Three women over three centuries


To celebrate International Women’s Day, we wanted to share the stories of three significant women in our history. Each one has played a huge part in forming the Berry Bros. & Rudd we see today. Here, Alexandra Gray de Walden introduces them.  

With the word “Bros.” in our company name, people are often surprised to discover that our history starts, in fact, with a woman. While very little is known about the Widow Bourne, she was clearly important enough for her reputation to outlive that of her husband (unusual for the period) and the inevitable passing of time. What we do know, however, is we have her to thank for the founding of what is today “Berry Bros. & Rudd”.

Our business is Bourne

From the early 1500s, Whitehall Palace had been the primary residence of the British monarch until it was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1698. It is no coincidence that this is the same year the Widow Bourne opened her shop at No.3 St James’s Street. The Royal Court moved from the wreckage of Whitehall to St James’s Palace that same year, bringing the great and the good of London society, the affluent and aspirational.

While not trading the wines and spirits we offer today, the Widow Bourne was certainly in the business of trading goods from far-flung shores at her Italian Grocers. Foreign spices, tea from the distant lands of Asia, snuff and most importantly, coffee were all on sale at No.3 St James’s Street. The fashion for this new beverage had seen swathes of coffee houses opening in the St James’s area. Here, businessmen would meet to make deals and share the news of the day. Indeed, the humble newspaper has its origins in these coffee houses. Weighing scales at No.3 were employed to measure customers’ coffee purchases and before too long, the shop sign hanging above No.3 St James’s Street was a picture of a coffee mill. An unofficial, alternative address for No.3 has been “At the sign of the coffee mill” ever since.

So little is known of the Widow Bourne that we don’t even know when she died. Her hugely successful business outlived her and was inherited by her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, William Pickering.

Ethel takes the chair

Fast forward over 200 years and another woman is making her mark on the history of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

In 1949, then Chair of Berry Bros. & Rudd, Major Hugh Rudd died at the age of 66 and his wife, Ethel, stepped up to the plate, becoming Non-Executive Chair. The Second World War had been hard for Hugh and Ethel – not only had they shouldered the business through the conflict, but their son Brian was killed in action in Italy at only 20 years old.

Ethel knew what was required when she became Chair at the age of 63. The international conflict came with an unusual set of challenges for the new lady at the top.

Not only did rationing continue in England for another nine years after the end of the war but the business had no wine stock. German occupation of Europe made export impossible, so existing stock was all the Berrys and Rudds had to offer. Our Cutty Sark Scots whisky, so beloved by customers in the USA, couldn’t make it overseas either – much to the delight of American soldiers stationed in London who could, once again, get hold of it – as our sales ledgers confirm.

While having a healthy work/life balance is a common topic in the 21st century it was not so for Ethel. The relentless bombing of London made the city an unsafe place to be. After No.3 St James’s Street was damaged by bomb-related fire in 1943, the company’s export office moved to Ethel and Hugh’s home in the countryside – along with several Berry Bros. & Rudd employees.

“It really was a question of survival”, says Lizzy Rudd, our current Chair and Ethel’s proud granddaughter. “I remember her always being very calm. She was firm but fair. She will have held a steady hand on the tiller.”

Ethel’s steady hand remained at the tiller, in the role of Non-Executive Chair, until she was 79.

Ethel Rudd

A very busy Lizzy

Ethel’s granddaughter Lizzy joined Berry Bros. & Rudd in the 1980s, working first in the marketing team for the Cutty Sark whisky. She briefly left the company to concentrate on family and was then appointed to the Board as a Non-Executive Director before becoming Deputy Chair in 2005. Less than 60 years after her grandmother, Lizzy became Chair of Berry Bros. & Rudd in 2017.

It was under Lizzy’s stewardship that the world was plunged into the confusion and panic of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns and dangers.

“It was quite frightening to begin with,” Lizzy says of those uncertain days in 2020. “I remember being very worried about the safety of our colleagues, but I very much drew on my grandmother’s strength at that time.”   

I have heard others in the wine and spirits industry say the secret to Berry Bros. & Rudd’s longevity is its forward glance – always steering the ship ahead, not merely harking back to its illustrious history. This is one of many reasons why Lizzy is so committed to the company’s environmental sustainability and that of its business actions. Berry Bros. & Rudd’s first Sustainability Report was published in 2021 and Lizzy has firmly cemented sustainability and positive impact as two of the company’s core values.

At the time of writing, Berry Bros. & Rudd is in its 326th year of trading at No.3 St James’s Street and has women in the roles of Chair, CEO, CFO, CTO and CCO.   

What can the women of Berry Bros. & Rudd’s future learn from the Widow Bourne and Ethel Rudd? “To be confident”, says Lizzy. “If we put our minds to it, we can all take the plunge and swim.”

Lizzy Rudd