Charbonnel et Walker: Sweet Rivalry

The Charbonnel et Walker shop at the Old Bond Street end of The Royal Arcade.  Photograph © William Ellis-Rees 2018

The prestigious chocolatiers Charbonnel et Walker have been in business since 1875; now their flagship shop can be found at One, The Royal Arcade — the end that opens on to Old Bond Street end.  But who were Charbonnel and Walker?  A quick look on the company’s website will tell you that the founders — Mademoiselle Charbonnel and Mrs Walker — were encouraged by the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to set up shop.  I haven’t been able to find out exactly what form Bertie’s encouragement consisted of, but instead have found a story of cross-channel rivalry, court cases and an unfortunate accident that could have seen the end of this famous brand.

Virginie Eugenie Charbonnel was probably born in France.  Minnie (officially Mary Ann) Walker was born in Sainte Helier in Jersey in 1851, the daughter of a cabinet maker.  Virginie worked for Maison Boissier, a well-known chocolate house at 7 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, rising to the position of forewoman.  Perhaps they both did, for by 1875 they had set up business together at Clarendon Mansion at 169 New Bond Street in London as “Charbonnel et Walker Parisian Confectioners and Bon-Bon Makers.  Ex-Premieres de la Maison Boissier”.

Monsieur Robineau, owner of Maison Boissier, was not happy with former employees setting themselves up on the strength of his trade name.  In 1875 he took them to court, claiming customers would think that Charbonnel and Walker were agents for Maison Boissier, and would injure his business.  The court found against him, giving the reason that their shop was in England, and that the chance of people sending to Paris for chocolates was very small.

An advertisement in The Morning Post in December 1876 reads:

The Celebrated House of
Mesdlles. Charbonnel et Walker,
Ex 1res De La
Maison Boissier de Paris,
Beg to inform the nobility and gentry that they have just
received from Paris a choice selection of elegant boxes and
fancy articles of every description for Christmas and
New Year presents.
Parisian sweets, chocolates, marron glacés made
on the premises.
5, Clarendon-Mansions, New Bond-Street, W.

Following the advertisement is a disclaimer from a no doubt peeved Monsieur Robineau, saying that he has no London depot or agent and is no way connected to the confectioners at Clarendon Mansions.

Postcard from 1912.

In November 1877 Virginie married a Mr Samuel Arthur Levy in London, and less than six months later the partnership was dissolved, as the Levys intended to return to Paris.  It was agreed that the premises, stock and goods would be sold to whichever of the two partners made the highest bid.  Miss Walker continued to trade under the name “Charbonnel et Walker”.

The Levys opened a confectioner’s shop at 34 Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris called Charbonnel et Cie. Virginie decided she was not happy with her name being used for the London chocolatier — somewhat ironically in view of the Maison Boissier court case — and Monsieur Levy took legal action on his wife’s behalf to try and stop it.  Like Monsieur Robineau he was unsuccessful, the court ruling that it was not unreasonable for Minnie to continue to trade as “Charbonnel et Walker”, given that she had bought the goodwill and that Virginie’s shop was in Paris.

Minnie did not have to endure the legal challenge on her own, as she married Albert Alphandery, a French confectioner and native of Marseilles, at St George’s Hanover Square.  Minnie was 37 and Albert 31.

The 1881 census taken on Sunday the 3rd of April shows Albert and Minnie living at 173 New Bond Street.  Albert is described as a French confectioner aged thirty-five.  Living with them are Minnie’s sister, Jane Arthur, and six confectionary assistants, three from France and three from England.  They also have two general servants.  Whoever gave the census information made both Minnie and Jane somewhat younger than they actually were: Jane was said to be an optimistic seventeen when she was in fact thirty-six, and Minnie was thirty rather than her real age of thirty-nine!  Although her younger brother William Albert is not named in the census, it is likely that he also worked with them.

Basket of spun sugar with bon bons.  Image in Mrs Beeton‘s Book of Household Management (1915) between pages 1696 and 1697.

In the autumn of 1881 the Alphanderys are in Jersey — perhaps on holiday or visiting family.  Leaving St Helier on foot at 10 o’clock one night, Albert was walking on the side road so as not to step on the tar macadam, when he tripped on a stone and fractured his right leg at the ankle.  Minnie helped him along for a few yards, but he lost consciousness.  They were only rescued when a carriage came along the road.  Albert remained bed-ridden in Jersey for eight weeks, unable to return to London until mid-January, there to be treated by a number of doctors and surgeons.  Their “extensive and important pastry cook business” (as noted in court documents) suffered so much in his absence that Albert started proceedings against the Constable of St Saviour’s parish, stating that the road was unsafe and asking for £1000 damages — approximately £85,000 in today’s money.  How unsafe the road was became clear when, as a consequence of the accident, Albert died on the 18th of June of 1882 at his residence at 173 New Bond Street.  He was only thirty-three.  The cause of death is given as “phlitis”, probably a misspelling of “phthisis”, which usually signifies consumption or some wasting disease.  He was buried in Jersey on the 24th of June.  Minnie tried to continue with the proceeding, but it was dismissed because she was not the injured party: it was a personal injury case.

Interestingly, Minnie appears in the newspapers around the time of Albert’s burial on Jersey,  fêted as a heroine.  Walking with her mother-in-law, Prospère Alphandery, she came upon a poor French woman about to give birth in a field.  Minnie got her medical help and gave her money.  The child was baptised Marguerite Albertine Le Cocq in honour of Minnie, who was asked to be her godmother.

Cacao (Theobroma cacao L.): fruiting and flowering branch with separate numbered sections of flowers, fruit and seed.  Chromolithograph by Pieter De Pannemaeker, c.1885, after Berthe van Nooten. Hoola. Credit: Wellcome Collection  CC BY

Minnie did not long survive Albert, and died of brain fever on the 8th of June 1883 at Hillside in St Clement, Jersey. The probate record shows that she left the significant sum of £12,081 2s 5d — over a million pounds in today’s money.  Sadly, a few weeks later her younger brother William, also a confectioner, died at 172 New Bond Street.

Despite this string of tragedies, the business continued.  In 1895 Charles Eyre Pascoe wrote in London of To-Day: An Illustrated Handbook of the Season:

Charbonnel et Walker (173, New Bond Street) ranks high among the places where ladies go to eat creams, cakes, and ices, and sip coffee, chocolate and liqueurs.  Indeed, theirs would seem to take the place of “Gunter’s” of bygone times.  The salon of Messrs Charbonnel and Walker is a favourite resort of ladies of the fashionable world who find that time hangs a little heavily on their hands, or who fancy that they need something in the nature of light refreshment between the luncheon and dinner hours.


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