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Summer Travels I: In Lipton's hometown

by Niraj Lama September 04, 2013 0 Comments

Gorbals, my friend from Glasgow, pointed out is a rough part of the city. I was very surprised to hear that. Because 165 year ago Thomas Lipton was born in those very slums and it seems relatively, not much had changed.

I looked out of the train window. It was pouring outside. The train was approaching Glasgow Central and was now passing through Gorbals. On either side of the train blocks of what you would call urban blight stretched in the greyness of the day. It was hard to believe Lipton began his life here. It was also incredible that none of the Glaswegians I met knew that.


 Passing over river Clyde with Gorbals passing behind us.


I was here in Scotland to attend a friend’s wedding. The wedding itself took place in Reading, the bride’s hometown, in a Quaker style. For those of you who have not attended a Quaker wedding, it is a singularly simple affair. Almost spartan, if I were to look at it from my Indian background. No minister, no music, no fanfare just an hour-long session of meditation and with people occasionally sharing thoughts in few words as and when “moved by the spirit.”

After the wedding, we boarded the train to Glasgow where the groom’s family lived and where the reception was to be held. Amidst the wedding revelry, I tried to glean as much of Lipton I could in Glasgow but there was not much to be had. Firstly, we were there for just a few days, and secondly travelling with two kids under 6 years - when you have to plan bathroom breaks every hour - reins in the adventure.

 Glasgow Central

Although we the loose leaf enthusiasts bag Lipton a lot, excuse the crude pun, Sir Thomas J Lipton led an incredible life, as I had discovered upon reading a biography of him sometime ago. From being born in a Glasgow slum to becoming a knighted business tycoon, and also unknown to many, an accomplished yachtsman who vied several times for America’s Cup, his life was extraordinary.  


Indeed, as a teen Lipton did land up in the US and worked as a farm hand in Virginia while living in the slave quarters. On his third visit to New York City he got his dream job, working for a department store. This experience perhaps set the trajectory for Lipton’s growth.

 At Tchai-ovna, a tea cafe near Glasgow University's main campus.


After a few years Lipton returned home - an unlikely route for new immigrants then - where his parents had a “wee butter and ham shop” in Gorbals. But Lipton had a plan. With the money he had saved and enthusiasm based on his recent experience, Lipton turned around his family’s small grocery store. Harnessing the power of advertisement and other marketing stunts - which he had learnt in the US - Lipton’s store not only took off but before long an expansion which was later to stride the globe began in earnest. By the start of 1880 there were nearly 20 “Lipton Markets” across various cities of Scotland and was poised to enter England.

 Enjoying Dragonwell at Tchai-ovna. I should have asked for Lipton!


Lipton as a chain-grocery store, where they imported geese and cheese from North America besides other items, was already an established business before they included tea in their portfolio. It is a question if Lipton at that point - around 1880 - knew how historic this decision would be. He had visited his competitors “Honest” John Horinman and Mazawattee Tea and agents and brokers in Mincing Lane and was astonished at the profits they earned.


 Unrelated, but his bus sign in Scotland made Happy Earth chuckle!


Some of them already in the tea business were wary of Lipton’s interest in tea, rightly fearing that the astute businessman who always aimed big could shake up the trade, adversely for them. They tried to dissuade him with one friendly broker pointing out, “You don’t know one tenth of the difficulties and dangers of the tea trade.”


But once Lipton had made up his mind, the juggernaut rolled. Consistent with his business practice he tried to consolidate his supply chain. In 1890 he sailed to Ceylon where he had heard of tea gardens being offered for sale at a bargain. He had already sent trusted scouts in advance. At the end of the trip he paid around 25,000 pounds for 5000 acres of tea plantation that came along with 3000 workers. The gardens he had bought were Dambetenne, Laymostotte and Monerakande all in the Haputale area in the southern part of the island.

 Lipton had a whole pavilion built by Sinhalese workers he brought from Ceylon at the Exposition. It was a huge stunt that he successfully pulled off.  


By securing supplies and expanding it systematically Lipton’s tea empire grew exponentially. He also worked hard to open up the US market - which was averse to tea consumption and worse still a presence of very poor quality tea in the market. Lipton felt that if he offered decent tea to the Americans they would take to it. His initial task was to teach the Americans to like his tea, he said. He did that with “yellow label” a strong but smooth tea that stood up to milk and sugar like coffee. The bright packaging, low price and consistent quality made the product a success. Soon Lipton opened an office and warehouse in Manhattan at the corner of Franklin and Hudson streets.

 Sir Thomas Johnstone Lipton. He included the initial "J" later more as an affectation it is believed. Ordinary Scots rarely used middle initials.   


To learn more about Lipton's life you may check out "A Full Cup" by Michael D'Antonio. It is the book I had read, although it does extensively focus on his quest for America's Cup as well.

Next installment on Summer Travel will be my trip to Darjeeling which was roiling in political turbulence.  

Niraj Lama
Niraj Lama


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