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The Taylor Family Distillery, King’s Road, Chelsea in the 19th and 20th centuries

In 2010 Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson bought the seven-bedroom property now known as Shawfield House, on the corner of Shawfield Street and the King’s Road, Chelsea. Current interest in this building stems from it being the oldest industrial facility at this location, with a long history of prestigious gin and liquor making carried out by members of the Taylor family from around 1770 until the early 20th century. This article focuses on James Taylor, a perfume distiller by trade, and his son Humphrey Taylor and grandson Edward James Taylor, who were additionally distillers and rectifiers.

Two Taylor Family Distilling Businesses by the King’s Road, Chelsea

Fig. 1. Glazed earthenware spirit container, marked H. Taylor & Co. Distillers (probably mid-19th century).

According to the date stamped on their later bottles (Fig. 1) and labels, the Taylor distillery for alcoholic beverages was established in 1770, a date that is also cited by online sources. However, this date is not confirmed by documentary evidence in the public domain. A more plausible conclusion is that it was only the perfume distillery which was founded at that date, not the alcohol rectifying distillery.

From the Post Office Directory of 1817 (Fig. 2) it is clear that the Taylor family had two distinct businesses very close by in the same area – ‘Taylor & Son, Perfumer distillers’, which was probably founded in 1770, and ‘H. Taylor & Co., Distillers and Rectifiers’ which was probably founded by Humphrey Taylor around 1813.

Fig. 2. 1817 Post Office Directory for London shows the dual Taylor interests (H. Taylor & Co., distillers and rectifiers, and Taylor & Son, perfume-distillers). At this date, Shawfield Street had not been built, so the address for the distillery and rectifying business was necessarily given as King’s Road, Chelsea.

Location of the Shawfield Street Distillery, Chelsea

The first Taylor perfume distillery was small, and so may have been in the house and retail premises of the nearby 121 King’s Road, on the west side of the Commercial Tavern in front of Little’s Nursery, rather than in the leased garden land at the rear of 127 King’s Road (where the spirits distillery on the west side of Shawfield Street would be developed later). If so, the two buildings seen in the Greenwood map (Fig. 3) would have been for rectifying and storage, respectively.  

Part of C & J Greenwood's Map of London surveyed 1824, 1825, 1826, showing future Shawfield Street running south from King's Road, Chelsea
Fig. 3. Part of the C. & J. Greenwood map of London surveyed 1824/25/26. To the north, a short cul de sac (coloured yellow the future Shawfield Street) runs south from the King’s Road. Two detached  distillery buildings (marked in red) are shown on the west side. The cul de sac connects to a path through Queen’s Terrace North (which may be formal gardens for the distillery). Overall, much land is still unbuilt at this date.

James Taylor, Perfumer

To date, no information has been found about the birth date and parentage of the first documented perfumer, James Taylor, Sr., who died in 1806. It is also not known whether it was James Taylor, Sr., or an as yet unidentified relative, who first established the Taylor & Son retail perfumery (probably in 1770) at 121 King’s Road, Chelsea and later a perfume distillery and manufactory.  

These perfumery businesses were not capital intensive but would have needed some skills. The founder might have had a background as an apothecary, since perfume distillers were not under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Distillers.

In his Will of 1805, James Taylor, Sr. described himself only as a ‘perfume distiller’ and made it clear that he was the father of brothers Humphrey Taylor (1792–1847) and James Taylor (1796–1838). The baptism records for these sons, showed their mother (and the wife of James, Sr.) to be a Hannah (surname unknown). She could have been Hannah Walker, who married a James Taylor in September 1792 at St George’s Hanover Square, London; Hannah Ivey, who married a James Taylor at St Mary’s Marylebone in May 1769; or even Hannah Asha, who had banns proclaimed with a James Taylor at Hounslow in 1764.

Crucially, it has not been possible to connect James Taylor Sr. with either the Humphry [sic] Taylor, ‘gentleman of Little Chelsea’ (who died in 1791), or to the latter’s grandson (another Humphrey Taylor). In the older Humphry Taylor’s Will there was no mention of a James Taylor, or of property in the King’s Road, Chelsea.

Fig. 4. The Universal British Directory for Chelsea, 1791 (part 1, p. 755). James Taylor is listed as a ‘perfumer’ and not as a distiller.

Distilling for Perfumes

Fig. 5. Advertisement from the Morning Herald, 15 July 1837.

Though both involve a still, there are significant differences between distilling for perfumes and for rectifying alcoholic spirits. The latter process will be considered below.

The main method used to extract the essential perfume oils from the botanical source would likely have been steam distilling (still a key method in use for making high-quality products). The rose petals, lavender or elder flowers were placed on a tray suspended above the water in a small copper still (perhaps of 10 gallons capacity or less). The water was then heated to create steam, which passed through the flowers, extracting the essential perfume oil.

This steam was then diverted downwards through a condensing coil or ‘worm’ in a container cooled by water. Small drops of the essential oil would appear on the surface of the distillate and would be decanted. The fluid bulk of the residue would then be distilled again to yield rose water (or lavender water). This distillation might take several hours.

In the flowering season, Taylor and Son’s perfume distillation was open to the public and, according to an advertisement from 1837 (Fig. 5), took place on alternate days (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), giving time for the still to be cleaned and more fresh blooms to be picked. At that date they were also advertising themselves as ‘Distillers to the Royal Family’ in respect of their perfume distillery.  

Manufacturing perfume from flowers is an essentially seasonal process. Rose petals are particularly delicate and need to be grown locally so they can be processed quickly.

Fig. 6. Advertisement from the Morning Herald for 22 August 1850. Note that the flower waters have been produced during the last 70 years i.e. since 1780. A pint of rose water at 2s equates in RPI terms to c. £13 in 2021.

A later advertisement suggests Taylor & Son used Provence-type roses (Rosa centifolia). If the whole 1½ acre area of the future Shawfield Street was available for rose growing, then this might have supplied as much as 1,200 kg of rose petals over the month-long harvest. After distilling this could have given about 2,500 litres of rose water (containing c. 0.05% pure rose oil), as well as perhaps 400 ml of essential rose oil.  Lavender flowers are more robust than roses, and it is likely that Taylor’s used English lavender (Lavandula Angustifolia) acquired nearby – perhaps in Surrey.

The water available from the Chelsea Water Company was heavily contaminated before 1829 and was likely to have been unsuitable for perfume distilling. If so, James Taylor Sr. might have sourced barrels of clean water from nearby rural areas or distilled it clean on site.

When James Taylor Sr. died in 1806, he bequeathed his premises in the King’s Road including the perfume distillery, and in the Barbican, to his eldest son and heir, Humphrey Taylor. James’s widow, Hannah, then ran the business until Humphrey came of age in c. 1813.

Humphrey Taylor, Perfume Distiller and Rectifier 1792–1847

Fig. 7. An advertisement from the London Courier, 21 June 1825, when Humphrey Taylor was 33 years old. His son Edward was not born at this date.

According to the Parish Registers for Luke’s, Chelsea, Humphrey Taylor was baptised in 1792 (Fig. 8) and in September 1827 he married Mary Anne Sheppard (or Shepperd) (Fig. 9).

Fig. 8. Extract from the Parish Registers of St Luke’s, Chelsea for 1792, showing Humphry [sic] as one of the baptisms.
Fig. 9. Extract from the Parish Registers of St Luke’s, Chelsea, showing the marriage of Humphrey Taylor and Mary Anne Sheppard in 1827.

Humphrey would have been aged 48 at the time of the 1841 Census, which enumerated seven members of the Taylor family with two servants at the King’s Road distillery. It listed Humphrey and his wife Mary Anne Taylor, (née Sheppard) who claimed an age of 37, but was actually born in 1798 and died in 1877. Also part of the household was Humphrey’s sister-in-law Urania Taylor, aged 30 (also née Sheppard; 1808–1884), widow of Humphrey’s brother, James. The children were Humphrey and Mary Anne’s son Edward, aged 12 (1828–1903) and daughter Mary Anne, aged 10 (1830–1876), and Urania’s children James, aged nine (1831–1870) and Urania Agnes, aged eight (1833–1904).

As noted earlier, the available evidence suggests that only the Taylor perfume distillery business was founded in Chelsea around 1770. It therefore seems very likely that Humphrey Taylor was the founder of the business H. Taylor & Co. Distillers and Rectifiers, but the date cannot be confirmed.

Humphrey himself stated that he was a distiller and rectifier in 1813 (when he was 21 years of age) and the first published mention of rectifying was in the 1817 Post Office directory (see Fig. 2, above). (Despite this, fire insurance documents from as late as 1829 show Humphrey Taylor described solely as a perfume distiller.)

An advert of 1835 (Fig. 10) cited Humphrey Taylor & Co., rectifiers and liqueur and cordial merchants as ‘successors to Mr. de Joachim’, with no mention of 1770.  Louis Rene de Joachim, was listed as a distiller in Paddington Green in an 1810 directory, but he went bankrupt in that year. It supports the date of 1813 for the beginning of Humphrey Taylor’s rectifying business.

Fig. 10. Advertisement from Grace’s Guide Who’s Who in Business 1914.

Rectifying Alcohol in the 19th Century

It is not known whether the equipment needed for Taylor and Co.’s first alcohol distillery was new or second hand (perhaps acquired from the bankrupt de Joachim). A new rectifying distillery for spirits might cost a minimum of £20,000 to equip and require working capital in excess of £60,000.

Repeated distillation is known as rectification. Its primary objective is to concentrate alcohol from weaker aqueous solutions in the still. This relies on the fact that alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. So if the crude starting fluid (wine or beer) had say 10% alcohol by volume (ABV), then the first distillation would yield say 20% ABV, the second say 40% ABV, and so on until the desired strength was achieved (usually so called ‘neat’ spirit with 95.6% ABV but without taste).

Unlike perfume distilling, the rectifying of spirit involved much larger volumes of both the initial and end product. This needed bigger stills, more accessories and more space. By analogy with other rectifiers of the time, Humphrey Taylor might have had three pot stills – perhaps one of 600–1,200 gallons capacity, with two smaller stills say of around 150 and 250 gallons. These required larger amounts of water to cool the distillate. Clean water was also needed to dilute the final spirit for consumption as gin, for example. 

The spirit rectifier would have needed numerous large containers for storing fluids (before, during and after distillation), and one or more pumping engines to move the fluids. There would have been considerable lengths of pipework (colour-coded to assist inspectors from HM Excise) and numerous storage casks and bottles.

Unlike perfumed waters, strong alcohol above 40% ABV is flammable and provided a constant potential for fires. In terms of safety, it would make sense for the business to have a separate building for finished spirits, as indicated in the Greenwood map (Fig. 3).

Spirit rectifiers were subject to considerable, continuing and very burdensome surveillance from the Excise (to ensure payment of the heavy duties on alcohol).

Up until 1829, Humphrey would have faced the same problem as other distillers at that period – the very poor quality of the contaminated water pumped from the River Thames. It is not known whether Humphrey filtered the water on the premises or even distilled it to achieve potable water for diluting his strong spirits.

Two developments in and after 1829 would have had an impact on Humphrey Taylor’s rectifying business. First, it seems likely that he acquired at least one column still (also known as a Coffey still) allowing continuous operation and high yields of neat spirit. Second, the Chelsea Water Company began to supply sand-filtered water. This allowed the production of larger volumes of water-diluted spirits to be produced in the form of the company’s many alcoholic beverages, including dry gin, brandy and liqueurs.

Edward James Taylor 1828–1903

After Humphrey Taylor’s death in 1847, Mary Anne Taylor continued to run the two businesses at 121 King’s Road, Chelsea, until their only son, Edward James Taylor, came of age in 1849 or 1850. She was active in the business, particularly on the perfume side, and maintained the perfumery business. The 1851 and 1861 Censuses showed Edward living with his widowed mother, his aunt, Urania Taylor, his sister, Mary Anne Taylor, and Urania’s two children, James Taylor and Urania Agnes.

In an example of family closeness, in 1857 Mary Anne Taylor married James Christie (1838-1887), while in 1865 her cousin Urania Agnes Taylor married James Christie’s brother Albert Christie (1848-1912).  

The perfume business continued under Edward , whose perfumed soaps products and distilled perfumed waters were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Class 29. (The jury mentioned Brown-Windsor, almond, Otto of Rose and lavender soaps, as well as rose-water, elderflower water and spirituous perfumes.) 

The liqueur business flourished and became dominant under Edward Taylor’s direction, and the company’s British fruit liqueurs were also exhibited in Class 29 at the 1851 Great Exhibition, receiving a gold medal, and then a gold medal at the International Exhibition of 1862.

The Extension of the Distillery and the Role of 127 King’s Road, Chelsea

The 1865 Ordnance Survey (Fig. 11) shows the distillery premises had been enlarged and extended from the two detached buildings shown earlier in the Greenwood map of 1825 (Fig. 3.) There was now a larger complex of four discrete but mostly contiguous buildings with two small greenhouses (shown hatched in red, below). Immediately south of the distillery buildings was a formal garden with a fountain and paths, then three separate houses (one a pair of semis). Still further south (in the area of the future Redburn Street and Redesdale Street), the large nursery with many greenhouses may have been a local source of tender fruits for the distillery.

There is no evidence in street directories that 127 King’s Road was a retail shopfront for the distillery, though this would have been very convenient. Rather, a retail counter, trade counter and counting house for the distillery seem likely to have existed in buildings immediately behind the shop at 127 King’s Road. Indeed, Fig. 11 shows that in 1865 there was a narrow passage connecting the distillery to 127 King’s Road. This would possibly have provided pedestrian access to the distillery offices.

Fig. 11. From the Ordnance Survey map survey of 1865. Shawfield Street and Radnor Street are longer culs de sac. On the west side of Shawfield Street lies the distillery complex, with two small greenhouses, the distillery gardens, and then three houses (with Shawfield Lodge the most northerly). The east side is fully built up, with a detached house (Shawfield Cottage) and large garden to the north, then a row of 19 terraced houses.

Edward James Taylor –Later Life and Career

By 1867, Edward was a Freemason and a member of the Berkhampstead Lodge, no. 504, consecrated in 1845 and one of the oldest Lodges in the Masonic Province of Hertfordshire. In July 1871, Edward married Eliza Ann Richardson, whose father, Charles Richardson (1817–1890), was a wealthy and successful cement and brick merchant through his firm A. & W. T. Richardson Ltd. Sadly, Edward and Eliza Ann Taylor’s marriage was short – she died in July 1876 when their son Humphrey Richardson Taylor was three years old (perhaps following the birth of a short-lived daughter, Emily). 

By the 1870s, Mary Anne Taylor, Sr. was getting older, and was possibly in poor health, and Edward’s principal interest was in spirit rectification. The land of Shawfield Street was also more valuable for housing  than for plants. Mary Anne died in 1877, and by 1881 Gosnell Bros. & Co. had succeeded Taylor & Son at 121 King’s Road, as wholesale perfumers and perfume distillers by appointment to Queen Victoria.

The 1881 Census showed Edward, aged 52, was living in his imposing double-fronted detached freehold house, at 35 Carlyle Square, Chelsea. Edward was then a widower, with an only son, Humphrey, aged eight. Listed as visitors were his Aunt Urania and his cousin Urania Agnes with her husband, Albert Christie, together with two servants and a nurse. Edward described himself as a rectifier (as in 1871), employing six men.

In later life, Edward Taylor’s advice on distillation was sought world-wide. He was an early director of the prestigious Glenmorangie Distillery Company at Tain, Scotland, and had a potentially very profitable, but contentious, service agreement (which was upheld by the Scottish Court of Session in July 1896). This suggests Edward had sound commercial and investment instincts, as well as skills as a distiller.

Edward James Taylor of 35 Carlyle Square, Chelsea died on 20 September 1903 at St Leonard’s-on-Sea and was buried in Brompton Cemetery, Fulham Road. Probate was granted at London on 16 October to his son, Humphrey Richardson Taylor, distiller; Albert Christie (his cousin Urania’s husband), a corn factor; and to an accountant. His effects (after being re-sworn) were £104,907 9s 6d (equivalent to about £13,084,620 in 2021 money). The Carlyle Square house, the largest in the area, sold for £17.5 million in December 2014.

The Shawfield Street Distillery in the early 20th Century

Fig. 12. Extract from the 1893 Ordnance Survey map. The southern boundary of the distillery is opposite the boundary between 5 and 7 Shawfield Street. The small greenhouses seen in 1865 to the south are now incorporated into an otherwise unbuilt plot – this will become a new house, 2 Shawfield Street. The direct connection between the distillery and the shop at 127 King’s Road has been closed off.

Further consolidation at the distillery is apparent on the 1893 Ordnance Survey Map (Fig. 12). The earlier connection to the shop at 127 King’s Road has been closed off. The distillery now has a continuous east façade, with a gateway that has been retained in the present Shawfield House. At this date, the former distillery gardens have been built over. 

The distillery building in Shawfield Street continued with the Taylor family until September 1908, when they relocated their business to larger premises at the Bloomsbury Distillery, 45 New Oxford Street, with a factory in Ogle Street, Marylebone. Their former distillery in Shawfield Street was then leased to Buckley and Beach, pewterers, gas and electrical engineers.

By 1809, a new detached house with a frontage of 49 ft (the present 2 Shawfield Street) had been built on the site of the old greenhouses and some adjoining land. This was presumably commissioned by Arthur F. Beach, the gas and electrical engineer, with an 80-year lease (from 29 September 1908) from Humphrey Richardson Taylor. Beach and his wife and servant were enumerated at the house in the 1911 Census.


Fig. 13. Descendant chart for James Taylor, Snr. The origins of the earliest James are not known, though he married a Hannah (perhaps Hannah Walker) in 1792. Mary Anne and Urania Sheppard were sisters. Also, James and Albert Christie were brothers.


  1. This is an account of the Taylor family of perfumery and distilling entrepreneurs in 19th– and 20th–century Chelsea – father, son and grandson. Their main dates and connections are shown in a descendant tree chart in Fig. 13, above.
  2. The origins of the earliest member, James Taylor, Sr., are not known as yet. He (or a relation) first established Taylor & Son, as a retail perfumery at 121 King’s Road, Chelsea in 1770.  In his lifetime to 1806, James Taylor was only ever described as a perfumer or as a perfume distiller. It seems likely perfume distillation was carried out within this King’s Road building, and beyond Excise control. By 1825 an advertisement showed Taylor & Son had extensive distillation apparatus for lavender, rose and other perfumed waters. They would only have needed a small still to produce modest volumes of the different perfumed waters.
  3. James’s eldest son, Humphrey, continued the perfume business but then developed an additional initiative nearby, H. Taylor & Co., distillers and rectifiers. The earliest founding date of this distilling business would appear to be 1813 (when Humphrey attained his majority). Presumably, his company structure (though not incorporated) helped in raising capital.
  4. The Greenwood map of around 1825 showed two separate buildings behind 127 King’s Road.  These were probably used both for spirit distilling and for storage (under close supervision by the Excise), rather than for perfume distilling.
  5. Initially, alcohol distilling was unlikely to have been a major activity, not least because adequate and reliable supplies of clean piped water were not available until after 1829, when the supply from the River Thames was sand-filtered. Before 1829, it seems likely that to ensure quality, the water would have needed to be purified, perhaps by distillation, for adding to spirit in the manufacture of gin and strong liquors.
  6. Rectification resulted in concentrated alcohol (a.k.a. spirit) which was then used to make a range of prestigious alcoholic drinks, and which attracted Royal patronage in 1911.
  7. The spirit distillery would have needed more space and equipment than the perfume distillery. This arose from the need to have more and larger stills, to hold large volumes of alcohol source product and finished spirit, and also of the various diluted products for drinking. Large storage tanks and secure storage space would have been necessary. The distillery buildings increased in size over the 19th century. At its final size, the rectifying distillery complex (including the courtyard) occupied a footprint of some 132 ft x 70 ft (9,249 sq ft, or 859 sq metres), according to the 1910 Survey.