Tommy Lipton: The Tea Tycoon
In the United Kingdom, the name Lipton is synonymous with tea. It became that way because of the marketing genius of one man who started life in the mean streets of Glasgow’s Gorbals neighbourhood.
The Early Years
Tommy Lipton’s parents had moved from Ireland to Scotland by the time the lad was born in 1850. His father had a small grocery shop and, by the age of 10, Tommy was working in the business. One of his tasks was to pick up food from ships docked in the River Clyde.
The stories of the sailors intrigued him and, at 15, he signed on as a cabin boy. He saved his meagre income until he had enough to buy a ticket for America. He had a variety of jobs but working in a department store in New York City had a profound influence on him.
The store was on Broadway and was owned by Alexander Turney Stewart, a man of Irish/Scots descent. At the time, the A.T. Stewart & Company store was the biggest in the world and it introduced a new type of retailing.
Stewart's idea was to set a firm, low price for the dry goods he was selling, overturning the traditional, until then, system of haggling over charges.
Back to Glasgow
Still in his early 20s, Tommy Lipton returned to Glasgow and opened Lipton’s Market.
Laurence Brady is director of the Sir Thomas Lipton Foundation. He told the BBC how Tommy gave Glaswegians an entirely new shopping experience.
“He has his sales assistants there in bright white aprons. He has rows of hams, rows of cheeses.
“His shop is very brightly lit. It’s spotlessly clean - and behind the counter you have Mr Charm himself. Anyone walking in, it’s ‘let me show you these offers we have, how affordable they are.’ ”
It was an instant success and soon Lipton stores were opening up in other parts of central Scotland. He started buying direct from farmers, cutting out the middle man and his mark-up.
The fame of his business was such that he put up billboards announcing “Lipton’s is coming” in towns where he planned to open a store. The opening itself might be accompanied by a parade of live pigs down High Street.
The Big Cheese
Tommy Lipton was always coming up with promotional gimmicks.
Just before Christmas 1881 an unusual cargo arrived at Glasgow Docks aboard a steamer from America. It was the world’s biggest cheese.
The monster had a circumference of 14 feet and it was two feet thick. A steam-belching traction engine was brought in to haul the gigantic cheddar to Lipton’s store. Burly employees got it through the door and into the shop window.
Crowds came to view what was, by now, known a Jumbo, the product of 800 cows.
Then, came Tommy Lipton’s crowning achievement. Just before the holiday, a white-suited Tommy started cutting the giant cheese into portions for sale. When customers learned that a large number of gold sovereigns had been hidden in the wheel they scrambled to buy a slice. Police had to be called to control the crowd.
The Christmas cheese promotion became an annual tradition at Lipton stores across Britain.
The King of Tea
The middle classes of the Victoria era had taken to drinking tea with gusto. Employing his strategy of cutting out middle men Tommy took off to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and bought his first tea plantation.
In the late 19th century, tea could be of questionable quality. Because he had control of the entire supply chain, Lipton ran around his competitors by offering a consistently good quality product at a reasonable price.
He became the toast of society, albeit in tea, and was soon mixing with the A-list of aristocrats and celebrity in London.
The Americas Cup
There’s something about tycoonery that makes the ultra rich want to dabble in sport. Today, it’s ownership of major sports franchises. In Tommy’s day they didn’t exist so he went in for sailing.
Tommy Lipton yearned to win the Americas Cup, the absolute pinnacle of yacht racing. Getting into this league costs a lot of money just as buying Manchester United or the New England Patriots would.
Lipton’s yacht was beaten in the 1899 challenge, but the publicity value was huge. He failed again in 1901 and 1903. He made two more attempts to win the trophy but was unsuccessful.
Writing for the BBC, Calum Watson comments that “The good grace with which he accepted defeat earned him goodwill and admiration across America.” The actor Will Rogers started a campaign to raise money to buy him a golden replica of the Americas Cup.
It was presented to Lipton in 1930 by the Mayor of New York City.
Tommy Lipton died the following year, and his funeral in Glasgow attracted massive crowds.
Queen Victoria was known to attack her meals with particular ferocity. In 1887, Tommy Lipton offered the queen a five-ton cheese, which she declined. Was it the size and the hint she might devour it very quickly? History does not record whether Her Majesty was amused or not. But, there were no hard feelings, at least not from Tommy, the acerbic Victoria might have been a different matter. The tea magnate donated £25,000 (more than two million pounds in today’s money) to help the queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 go off with due pomp and circumstance. He was awarded a knighthood the next year.
One of the requirements of challenging for the Americas Cup was membership in a top quality yachting club. So, Tommy Lipton applied to become a member of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron. However, the pooh-bahs that ran that august outfit said no. “Gad zooks Ponsonby, can’t have someone in trade in the club; it would lower the whole tone of the place.” So, Lipton joined the Royal Ulster Yacht Club instead.
- “Alexander Turney Stewart.” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 8, 2018.
- “The Tea Tycoon Who Was ‘the World’s Best Loser.’ ” Calum Watson, BBC Scotland News, September 23, 2018.
- “Sir Thomas Lipton 1850-1931.” Mitchell Library, undated.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Rupert Taylor