Sir Thomas Lipton, 1st Baronet, KCVO lived from 10 May 1848 to 2 October 1931. Born and brought up in Glasgow, he is remembered as a self-made man who succeeded in establishing a chain of grocery stores across Great Britain; who gave his name to Lipton Tea; and who repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) challenged for yachting's America's Cup. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Thomas Johnstone Lipton was born in a tenement in Glasgow's Crown Street. His parents were Ulster-Scots from County Fermanagh who had moved to Glasgow to escape the Irish potato famine. Thomas was their fifth child. The others, three boys and a girl, had all died in infancy. Thomas's father, also called Thomas, did a variety of jobs before setting up a shop with his wife Frances in the Gorbals area of the city.
The young Thomas Lipton was educated at St Andrew's Parish School, near Glasgow Green. He left school at the age of thirteen and took a number of different jobs to help make ends meet at home. He also attended night school at the Gorbals Youth School. In 1864, Thomas signed up as a cabin boy on a steamer running between Glasgow and Belfast and seems to have been taken with crew-members' stories about the United States. In 1865, Thomas used his savings to pay for a passage to the United States. He spent the next five years there, travelling across the country. During this time he held many different jobs, including work at a tobacco plantation in Virginia; as an accountant at a rice plantation in South Carolina; as a door-to-door salesman in New Orleans; as a farmhand in New Jersey; and as a grocery assistant in New York.
Thomas returned to Glasgow in 1870. After spending some time helping his parents at their shop, he established one of his own, Lipton's Market, at 101 Stobcross Street in the Anderston area of the city. This proved highly successful and Lipton went on to establish a chain of shops, first in Glasgow and then across Scotland, before expanding to cover the whole of the UK over the next ten years. Meanwhile, the demand for tea was increasing among the middle classes and in 1888, by which time Lipton had 300 stores, he set out to bypass the traditional lines of supply for tea by investing directly in tea plantations. The Lipton Tea brand he established offered good quality for low prices and proved hugely popular, expanding the market for tea to all parts of society and establishing it as Britain's national drink of choice.
Lipton developed a passion for yachting, which he shared with both King Edward VII and King George V. In March 1901 he was created a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII. The following year he was created a baronet of Osidge in the Parish of Southgate in the County of Middlesex. During World War One, Lipton supported the work of medical volunteers, especially in the Mediterranean, making his yachts available to transport staff of the Red Cross and the Scottish Women's Hospitals Committee. He also visited Serbia in 1915.
Between 1899 and 1930 Lipton challenged the American holders of the America's Cup through the Royal Ulster Yacht Club five times with yachts he named Shamrock through Shamrock V. He never won the cup, but he was awarded a special trophy as "the best of all losers". This may sound double-edged, but one effect of his efforts to win the cup was to make his name well known across the United States, and his tea very popular there. Although Lipton was a friend of royalty, as a self-made man he still had difficulty breaking into some corners of the highly stratified British society of the day. He was, for example, only accepted as a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron shortly before his death.
Lipton died at his home in north London in 1931. He left most of his wealth to his native city of Glasgow. His yachting trophies are now on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Sir Thomas Lipton was buried alongside his parents and siblings in Glasgow's Southern Necropolis.