Nicholsons Distillery, a brief history

Nicholsons’ Distillery

The former gin distillery of J. & W. Nicholson & Co. Ltd is one of Clerkenwell’s most important industrial monuments and with its long street frontage, also one of the largest. The façade partly dating from 1828 but mainly of later nineteenth-century date is now its most significant feature, for the works themselves closed in the late 1950s and in the late 1990s the complex was partially rebuilt and converted into apartments (St Paul’s Square).

History and development

The founders of the gin-making business, John and William Nicholson, were of Cumberland yeoman farming stock, and came into the trade through their cousin John Bowman, who by 1800 was established as a distiller and wine and brandy merchant in Coppice Row. The Nicholsons joined him there about 1802, and for a few years the firm went by the name Bowman & Nicholson. About 1808-9, the Nicholsons set up on their own account as distillers in Woodbridge Street, approximately on the site now occupied by Woodbridge Chapel.

By 1826, just prior to the rebuilding of the Seckford Estate, the Nicholsons’ premises had expanded to include a large warehouse and stabling in Woodbridge Street, and a large house in St John Street, on the later distillery site. Much of the old works had to be pulled down for the Seckford estate redevelopment, and in 1828 a substantial new building for distilling, warehousing and office use was erected on St John Street. In time, Nicholsons’ Distillery came to occupy the greater part of the block bounded by St John Street, Sekforde Street and Hayward’s Place, its expansion pre-empting the erection of a number of houses and involving the demolition of others. In 1833-4 Nicholsons built a new warehouse on Woodbridge Street, and a few years later acquired more land alongside the street for their works, putting up the present ‘substantial decorative’ boundary wall in 1838-9.6

By 1848 the White Horse public house in St John Street had been converted into a warehouse for Nicholsons, and in 1849-50 their stables (at the rear of houses in Hayward’s Place) were rebuilt on a larger scale, with a 3ft-deep iron tank on top, holding forty to fifty thousand gallons of water. The basement of the stable block survives.

Considerable expansion and rebuilding took place folowing the purchase of the freehold of the site from the Seckford Charity. New offices were built in 1873-4 and extended in 1882-3 (the present Nos 191-7 St John Street, see below). Meanwhile, the original 1828 range adjoining was extended to the north, almost doubling it in length. The St John Street frontage was completed by the construction of Nos 187 and 189 in the 1890s, at the southern end of the site.

Nicholsons remained a family business until after the Second World War. By that time, although the main product was their long-standing ‘London Dry’ gin, the firm were also whisky blenders, rum importers, and wine merchants. Following the absorption of Nicholsons into the Ind Coope brewing group the whole of the Clerkenwell premises were put up for sale in 1961. Photographs taken at the time of the sale show unremarkable, anonymous industrial interiors. Thereafter the buildings were occupied mainly by firms in the meat trade.

The present buildings

In 1997-8 the former distillery was extensively redeveloped as residential apartments by Bellway Homes North London under the collective name St Paul’s Square. The architects for the scheme were Clague of Canterbury and Ashford, and the main contractor was Keir London Ltd. The St John Street frontage has been left essentially intact, and the 1838-9 rear boundary wall has also been preserved, but the central part of the site has been opened up to make two garden areas, with two blocks of apartments crossing the site from east to west. The buildings are divided into four groups, Farringdon, St John, Stirling and Woodbridge Courts, and together comprise 85 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, with underground car parking. The principal surviving historic fabric is described briefly below.

Leaving aside an infill building at the north end of the site, part of the Bellway development, the St John Street frontage of the former distillery is made up of three linked blocks, numbered 187-189, 191-197 and 199-205 St John Street. The northernmost block, Nos 199-205, was built in two phases: the first, comprising the seven southern bays, was carried out in 1828 by Messrs Webb, to the design of John Blyth. Modifications were made to the design of the original building during its construction, including the addition of another storey. The other six bays, in similar style, were added in 1875-6 by the architect George Low, of Basinghall Street. The later extension is not a precise match, for the bays and windows are slightly wider than in the old part, and the basement openings are considerably wider and have camber-arches, with keystones, rather than flat heads. The entire block is constructed of yellow brick with stone and stucco dressings. Together with the 1990s infill building, it now comprises St John Court.

The tall range at Nos 191-197 was also built in two phases. The northern half, with the wider central bay containing the archway, was erected in 1873-4 as offices. Low was the architect here too, the building contractor George Dines of Pimlico.16 The rest of the building followed in 1882-3, in the same style but overseen by different architects, Crickmay & Son, of Westminster and Weymouth, and executed by a different builder, W. Bangs of Bow Road. This second phase was essentially the rebuilding of two old houses used by Nicholsons as a wine warehouse, one of them the former White Horse public house. The ground floor of this extension was fitted up as an office and sample room; the upper floors were used for domestic purposes, with bedrooms on the two top floors. The whole building is of yellow brick with stone dressings.

At the rear of the Crickmay & Son’s building were the stables of 1849-50, of which the basement still exists. The brick-arched floor above is carried on cast-iron columns of cruciform section. The upper part of the building has been largely or entirely rebuilt and now comprises apartments in Stirling Court.

Finally, the southernmost block (Nos 187-189) was added, probably in 1894.18 This building, which incorporates a passageway through to Hayward’s Place, is of yellow and white brick and stone dressings, with a grey granite ashlar facing to the ground floor; the mansard floor was added as part of the Bellway development. It was evidently designed to match closely the now-demolished wine vaults built along the north side of Hayward’s Place following the acquisition and demolition of the houses there by Nicholsons in 1882. This and the preceding block now comprise Farringdon Court.

At the back of the distillery site, fronting Woodbridge Street, the boundary wall erected in 1838-9 was also designed by the Nicholsons’ surveyor John Blyth. There was originally a chevaux de frise along the top. It now forms the outer wall of apartments in Woodbridge Court, part of the St Paul’s Square development, and has been preserved intact, without any window openings cut in.

Architecturally, the most important part of the frontage is the northern range at Nos 199-205, which clearly belongs to the monumental functional tradition epitomized by the great dock warehouses of the early nineteenth century. The cornice and pediment of the original part were formerly emblazoned with ‘NICHOLSONS’ DISTILLERY’ the date 1828 in relief lettering. This was lost when the upper part of the front was rebuilt in 1961, prior to the sale by Ind Coope. (Blyth’s Woodbridge Street wall, by contrast, is designed in a rather lighter vein, to blend with the debased Grecian style of the neighbouring terraces.) The later St John Street buildings are fairly staid examples of mid and late Victorian commercial architecture, though the central range is made comparatively imposing by its tall rusticated basement and ground-floor front and high gateway into the main part of the old works.

Nicholsons’ Distillery The former gin distillery of J. & W. Nicholson & Co. Ltd is one of Clerkenwell’s most important industrial monuments and with its long street frontage, also one...