A champagne thief with a generous nature

I have to admit that I enjoy a glass of fizz from time to time. My preference was always for champagne rather than prosecco but in recent years I’ve been really impressed by the quality of English sparkling wine prosecuted in Kent and elsewhere. I had thought this was a new thing; an unexpected beneficiary of global warming. How wrong I was.

In June 1860 John Henry Piper was presented at Bow Street Police Court accused of stealing 24 bottles of ‘British champagne’. Piper was described as ‘elderly’ and ‘respectable looking’ and worked as a foreman at Batchelor’s wine merchants in Queen Street, Cheapside. He looked after the cellars at 139 Drury Lane where the wine was made and bottled. Piper was paid 1s per dozen bottles ‘in lieu of a salary’.

Mr Batchelor , a young man of 27 years, suspected that some of his stock was ‘being clandestinely removed’ and employed a former City of London police officer to keep watch. The old PC (John Storey) saw Piper emerge from the cellar with two bottles of champagne, one under each arm. He followed him to Lincoln’s Inn Fields where he ‘accosted two ladies’ and then gave them one of his prizes. When the coast was clear Storey questioned the women who could give no explanation for Piper’s generosity.

Storey now brought in the police and he accompanied a constable from F Division to 43 Alfred Street in Islington, where the prisoner lived. There they found two dozen bottles of wine which Piper claimed were his own. In addition there were ‘also some larger bottles or jars containing a mixture which the prosecutor, after tasting it, appeared unable to describe, except that there was a taste of “sherry” in it’.

In court the ‘ladies’ also appeared to give evidence. One stated she was the wife of a ‘photographic artist’, and told the court that he had approached them in the park and asked if ‘they would object to drink his health’. She asked him what was in the bottles and he replied. ‘Champagne’. She thanked him and said they her friend was suffering with toothache ‘which they thought it might cure’ and so were grateful to him. They’d never seen him before and had no idea who he was.

In his defence the prisoner admitted to experimenting with drink to try and create ‘an entirely new wine’ and that was why he had taken the bottles. He was recommended to mercy by his employer and jailed for six weeks.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 25, 1860]

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