Charbonnel et Walker:
Sweet Rivalry

AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 21 APRIL 2019

Photograph of the Charbonnel et Walker shop with flags and decorative plasterwork.
The Charbonnel et Walker shop at the Old Bond Street end of The Royal Arcade. © William Ellis-Rees

The prestigious chocolatiers Charbonnel et Walker have been in business since 1875. These days their flagship shop can be found at 1 The Royal Arcade, that is to say at the end that opens on to Old Bond Street. 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. Although I have not been able to find out exactly what form Bertie’s encouragement took, I have unearthed a story of cross-channel rivalry, court cases and an unfortunate accident that could have seen the end of this famous brand.

From Paris to London

Virginie Eugenie Charbonnel was probably born in France. Minnie Walker, who was 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. Quite possibly Minnie also worked there, 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-Premières 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 Virginie and Minnie to court, claiming customers would think that Charbonnel and Walker were agents for Maison Boissier, which would be detrimental to his business. The court found against him, giving as the reason the fact that their shop was in England. 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 in no way connected to the confectioners at Clarendon Mansions.

Old postcard.

From London to Paris

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. He was no more successful than Monsieur Robineau, with 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 and Albert

Now Minnie did not have to endure the legal challenge on her own, for she had married a French confectioner, a native of Marseilles by the name of Albert Alphandery. She was thirty-seven and he was thirty-one, and the wedding took place at St George’s Hanover Square. When the census was taken in 1881, they were living at 173 New Bond Street with Minnie’s sister, Jane Arthur, and six confectionary assistants, three from France and three from England. They also had 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 was not named in the census, it is likely that he also worked with them.

Drawing of a basket of chocolates with red bows and white flowers on its handle.
Basket of spun sugar with bon bons. Isabella Beeton Mrs Beeton‘s Book of Household Management 1915.

Albert’s accident …

In the autumn of 1881 the Alphanderys were in Jersey, on holiday, perhaps or visiting family. Leaving St Helier on foot at ten 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. Eventually, in the middle of January, he returned to London, there to be treated by a number of doctors and surgeons. What was described in official documents as their ‘extensive and important pastry cook business’ had suffered so much in his absence that Albert started proceedings against the Constable of St Saviour’s parish, stating that the road he had fallen on was unsafe. He asked for £1000 damages, a sum roughly equivalent to £85,000 in today’s money.

Drawing of a branch of the cacao plant with coloured leaves and pods.
A branch of Theobroma cacao. Pieter De Pannemaeker c.1885. Wellcome Collection.

… and death

Just how unsafe the road was became clear when Albert died on 18 June 1882 at his residence at 173 New Bond Street. He was only thirty-three, and his death from phthisis, which generally signifies consumption or some wasting disease, was a direct consequence of his accident. He was buried in Jersey on 24 June. Minnie tried to continue with the proceedings, but the case 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, fêted as a heroine for coming to the rescue of a poor French woman she had encountered when walking with her mother-in-law, Prospère Alphandery. The woman was about to give birth in a field, and Minnie arranged medical help for her and gave her money. The child was baptised Marguerite Albertine Le Cocq in honour of Minnie, who was asked to be her godmother.

Colour photograph of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates in yellow, green and pink boxes.
Display of Charbonnel et Walker confectionary. Wikimedia.

Au revoir Minnie

Minnie did not long survive Albert, dying of brain fever on 8 June 1883 at Hillside in St Clement in Jersey. The probate record shows that she left the significant sum of £12,081 2s. 5d., which would be over £1 million in today’s money. Sadly her younger brother, William, who was also a confectioner, died a few weeks later 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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