El Vino, Fleet Street - History and Facts | History Hit

El Vino, Fleet Street

London, England

Tristan Parker

20 Sep 2021
Image Credit: Fred Romero / CC

About El Vino, Fleet Street

A historic wine bar in London, England, El Vino is located on a street famous for its former status as the heart of London’s newspaper and journalism industry. The Fleet Street bar is one of several El Vino branches across London.

History of El Vino, Fleet Street

The El Vino company was founded in 1879, when it was known as Bower and Co, named after its founder, Alfred Louis Bower. The first bar was opened on Mark Lane in what is now London’s financial district, known as the City of London or the Square Mile. Alfred Bower had been working as a wine merchant on Mark Lane, where he set up a tasting room that evolved into a wine bar, the first El Vino.

A further four El Vinos were opened across London’s centrally located West End and the adjoining Square Mile, including the Fleet Street branch, which was formerly occupied by a hall of mirrors.

Bower’s operations were made easier by his status as a Free Vintner, a title granted by the Worshipful Company of Vintners (an ancient trade association in the City of London), meaning that no licence was needed to sell wine. However, he was forced to make changes to the business when he attempted to run for Lord Mayor of London – a title which means Mayor of the City of London, notably separate to the Mayor of London.

To run for Lord Mayor, Bower needed to stop trading under his own name in the City of London, so in 1923 the business was renamed El Vino, which was already the registered name of the company’s sherry brand. Bower succeeded in his quest and became Lord Mayor of London between 1924-1925.

El Vino continued to trade successfully under Alfred Bower’s nephew, Francis, who introduced a house rule: never sell a wine that isn’t ready to drink. Two branches of El Vino, at Gutter Lane (near St Paul’s Cathedral) and Swallow Street (in Piccadilly) were hit by bombs and destroyed during the Blitz in World War Two.

In its heyday, the Fleet Street branch of El Vino was a hub for journalists and editors – due to its location near numerous newspaper offices – as well as other writers and lawyers working in the area.

One famous regular was British author Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond series, who visited the bar while working as a stockbroker, first for Cull & Co, then for Rowe & Pitman, both in the Square Mile. Later, from 1964-1975, Fleming also had a writing office nearby in Mitre Court, a small road running just off Fleet Street. It’s thought that Fleming would usually visit the bar during lunchtimes, before its notoriously rowdy evening atmosphere took hold.

For many years, El Vino was also notorious for banning women from the serving bar, thereby forcing them to sit in the venue’s back room and rely on table service. The bar’s bizarre justification was that this rule helped to uphold “old-fashioned ideas of chivalry”. Astoundingly, the ban stayed in-place until 1982, when journalist Anna Coote and lawyer Tess Gill won a case against El Vino in the Court of Appeal.

The ban was subsequently lifted, on grounds of it being potentially harmful to female journalists’ careers if they risked not “picking up the gossip of the day” at the bar.

El Vino, Fleet Street today

One of Frank Bower’s nephews, Christopher Mitchell, became the sole managing director in 1979, running El Vino until it was purchased in 2015 by Davy’s Wine Merchants, another family-run London wine business operating since 1870. Today, there are five branches of El Vino operating in London, including the Fleet Street branch.

Getting to El Vino, Fleet Street

The bar is in a busy area of London, a few minutes from rail stations (including City Thameslink and Blackfriars), tube stations (including Blackfriars and Temple) and bus stops. It is also well-located for London sightseeing, as many famous attractions like St Paul’s Cathedral and Somerset House are nearby.

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