Probus ’83 December Zoom – Meeting Report

Until we get our promised shots in the arm we are having to meet virtually, courtesy of Zoom. On Thursday 3rd December twenty five of us gathered to listen (and watch) our own Neville Lyons give an excellent and very much enjoyed talk about Sir Thomas Lipton of tea fame. Lipton turned out to be a quite extraordinary character, progressing from the Glasgow’s Gorbals to billionaire businessman – a remarkable case study in entrepreneurship – while remaining a thoroughly decent person.

Here’s an account of Neville’s talk:

Sir Thomas Lipton: From Cabin Boy to Tea Tycoon to International Yachtsman

Lipton’s parents had been smallholders in Ireland but they moved to Glasgow in 1847 to escape the great Potato Famine, running a small grocery shop near the family tenement rooms in Glasgow’s Gorbals. Born in 1850 as the youngest of five children, “Tommy” rose to found a grocery empire, acquire extraordinary wealth, dine at the White House with President Roosevelt, become part of King Edward VII’s circle and contest the America’s Cup yacht races on five occasions. Yet this extraordinary man, who rose from poverty to becoming probably a billionaire in 2020 money, seems to have been a thoroughly decent, personally modest and much loved individual, long remembered for his sportsmanship and philanthropy.

Leaving school at 13 Tommy had various jobs before employment as a cabin boy on the Glasgow – Belfast run. Apart from giving him a life-long love of the sea, this allowed him to save enough money to buy a passage to America at the age of 15. There, helped by post-Civil War labour shortages, he initially found work on tobacco and rice plantations, where his limited education sufficed for employment as a bookkeeper, before moving to New York and retail – American style.Returning to Glasgow in 1870 with $500 savings young Tommy, overcoming father’s objections, reorganised his parents’ grocery store, turning round its fortunes, before setting up his own larger establishment at 101 Stobcross Street in time for his 21st birthday. It was a revolution: very clean, very brightly lit, with lengthy opening hours, eye-catching displays and merchandise arranged to attract the customer. He dealt directly with the farmer, shrewdly negotiating, cutting out the middle man, selling high quality produce at low prices, making his money with small margins but high volumes. This innovative approach made him an immediate success and, by 1888, his “empire” had grown to 300 stores, not only in Scotland, but nation-wide.

Tommy had immense charm, with Royalty and customers alike, and was a PR genius, pulling off stunts the like of which had never seen before, generating enormous publicity. Display and press advertisements were used to great affect but his cleverly devised stunts really caught the public imagination. Parades of pigs were driven through the streets and in 1881 a giant cheese – 14 feet in circumference and two feet thick, the World’s largest – was landed by a steamer from New York bound for Lipton’s Glasgow stores. Containing the milk from 800 cows and laced with gold sovereigns, the thing was a sensation, provoking a rush from a public eager for portions, hopeful of more than just cheese.

In 1890 Tommy visited Ceylon acquiring an interest in several tea plantations. Until then tea had been expensive, and, all too often, of variable quality. Using his usual methods, putting himself in control of his entire supply chain, by-passing the then traditional channels, he was soon offering his customers good quality teas at significantly lower prices, creating a whole new market with the rising middle classes: “Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot”. The Lipton tea brand remains today as a subsidiary of Unilever.

In 1897, Princess Alexandra, wife of the future Edward VII, launched an appeal to provide dinners for the London poor as a part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Launched at rather short notice, the fund was struggling. Tommy came to the rescue with a £25,000 donation – perhaps £2M at 2020 prices – placing him firmly in Royal favour, making himself one of Edward VIIs circle of friends. A knighthood came soon after, closely followed by a baronetcy.

Meanwhile the business continued to prosper and, in 1898, Tommy allowed his empire to become a public limited company, the scramble to buy shares requiring police presence to control the eager crowds in at least one location. He bought Osidge in Southgate, a grand house set in 60 acres, as his London residence. But life wasn’t all business. He owned a steam yacht Erin which was handed over to the Red Cross as a hospital ship in 1914. His love of the sea and strong American connections also led him to contest the America’s Cup yacht races on five occasions from 1899 to 1930, with yachts named Shamrock to Shamrock V, in honour of his Irish heritage, competing under the auspices of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club. He never won but his popularity in America was such that he was presented with a specially made cup by his hosts declaring him to be the “best of all losers”. His sporting interests weren’t merely nautical. In 1909 the English FA declined to enter a football tournament in Italy between prominent teams from Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Tommy stepped in to sponsor West Auckland FC, a Durham miners’ team, donating the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy for the competition winners. West Auckland duly triumphed and, by beating Juventus (!!) in the 1911 competition won the trophy outright.

Tommy was ever the ladies’ man, but never married. On his death in 1931 the majority of his fortune was bequeathed to the city of Glasgow.