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Thomas Lipton and the lovely delectable island of spicy breezes

The Lipton legacy

by SARATH C. JAYAWARDANA Sunday Observer May 27, 2001, Sri Lanka

The year was 1890 Coffee plantations in Ceylon affected by the blight were being replanted with tea and some estates were on offer for sale. Certain London bankers, representing a group of Ceylon z_p33-thom2.jpg (22820 bytes)estates z_p33-thom1.jpg (10829 bytes)approached a successful Irish businessman in Scotland by the name of Thomas J. Lipton to persuade him to purchase these estates and enter the business of tea planting on a large scale. Lipton by that time was already selling tea in a big way in his large chain of Lipton grocery shops in England and Scotland where the main commodities sold were ham, bacon, eggs and cheese. He had entered tea business as an adjunct to the other commodities only after he had more or less achieved all he had originally set out to do in the general provision trade.

Lipton sells Ceylon Tea

By the late eighties tea drinking had become a popular habit in Britain. The wholesale dealers in tea in London soon realizing that the chain of Lipton grocery shops offered the most enticing retail outlets for tea approached Lipton with the idea of selling tea in his shops. Although the idea appealed to Lipton and he realised how profitable it could be, he was too shrewd a businessman to fall prey without studying the intricacies of tea trade.

Mincing Lane in London was where tea trading took place and he soon found out that it was the middlemen who made the maximum profit. Lipton did not favour this. He therefore decided to cut out the middleman and enter the tea trade direct.

After much consideration he bought tea in small quantities to begin with. His immediate difficulty was blending. Being a novice in the tea business he had to compete with expert tea blenders. He had no encouragement from the Mincing Lane tea brokers. But he was not to be deterred. Gradually he created a new tea department of Lipton which within a week or two was doing very well and created a sensation of the first magnitude in the London tea market. The public rushed to buy his tea which was sold at a very nominal price. Very soon weekly sales in every branch of Liptons exceeded a ton of tea. Lipton was firmly rooted in the tea business.

Lipton buys tea estates in Ceylon

The idea of buying tea estates in Ceylon interested Lipton. I agreed with his principle of abolishing the middleman. But he did not show his interest outwardly. He therefore without committing to the bankers secretly booked a passage to Australia on the first available liner and got off at Colombo.

Upon arriving in Colombo he proceeded to Kandy and Matale to inspect some estates that were on offer. "Although I knew as much about tea-planting as Euclid knew about motoring I liked the look of the estates" says Lipton in his memoirs. Without further consideration of the matter he did immediately cable his offer to London. Following the exchange of a few cables Lipton became the sole proprietor of the estates.

The first estates Lipton bought in Sri Lanka were known as Downall Group in Haputale that included the plantations called Dambatenne, Laymostotte and Monerakande with a total extent of two to three hundred acres.

Only half the acreage had been under tea and coffee. He immediately arranged to have the entire acreage planted as he had no interest in spending money on waste land in Ceylon. A few days later he bought another estate in Pussellawa called the Pooprassie plantation. He left the island only after making arrangements to buy other properties as and when they could be secured. Lipton's experience in buying tea estates in Sri Lanka is described as follows in his memoirs. "Between the estates I had bought and the big sum of money I left with my agent I think I must have invested well over a hundred thousand pounds in Ceylon within a week of my arrival in that lovely and delectable island of spicy breezes."

It was the beginning of a highly successful business in tea planting and trading that has made the name Lipton a household word throughout the world. Dambatenne Estate which is approximately 9 1/2 km. from Haputale town was the favourite resting place of Lipton when in Sri Lanka. In fact it remained the headquarters of Liptons till recently. A memento of the days gone by in the form of a seat used by Lipton to enjoy the scenery below is still there at this estate. The Lipton's seat located in a vantage point commands a panoramic view from an altitude of 1960 metres of the sloping terrain of southeastern Sri Lanka bordered by the Deniyaya Hills to the southwest. The lights of the Great and Little Basses lighthouses can be seen in the night.

Lipton observed that the tea plucked in his plantations on the hill slopes had to be carried on the back of tea pluckers to the factories located far below down steep mountain paths which at times tend to prove dangerous. He devised anew method of transporting the sacks by fitting a system of what might be described as aerial 'wire-ways' between the tea gardens on the hills and the factories at their base.

This cable operation which is still in use in many tea estates in Sri Lanka were to the delight of the tea pluckers who were relieved of the agonising task of carrying bags full of plucked tea down steep hilly slopes. This was one of the several ways Lipton used to reorganise the production of tea on his estates. On his return from Sri Lanka Lipton used the slogan 'Direct from the Tea Garden to the Teapot' for several years to popularise his brand of tea. With the increase in demand for Lipton's tea he had to augment the supplies from his own estates in Sri Lanka with purchases of large parcels at the Colombo Tea Sales and at Mincing Lane in London. He refers to a payment of sterling pounds 50,513 11s.6d as customs dues for the clearance of three million pounds of tea as a Customs record of the time. That too had been beaten in later years by Lipton himself.

Ceylon 'natives' parade in Glasgow

Lipton had great faith in advertising. One of the first Britishers to see the immense possibilities and advantages of advertising, he used many innovative methods to put his products before the consumers. A street procession he organised to sell Ceylon Tea is best described in Lipton's own words.

"Determined to make a splash in my home town and draw wide spread attention to my new activities, I organised secretly a little army of about two hundred men who were ordered to report on a certain morning at my headquarters in Lancefield Street. On reaching the Lipton headquarters each man was ushered into a large warehouse, cleared for the occasion and transformed into an immense theatrical dressing room. A couple of hundred Cingalese costumes were all laid out, complete in every detail, and to every few men was attached a competent dresser who knew exactly what was required of him, namely, to turn out so many Ceylon natives, dressed and made up so that they would have passed muster in the streets of Colombo.

Every man carried two little sandwich-boards. One board told the story that 'Lipton's Tea is the Finest in the World' and the second announced the fact that it came 'Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Tea Pot.' A 'squadron' of the biggest and best looking Cingalese were mounted at the head of the procession. It took Glasgow by storm." Many of the citizens in Glasgow thought that the parading natives had been brought down from Lipton's estates in Ceylon. A woman whose husband had been one of Litpon's regular sandwich-men for several years had been so dismayed that she had seized the bridle of one horse swearing at the man on its back. "Ye should be ashamed an daein' honest Scotsmen oot o' their jobs" she had yelled. Not until the evening did she know that the man on horseback had been her own husband acting as the leader of the Cingalese.

Lipton was facing stiff opposition from Mincing Lane. It was to be expected. a person who was selling tea from his own estates would not be gladly received in the Lane devoted to brokers and middlemen.

His tea was being labelled as 'cheap tea' as it was sold at comparatively low prices. In order to subdue Mincing Lane opposition Lipton wanted to prove to the Lane and to the public that his estates in Ceylon were capable of producing 'the best tea in the universe'. He cabled his manager in Ceylon to send him a parcel of the very finest, gold-tipped tea grown in his estates. The parcel was sold by public auction in Mincing Lane at thirty-six guineas per pound which had been an amazing price at that time. That thwarted all attempts to decry Lipton's tea while setting up an unbeatable record in tea prices.

Towards the end of 1907 Sir Thomas received a message from the Secretary of Her Majesty Empress Eugenie of France. She was the wife of the French Emperor Napoleon III and it was she who formally opened the Suez Canal in 1859 as the Empress of France. The message read as follows:

"The Empress would like you to arrange for her to go to Ceylon. You praised the beauties of the island so enthusiastically to Her Majesty when you were last here that nothing will dissuade her from going. She has set her heart on the trip and wants you, as a favour, to make all arrangements as soon as you can."

She was more than eighty years of age at that time which worried Sir Thomas.

However, after consultation with Her Majesty he made all necessary arrangements to make Her Majesty's stay in the island as happy and comfortable as possible and in early January 1908 he set sail for Colombo in advance of the Royal Party.

A few days after his arrival in Colombo, the P&O liner Mooltan carrying the Royal Party arrived in Colombo. The Royal Guests were given a rousing welcome as it happened to be the first visit to Ceylon of a personage of such historical importance. Sir Thomas was the first to go on board to welcome the Royal Visitor. The Royal party was accommodated in special apartments at the Galle Face Hotel. The Empress and party remained for seven weeks in Ceylon and in her own words it happened to be "One of the most delightful holidays that she had ever spent." The credit goes to Sir Thomas J. Lipton and his love for Ceylon.