Lifting the lid on Lipton | Daily News

Lifting the lid on Lipton

Following in the footsteps of tea pioneers
Following in the footsteps of tea pioneers

“But how did we get this wonderful drink?
That must be straightforward, you’d think.
Picture an Emperor, exotic in China
Sees a leaf falling into hot water.
Oh, happy accident for us all!

Like a mustard seed, grows great from small.
Another to thank is a Scot, James Taylor,
Inventor of tea in Ceylon, for the score,
And then there is Sir Lipton, the intrepid sailor,
Who made it available to both rich and poor.”


Looking at a certain portrait of Sir Thomas Lipton, 1st Baronet of Osige, born 1848, died 1931, you might be tempted to believe he was just another born with a silver spoon in his mouth - a multi millionaire, who made his money off the backs of the proletariat during the Industrial Revolution. You could not be further from the truth as I discover walking not through the tea fields of the hill country, but in dusty old travel books on Ceylon’s tea pioneers.

Sir Thomas was born in a tenement building in Glasgow to parents who, from a long line of smallholders, had been driven out of Ireland, 3 years earlier, due to the catastrophic potato famine of 1845. To add further tragedy to their desperately difficult beginnings, the Liptons lost three sons and a daughter, leaving only Thomas to continue the family line. It was from these very humble beginnings that Thomas rose to the very top of society as someone who understood the importance of growing, community and hard work.

Part of his success was that he never lost touch with his roots and was constantly arranging events for the poor, clearly remembering how he felt when in the same position and providing inspiration to those in similar circumstances, showing everyone that with a strong will, deep integrity, great generosity, an industrious work ethic, all underpinned with humility, you can do anything and go anywhere.

Although an entrepreneur and philanthropist of great breadth, Sir Thomas will be most remembered for his services to the tea industry and how he enabled this wonderful brew, once only available to the elite, to become a staple drink in the homes of potentially everyone on the planet, who might want to benefit from its healing and soothing qualities. “Antioxidant, healthy, elixir of life, Universal, global, a cure for your strife, Ancient, holistic, it’s hard to explain. A tonic for all, come sunshine or rain.”

Beginning with helping his parents run their grocery store selling ham, butter and eggs, he then took a job as a cabin boy on a steamship going to and fro between Scotland and Ireland and it seems this had quite an impression on the 16 year old Thomas as he was forever more to be seen regularly donning a beloved sailor’s cap. With the proceeds of this job he bought a ticket to the USA and spent 5 years there, working for a Virginian tobacco plantation, being a salesman in New Orleans, working on a rice plantation in South Carolina, and being a farmhand in New Jersey. He was later to use his American contacts to set up a large packing firm in Omaha. These experiences set him up with contacts and ability to understand and work with others for life and his first successful store in Glasgow went on to spawn stores across the whole of Britain.

In 1888, with 300 stores under his belt, he entered the tea trade with his special tea tasting rooms, and proceeded to bypass the traditional buying and distribution channels in London to set up his own ‘empire’, which sold tea at prices that everyone could afford, still trading today under Unilever. As part of these endeavours, he went to see James Taylor in Sri Lanka where they proceeded to set up business deals that saw Sir Thomas buying Ceylon tea and distributing it throughout the Western world. Sir Thomas was also a keen yachtsmen, who tried 5 times to beat the Americans in the Americas Cup, becoming famous there for being ‘the best of all losers’, was instrumental in promoting competitive rowing in America and football in South America. During the war, he played a key part in helping the medical professions fight a typhus epidemic in Serbia. It’s hard to think of a better ‘rags to riches’ story, and the powerful things that can be achieved by business rooted in Ceylon tea! For more on this and other stories on tea go to Sri Lanka’s Tea Country Trail Facebook page.

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