Champagne Charlie, the birth of celebrity sponsorship and branded entertainment

The mid-19th century in London was a time of extremes and change. The ascendancy of the British Empire meant that London’s wealth and importance grew, bringing with it all the amenities of a modernizing city. Dickensian poverty alongside Victorian luxury and leisure, the opening of the London Underground, and the founding of the Football Association.

When we think about the most famous leisure activities of Victorian-era London, we’re probably drawn to the city’s parks and museums, which still exist today. But it was the nightlife entertainment—and especially the raucous activities spilling from the city’s music halls, many of which have since disappeared—where we find the birthplace of two of today’s most pervasive media and cultural trends: celebrity sponsorship and branded entertainment.

Music halls emerged in London in the 1850s. At first, these were just large rooms built onto existing pubs, primarily in London’s East End. But demand quickly swelled, and by the early 1860s, purpose-built music halls dotted the city.

The music hall boom brought with it the rise of celebrity performers—like “Champagne Charlie” and “The Great Vance” —who embraced a signature character or song (more on that in a moment). Although you had to attend a performance to see the stars, print advertising existed in the form of sheet music. With illustrated covers of the music hall stars, the public was able to bring the songs home, thus extending the reach of these celebrity characters.

Around the same time, champagne—and more broadly, French wines—grew in popularity and prominence in Britain, driven by changes in social, economic, and political conditions.

William Gladstone, the future Prime Minister of Britain, reportedly drank a quart of champagne at lunch every day (when the drink was of a much sweeter variety). Gladstone hoped that “moderate consumption of a refreshing stimulant would help wean the British working class off their binge-drinking of gin,” and saw the advocacy of free trade as a means to elevate morals “by encouraging the working man to put quality before quantity.”*

With this in mind, he helped broker a trade agreement between Britain and France in 1860. Reductions in import fees led to a surge in consumption, from 547,000 gallons in 1859 to 4.5 million gallons per year by 1868, among a population of 30 million.

The importance of the London market for French wine producers was obvious, and two famous champagne brands took pioneering steps to capitalize.

In 1866, George Leybourne and Alfred Lee wrote the song “Champagne Charlie,” the popularity of which launched Leybourne’s stage career and his nickname. As Champagne Charlie, Leybourne wore a bow tie, tails, and top hat, and drank Moët from the bottle while singing about high society and women.

Leybourne immediately benefited from the success of this image: by 1868, London’s Canterbury Hall had commissioned Leybourne at an annual salary of £1,500—an extraordinary amount at the time—with the expectation that he would also play the role of champagne “swell” off stage: dressing fashionably, riding in a carriage drawn by four horses, while drinking only champagne.

The Champagne Charlie persona and song made Leybourne a music hall star, and his promotion of champagne was so successful that Moët and Chandon sponsored him, sending crates of champagne for him to drink in public to promote the brand. Indeed, his contract with the champagne house committed him to drink nothing else in public.

On the heels of this success, Veuve Clicquot sponsored Alfred Peck Stevens, “The Great Vance,” to compete with Leybourne. The Great Vance introduced the song Clicquot, Clicquot! That’s The Wine For Me and rode to his performances in a carriage with two cream-coloured ponies, driven by liveried grooms.

As their opulent transportation suggests, it wasn’t just the characters and celebrities that the brands were interested in being associated with; it was a lifestyle, too.

A rivalry quickly developed between Champagne Charlie and The Great Vance, and to further drive their brands into the market, the champagne houses leveraged this celebrity status.

The champagne brands became fully integrated into the music hall performances, almost like live commercials.

To illustrate, consider a typical Champagne Charlie stage performance. Throughout, he would carry and drink from a bottle of Moët, singing:

A noise all night, in bed all day, and swimming in Champagne
For Champagne Charlie is my name, Champagne Charlie is my name[…]
The way I gained my title’s by a hobby which I’ve got
Of never letting others pay, however long the shot
Whoever drinks at my expense are treated all the same.
From dukes and lords to cabmen down, I make them drink champagne.

There was a comic element to the songs, but they were also aspirational—celebrating a life of leisure, luxury, and indulgence. At the end of each line of the chorus, the crowd shouted “Yes!,” and at the end of the song the champagne bottle would explode.

Other lyrics explicitly celebrated his brand sponsor:

‘Some epicures like burgundy, hock, claret and moselle… But Moët’s vintage only satisfies this champagne swell.’

The Great Vance took on a similar public and stage persona, celebrating the Veuve Clicquot brand in song:

Clicquot! Clicquot! That’s the stuff to make you jolly,
Clicquot! Clicquot! Soon will banish melancholy,
Clicquot! Clicquot! Drinking other wine is folly.
Clicquot! Clicquot! That’s the drink for me

In 1869, Champagne Charlie introduced a new song—Moët and Shandon for me—extolling the virtues of his sponsor (and purposely spelled incorrectly in the Cockney style of music hall song):

Champagne Charlie was my name,
Champagne drinking gain’d my fame,
So as of old, when on the spree,
Moët and Shandons the wine for me

Music halls were the predecessors to film, TV, and now many other screens, while Champagne Charlie and The Great Vance were to 1860s London what Beyonce and Drake are to us today. Though Gladstone’s hope was that wine drinking would curtail the consumption of spirits, this plan backfired and consumption of all forms of alcohol increased.

And sadly, two of the era’s most recognizable celebrity drinkers fell victim to their lifestyle: Champagne Charlie died penniless in 1884 at the age of 42 from exhaustion and abscess of the liver. The Great Vance died on stage four years later from heart disease at the age of 48.

Today, both of those iconic brands are owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy and hold a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth II.

Hayley Andrew is a public historian working in exhibitions at the Aga Khan Museum. Kevin Keane is the CEO of Brainsights.

*Much of the research for this article is drawn from Jonathan Conlin’s Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London, and the Birth of the Modern City (2013). Other sources include: Leo A Loubère, The Red and the White: The History of Wine in France and Italy in the nineteenth century (1978) and Peter Bailey, Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (1998).

Photo credits: The V&A museum and Irish Sheet Music Archives.

David Brown