He was born at Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire to parents Henry and Elizabeth Gilbey. His father, the owner (and frequently the driver) of the daily coach between Bishop's Stortford and London, died when he was eleven years old, and young Gilbey was shortly afterwards placed in the office of an estate agent at Tring, subsequently obtaining a clerkship in a firm of parliamentary agents in London.
On the outbreak of the Crimean War, Walter Gilbey and his younger brother, Alfred, volunteered for civilian service at the front, and were employed at a convalescent hospital on the Dardanelles. Returning to London on the declaration of peace, Walter and Alfred Gilbey, on the advice of their eldest brother Henry Gilbey who was a wholesale wine-merchant, they started in the retail wine and spirits trade, such as the local London style gin.
Imported wine business
The heavy duty then levied by the British government on French, Portuguese and Spanish wines was prohibitive of a sale among the English middle classes, and especially lower middle classes, whose usual alcoholic beverage was accordingly beer. Henry Gilbey was of opinion that these classes would gladly drink wine if they could get it at a moderate price, and by his advice Walter and Alfred determined to push the sales of colonial, and particularly of Cape, wines, on which the duty was comparatively light. Backed by capital obtained through Henry Gilbey, they accordingly opened in 1857 a small retail business in a basement in Oxford Street, London.
Growth and distribution
The Cape wines proved popular, and within three years the brothers had 20,000 customers on their books. The creation of the off-licence system by William Ewart Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1860, followed by the large reduction in the duty on French wines effected by the commercial treaty between England and France in 1861, revolutionized their trade and laid the foundation of their fortunes.
Three provincial grocers, who had been granted the new off-licence, applied to be appointed the Gilbeys agents in their respective districts, and many similar applications followed. These were granted, and before very long a leading local grocer was acting as the firm's agents in every district in England.
The grocer who dealt in the Gilbeys wines and spirits was not allowed to sell those of any other firm, and the Gilbeys in return handed over to him all their existing customers in his district. This arrangement was of mutual advantage, and the Gilbeys' business increased so rapidly that, in 1864, Henry Gilbey abandoned his own undertaking to join his brothers. In 1867 the three brothers secured the old Pantheon theatre and concert hall in Oxford Street for their headquarters. In 1875, the firm purchased a large claret-producing estate in Medoc, on the banks of the Gironde, and became also the proprietors of two large whisky-distilleries in Scotland. In 1893 the business was converted, for family reasons, into a private limited liability company, of which Walter Gilbey, who in the same year was created a baronet, was chairman.
Horse breeding and agriculture
Sir Walter Gilbey also became well known as a breeder of shire horses, and he did much to improve the breed of English horses (other than race-horses) generally, and wrote extensively on the subject, including the encyclopedic Animal Painters of England From the Year 1650: A brief history of their lives and works. He became president of the Shire Horse Society, of the Hackney Horse Society, and of the Hunters' Improvement Society, and he was the founder and chairman of the London Cart Horse Parade Society. He was also a practical agriculturist, and president of the Royal Agricultural Society. He was appointed a deputy lieutenant of Essex in 1906.
- The Great Horse, or The War Horse: from the time of the Roman Invasion till its development into the Shire Horse. (London: Vinton & Co. 1899)
- Animal Painters of England From the Year 1650: A brief history of their lives and works (London: Vinton & Co. 1900)
- Ponies, Past and Present (London: Vinton & Co. 1900)
- Early Carriages and Roads (London: Vinton & Co. 1903)
- Modern Carriages (London: Vinton & Coo. 1905)
- George Morland: His life and works (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907) 
- SodaStream the water-carbonating apparatus devised by a family member in 1903
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). . Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 11–12.
- Sir Walter Gilbey, Animal Painters of England From the Year 1650: A brief history of their lives and works, London: Vinton & Co., 1900. At Archive.org Accessed 13 February 2009
- "No. 27924". The London Gazette. 22 June 1906. p. 4307.
- Sir Walter Gilbey, George Morland: His life and works, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907. At Archive.org Accessed 18 September 2014
|Baronetage of the United Kingdom|
|New title|| Baronet
(of Elsenham Hall)
Henry Walter Gilbey