Nicholson’s book (written with Philip Mackeown) is a loving account of a family business, crammed with interesting details of the wine, spirits, beer and grocery trades, which will be of immense nostalgic interest to industry  veterans and an informative resource on the heritage of the drinks industry to ‘The Pope’s Children’.

 

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