Sir Thomas Lipton: Purveyor of Tea and America’s Cup Yachtsman

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Sir Thomas Lipton

Learning from his experience in America, Lipton brought new methods of marketing and advertising to his grocery business in Glasgow.

By the middle of the 19th century, Glasgow’s population was growing, fuelled in part by families taking the short journey from Belfast to escape the famine that had engulfed their country.

It was to this alien world of industrial Scotland that Thomas and Frances Lipton came from rural Fermanagh sometime before the end of 1847.

The story of their son, Thomas Johnstone Lipton is one of the most remarkable of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is the story of phenomenal success in business, great wealth, sporting endeavour and contradiction.

Lipton was born on May 10, 1850 in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. His early life followed the pattern of other youngsters but as he grew older, he was often found by the River Clyde watching the ships arrive from around the world.

Lipton’s father worked in a number of jobs but eventually decided to open a grocers shop. In his autobiography young Lipton said, “It was an eventful day in our family history when my father and mother decided to embark upon a new method of gaining a livelihood…”

To help his parents he would go once a week to the docks with a handcart to collect the produce that arrived from Ireland. Hams, firkins of butter and eggs were wheeled carefully through the cobbled streets to the shop.

It was perhaps inevitable that Lipton with his love of the sea would want to travel and at the age of 15, he bought a ticket to New York.

He spent several years in the United States before returning to Glasgow in the spring of 1871. With £100 in his pocket, he opened his first grocer’s shop.

His promotional activities and advertising stunts, many learned in America, had the customers coming in droves. Within five years, he had opened 20 shops; within ten, he was a millionaire and the owner of an international business.

Although Lipton’s name is still linked with tea, (today Lipton iced tea and Lipton green tea are still best sellers) his association with one of the world’s best-loved drinks began speculatively.

He found that he could sell a top quality tea at only one shilling seven pence per pound, much lower than his competitors.

Consequently, his sales continued to soar; instead of selling loose tea in paper bags, he packaged it in coloured bags that bore the slogan, “Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Tea Pot.” Within a short time he was selling 30 tons a week. It was not only a best seller in Britain but also in America where an ever-increasing amount was sold in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and ironically Boston.

Thomas Lipton’s love of sailing was second only to his love of commerce but despite lavishly spending on a series of yachts all called Shamrock he failed in five attempts between 1899 and 1930 to wrest the America’s Cup from its American holders.

After his final attempt, the Americans presented him with a gold loving cup inscribed, “The gamest loser in the world of sport.”

Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1898, Sir Thomas Lipton was a friend to royalty and the stars and although he never married was regularly seen in the company of beautiful woman. He died in 1931 leaving most of his vast fortune to the city of Glasgow.

Contradictions:

Much of the information for this short biography comes from Lipton’s own writing.

However, historian James MacKay in a book entitled The Man who Invented Himself casts doubt on the authenticity of much of what Lipton said of his early life, his time in America even his place and date of birth.

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