A Scottish Entrepreneur

Thomas Lipton (1848-1931) established a very successful chain of grocery shops and the Lipton tea brand.  He was also rather keen on sailing yachts.

He left school at the age of 13 and as a young man spent several years working in the USA.  In 1870 he returnd to Scotland in 1870 and, at first, he helped his parents run their small shop in the Gorbals but he soon opened a shop of his own – Lipton’s Market at 101 Stobcross Street, Glasgow.  Reflecting back on this first shop Thomas Lipton wrote,

“I worked tremendously hard to have the shop spick and span … but it was to the stock I paid most attention. Most of it came direct from Ireland, and it was purchased at such keen rates that on my opening day I was announcing prices which quickly caused a sensation among my competitors all over the district. … My first day’s drawings were two pounds, six shillings — considerably more than we had ever drawn in a single day at the wee shop in Crown Street.”  [1]

Within 20 years of opening his first shop Thomas Lipton had a chain of 300 stores across Britain.  Central to his success was his determination to cut out the middleman.  By going directly to suppliers he managed to buy products more cheaply than his competitors.  Sometimes this included setting up his own factories, for example in 1883 he set up a meat packing plant in Chicago.  When he entered the tea trade he used similar methods, bypassing the traditional wholesalers and going directly to tea growers in Sri Lanka.

His entrepreneurial zeal made Thomas Lipton a rich man and earned him a place in high society.  Despite a keen interest in the ladies he never married and on his death a large proportion of his wealth went to good causes in Glasgow.  He also left his yachting yachting trophies, to the city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

[1] Leaves from the Lipton Logs by Thomas Lipton, London, Hutchinson & Co. 1931

The Rochdale Pioneers

The Rochdale Pioneers

In 1844 a group of 28 men kick started the co-operative movement by setting up the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society.

This society bought key essentials in bulk and sold them to members at reasonably prices.   The group rented a room at 31 Toad Lane (in Rochdale, obviously), made a counter out of planks and barrels and  sold butter, oats, sugar and candles.  Only members of the co-op could buy from this shop but anyone could join as long as he or she paid a small subscription.

The rules of how the co-op would work were clearly set out.  These stated that;  all sales would be in cash, no credit would be given, the food sold would be pure, any profits would be shared amongst the members, that men and women would be equally entitled to participate and that members would have regular reports on how things were going.  These rules have evolved into the “Rochdale Principles of Co-operation” which underpin the modern co-operative movement.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum , on the site of the original store, is due to re-open later this year and, if you can’t wait for that, the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester is a great source of information.

Mr and Mrs Sainsbury

John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury in their older and wealthier days. Image from the Sainsbury Archive.

This London couple established a grocery chain which grew into, what is now, the UK’s third largest supermarket.

John James Sainsbury (1844-1928) and Mary Ann Staples (1849-1927) met when they were both working at Stutton Ground, which is near Victoria Station in London.   Mary Ann was working in a dairy at number 32 while John James was working at number 57.

The pair married in 1869 and opened their first shop, at 173 Drury Lane, Holborn, the same year.  It was a dairy selling milk, butter and eggs.  For the first few weeks Mary Ann was in charge while John worked out his notice at another shop.   She insisted on very high standards of cleanliness and was particularly proud of the butter they sold.  In 1873 they opened a second shop in Kentish Town.

John James was an astute businessman.   He expanded the business steadily, taking on existing shops, a number of which had been previously run by members of Mary Ann’s family.  In 1882 the Sainsburys opened a branch in Croydon, their first outside central London.  This shop had a rather more up market clientele and allowed them to extend the range of goods their shops sold.

As the business prospered and their family grew Mary Ann did less work in the shops.  In late 1880s the now wealthy Sainsbury family moved to fashionable Highgate.  All of their six sons worked in the family firm while, in keeping with the times and the family’s new status, none of their five daughters did.

For more information go to the Sainsbury Archive  held by the Museum of London.