Courts the Wine Merchants 140 Snargate St
The following article details the history of Courts the Wine Merchants, a Snargate Street Dover wine shop dating from the late eighteenth century. Initially owned by Stephen Court, who was born in Acrise in 1761, the premises underwent a number of changes in the 250 plus years since then.
In 1788 Stephen Court took over The Fleece pub, based in Snargate Street.
According to his later advertising, Court began his business of importing wine and spirits in 1807, although the lease of his Snargate Street premises, with Dover Harbour Board, did not begin until 1814. Stephen's three sons joined him as wine merchants, but two of them do not feature in records post 1814. It appears that Stephen's son Rogers was the only son who continued to manage the business with his father.
Records do sugges that the wine merchants business may have been run by Stephen's son John initially. The Holdens Directory of 1816 lists only John as a wine merchant, although this is evidently incorrect as John had died on the 18 April 1813, aged twenty-seven. Evidence suggests that Stephen, still running The Fleece pub, may have directly taken over the business and moved it to 140 Snargate Street following John's death.
As well as leasing the shop and premises from Dover Harbour Board, the Courts' leased two plots of land behind, from Thomas Rutley and Thomas Papillon. On this land Stephen and Rogers built terracing for vines, tea gardens, two summerhouses and dug an extensive network of vaults into the cliffs behind. These vaults had plastered and painted walls and chalk carvings.
The terracing up the cliffs was laid out as gardens, in which the Courts grew all the different varieties of the grapes they used to make the wines they sold. The Courts also sold other exotic fruit, including figs and dates.
Perhaps most impressively, the Courts built a summerhouse at the top of the terracing and further along the cliff-face they built a folly in the shape of Dover Castle. These features became tourist attractions; customers could taste-test products sitting on the terracing and have tours of the vaults.
Stephen retired in 1827 and passed his business leases on to Rogers who continued to expand the Wine Merchants business.
Following Stephen's death, Rogers purchased the Papillon land in 1833. Rogers son, also named Stephen, later purchased the Rutley land was bought in 1850. Rogers son Stephen was a town councillor and was made Alderman in 1838. He married Nancy Gilbee at Dover in 1813 and following her death he married in 1826 to Eliza Payn, daughter of Anthony Payn, the proprietor of the York Hotel.
Following Rogers death, his estate was left to Stephen and to Stephen's son, Henry Payn Court, who had been working in the business since 1848
Following Henry's early death in 1851, the business passed entirely to Stephen. Stephen and his wife Frances moved to the manor house Archers Court, located at Whitfield. Stephen continued to expand his business empire and by his death in 1857 he owned or leased the following properties:
- The Sceptre Inn
- The Mail Packet Inn
- The Burlington Inn
- The Elephant & Castle Inn (Charlton)
- The Hope Inn
- The Rose Inn (late Paris Tap)
- The Royal Exchange
- The Bell Inn
- The Robin Hood Inn
- 2 Wellington Terrace (Charlton)
- 3 Market St.
- 137 Snargate St
- 142 Snargate St
- 44 Limekiln St,
- As well as parcels of property in Seven Star Street, Commercial Quay and Trevanion Street. The rents from these properties alone brought him an income of several hundred pounds.
Stephen's widow Elizabeth inherited the business. It was run by her husband's youngest brother, Percy Simpson, who lived over the shop. In 1873 Elizabeth officially assigned the Wine Merchants business to Percy Simpson Court and her stepson, Stephen Court junior. The two men became co-partners, after which the business traded as Court & Co. Ltd.
Stephen had little to do with the business and seemed to have been a 'black-sheep': he was not entrusted with his fathers business. Records suggest he fled his wife to live in Cherbourg with his housekeeper Harriet Morris, where he died in 1879.
Percy, meanwhile, impressively expanded the business, opening a retail wine shop at 12 Bench Street, keeping the offices and bonded warehouses at Snargate Street.
Percy was a Colonel in the Cinque Port Artillery Volunteers, a borough magistrate and a town councillor from 1865. He was made Alderman in 1874 and was Mayor in 1875 and 1877. None of his surviving children joined Percy in the Wine Merchants business. Consequently the entire business was sold in 1896 to J.W. Bashford. Soon after the business was closed and 12 Bench Street was sold to a milliner.
Following this sale, 140 Snargate Street was leased out as apartments, whilst the shop, yard and vaults behind seem to have been used informally for storage.
During the First World War the caves were converted to air raid shelters. After the War the premises were in use by the Channel Fuel Company coal merchants, but were empty again by 1930.
By 1945, the house had gone, either it was either demolished through war damage during the Second World War or it was deliberately removed in 1939. During the war, the caves were once again converted into an air raid shelter.
Post-1945, the shop and yard in front of the caves were taken over as a builders yard by R. J. Barwicks of Market Street. Barwicks left in the 1970s and the site was usually left empty or occasionally rented by short-life businesses.
A new building was erected on the site in 1997, the Bluebirds Cub (Dover Sea Angling Club) and the vaults still survive in the cliffs behind, leased out as storage by the angling club. The vaults still retain traces of the plastering and painting, as well as the carvings and decorations and the wine bins. The terracing up the cliff face also survives, though nown it is largely overgrown. Interestingly wild grapes, figs and other exotics still grow there. The terrace summerhouse has long gone but the folly still survives, partially ruined and hidden from view by trees.
Court entries in Dover Freeman Rolls;
- Stephen, Victualler, by purchase 17 April 1789
- John, Gent, by Freehold 26 August 1808
- Rogers Stephen, Brandy Merchant, by Apprenticeship 3 October 1812
- Stephen, Wine Merchant, Son of Rogers Stephen, 22 July 1842
- Henry Payne, Wine Merchant, Son of Rogers Stephen, 17 July 1848
- Percy Simpson, Wine Merchant, Son of Rogers Stephen, 30 July 1863
- Stephen, Wine Merchant, Son of Stephen, 30 July 1872
- Ernest, Wine Merchant, Son of Stephen, 29 July 1878