Wed 20 Jan 2016
Lipton Tea, in the distinctive yellow and red box, is instantly recognisable in 180 countries throughout the world but the man behind the brand, Sir Thomas J Lipton, is much less so. His was a life that was worth remembering, that should be recognised for his shrewd entrepreneurial streak that made him millions, his publicity stunts, his hob-nobbing with royalty, his many challenges for the America’s Cup and his generous philanthropy.
Lipton was a man that never smoked or drank, nor did he ever settle down and marry. He never gambled his vast wealth in casinos or at the track, yet he took enormous commercial chances. In total keeping with his unusual life, until his forties he was a man that was virtually friendless and had no discernible hobbies, often taking to sleeping under his own counter rather than go home. Later in life he was to enter society as ‘one of the most eligible bachelors in the world’ and would go on to become a close (and discreet) friend of King Edward VII. After travelling the world, and making his fortune, he chose to put down roots in Southgate where he stayed for 50 years. Although you may not have been aware, you have very likely frequently passed by his home on Chase Side, in a mansion known as Osidge.
His parents fled the Irish potato famine of 1847, leaving County Down for the tough slums of Glasgow. Thomas Senior, with his wife Frances, set up a tiny grocery store selling fresh provisions shipped from friends with a farm in Ireland. Tommy, as he was known, left school at 13 and helped out in the family shop. Glasgow was a busy port, as well as a ship building city, and a boy growing up on the Clyde would have heard sailors tell tales about far away places. Throughout his young life, Tommy would have seen waves of desperate migrants set sail for a better life in the 'New World'. Clearly this had a strong effect upon him because, turning his hand to several jobs, Tommy quickly amassed five pounds and purchased a ticket on the 'SS Caledonia' bound for New York.
Despite the many attractions of New York, on arrival he decided to head south to Virginia where he found hard, physical work as a farm labourer. Not for the first time in his long life, his timing was good because the Civil War, coupled with the abolishment of slavery, had combined to cause labour shortages on the plantations. Moving on to work at a South Carolina rice plantation, his literacy and rudimentary book keeping skills gained him a clerk’s position before he eventually returned to New York 3 years later.
In New York, Tommy was to place his foot on a significant rung of the ladder to his success when he landed a job in a Scottish department store. The owner, A.T Stewart, had found commercial success through his compulsive, competitive drive, rigorous staff discipline and attention to detail; qualities that would inspire the young Lipton. Four years after leaving his home town, with $500 in his pocket (a large sum then) and the bushy moustache that would soon make him instantly recognisable, he returned to his parents in Glasgow determined to become a merchant showman – and a millionaire!
In 1871 on his 23rd birthday, and with his mother’s blessing, he opened up his first shop selling quality groceries in a classier suburb of Glasgow than his parent’s shop. Always with an eye to a good news story, Tommy told the local papers that it was his ‘coming of age’ (21st) birthday!
Lipton showed a genius for promotion and later in his career would refer to himself – in the style of a circus performer – as ‘The Great Lipton’. Over twenty years he built a fleet of shops; every month his business grew larger and his workload remained undiminished. But the source of his encouragement, his beloved and devoted mother, was aging and eventually died at the age of 80 in the autumn of 1889. When in the following spring his father also died Tommy was advised to take a holiday. He complied and booked a passage to Australia. History shows however that he had other plans than to take a restful vacation – he had sent an aide ahead to sound out commercial prospects in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he broke his voyage.
What he discovered in Ceylon was to change his company, his life, and certainly the history of tea. Ceylon exported tea to Great Britain, agricultural land prices were still depressed from the coffee crash and Tommy had gone on “vacation” with £75,000 to invest. With his usual vigour and applying his sharp business acumen, Sir Thomas re-organised the plantations and introduced innovative cable car systems to transport leaves, increasing production efficiency. At the time, UK tea prices were exorbitant – it was a drink for the rich. Thomas Lipton changed all that, cutting out the middlemen to sell tea at a lower rate. Instead of arriving in crates, loose tea was now packaged at multiple weight options. The product was standardised, so you always knew you could trust Lipton for a perfect cuppa. Later, Lipton was the first brand to sell tea leaves in tea bags. This was a revolution which meant that, finally, you didn’t need to be a big spender to get your hands on great tea. His innovations built a brand that has stood the test of time, an iconic name that globally outsells all others (in countries other than the UK where, ironically, it is not available).
In 1892, without his parents to tie him back to Glasgow, Thomas Lipton came to live in Southgate in a mansion known as ‘Osidge’. From here he had a direct telephone line to his office in City Road (the first private line in the village). By 1895 the boy from the Glasgow slums had achieved much. Now aged 46 he was a millionaire, lived on a sixty acre estate in Southgate, had opened extensive London offices in City Road, had a chain of grocery shops across Britain, had businesses and properties in America and owned tea and rubber estates in Ceylon. The Lipton empire had reached its pinnacle.
In 1896 Tommy read an open letter in ‘The Times’ from Princess Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, to the Lord Mayor of London, pleading for commemoration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee not by the erection of yet another statue but by helping “the poorest of the poor in the slums of London”. Thomas Lipton made a decision that was to change his life – he took up his pen and wrote a cheque for £25,000 (equivalent to two million pounds today) – handing it to the Lord Mayor on the sole condition that it remained an anonymous donation. The press went wild and after ten days, when the hunt was at its height, Lipton allowed the Lord Mayor to release his name. He became an instant celebrity and, while having shown no discernible previous interest in royalty, he had earned the deep and sincere gratitude of the wife of the future King of England. Lipton went on to work with Queen Alexandra to set up the Alexandra Trust which provided meals to London’s poor.
Lipton was later knighted by Queen Victoria and became Sir Thomas in 1898. That year he also took his private company public as Thomas J. Lipton, Ltd. though he retained personal control of his American company. At the same time he switched his attentions elsewhere and undertook his most romantic quest: he issued a challenge to the New York Yacht Club for the America's Cup, yachting's most prestigious prize. A keen yachtsman, Lipton first challenged for the America's Cup in 1899 with his yacht ‘Shamrock’. He made five attempts to win the Cup without succeeding. However, he earned a reputation as "the world's best loser” and was presented with a gold cup by the people of America for his good sportsmanship in 1930.
Sir Thomas died at home in Southgate from a respiratory infection in the summer of 1931 just eight months after receiving the golden cup from his American admirers. Generous to the end, he bequeathed ‘Osidge’, his London home of fifty years, to be used as a retirement home for nurses. The remains of his fortune – almost a million pounds – he donated to the sick and poor of Glasgow.
For a more detailed history of Sir Thomas Lipton's life I highly recommend you pop the kettle on, make yourself a cup of tea, and visit this fascinating blog
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