Thomas Lipton: The Gorbals boy who became world-famous tea tycoon

By David McLean

No matter where you are in the world, everyone knows the name Lipton. It's a name positively "steeped" in success.

Raking in millions every year as the largest tea producer on the planet, the Lipton brand is synonymous with the world's favourite aromatic brew - and its origins can all be traced back to just one Glasgow man born more than 170 years ago.

The son of Ulster immigrants, company founder Thomas Lipton (1848-1931) grew up in a four-room tenement at 10 Crown Street, in the Hutchesontown area of the Gorbals.

After leaving school, Lipton found work as a cabin boy aboard a steamer and was able to save up enough money for his passage to America, where he would spend the next five years.

In the US, the young Lipton worked as a farm labourer on tobacco and rice plantations across the Deep South, eventually making his way to New York, where he was employed at a successful grocery chain.

It was there in the Big Apple that Lipton would learn the tricks of the trade that would one day make him a millionaire.

Returning to Glasgow in 1869, and armed with all the latest retail, advertising and marketing techniques, Lipton opened his first store at 101 Stobcross Street in Anderston.

Within a decade, Lipton's business was doing so well, he had relocated to the High Street, and would go on to expand into towns and cities up and down the country.

The tea industry

With his grocery empire going great guns, Lipton turned his attention to tea, which, by the 1880s, was becoming extremely popular among Britain's middle classes, but remained mostly unaffordable for the common working man or woman.

Lipton made his way to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and acquired five tea plantations to make him a major player in the international market.

Owning his own tea gardens meant Lipton could cut out the middle man; he was able to pay growers generously high wages, while customers could receive a more affordable product. Watertight packaging also ensured Lipton's tea remained fresh wherever it was exported.

First to adopt the tea bag

The Glasgow trader was known for innovations. When American merchant Thomas Sullivan sent out tea samples wrapped in silk, his customers mistakenly presumed they should be placed in the pot. Inspired by this accidental discovery, Lipton became the first to start selling tea bags.

By the turn of the 20th century, with tea now popular among all classes on both sides of the Atlantic, Lipton was on course to become one of the wealthiest traders of all time.

In later years, Lipton would pursue his passion for sailing and would make several valiant - but ultimately unsuccessful - attempts to win the America's Cup.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered his prize yacht Éireann for use as a hospital ship, and supplied funds for medical equipment and staff.

In a 2018 BBC documentary about the Glasgow entrepreneur's life, titled The Man Who Charmed The World, Dragons' Den star Duncan Bannatyne paid tribute to Lipton, stating that he "transformed the way we do business".

Bannatyne said: "He used his vast wealth to help the poor but also to fund his obsession with winning the most prestigious trophy of his day.

"This is a tale of a man who never gave up, an eternal optimist, a true winner and a gracious loser."

Legacy

Following Lipton's death in London in 1931, the company he founded has gone from strength to strength.

Lipton remains one of the world's top 10 most successful tea brands and is the clear market leader in virtually every country it's sold - including the US, which differs from most other countries in that Lipton's tea is most commonly consumed cold.

The Mitchell Library holds an extensive archive relating to Thomas Lipton, comprising of more than 100 large volumes of press cuttings, photographs and memorabilia all from the Gorbals-born tycoon's own personal collection.


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