Kate Cranston lived from 27 May 1849 to 18 April 1934. She did much to promote the popularity of tea rooms, and was an important patron of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Catherine, or Kate, Cranston was the daughter of George Cranston, a Glasgow baker and pastry maker who, in 1849, the year of her birth, diversified into running a hotel. Originally the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Hotel, this became the Royal Horse Hotel and, in 1852, "Cranston's Hotel and Dining Rooms".
Kate's older brother, Stuart, became a tea dealer at a time when Glasgow had a strong temperance movement and tea, until the 1830s a luxury for the rich, was increasingly being seen as an alternative to alcohol for the working classes. Stuart pioneered the idea of tea rooms in which his tea could be drunk in simple surroundings. Although Kate was not the first in the family to enter the business, when she established the Crown Luncheon Room on Glasgow's Argyle Street in 1878 she took the tea room to another level, placing great emphasis on the quality of the design and decor, on cleanliness, and on quality and choice of food.
In 1892 Kate married John Cochrane, but continued to trade as Miss Cranston's Tearooms. She had opened her second tea room, in Ingram Street. She added a further tea room in Buchanan Street in 1897, and completed her chain with the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, which opened in 1903. Miss Cranston's Tearooms became the thriving centres of Glasgow society.
Kate Cranston always saw good design as central to her success. In 1888 she commissioned interior designer George Walton to design an Arts and Crafts styled extension for it the Ingram Street premises. Then, in 1900, she asked Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald to design a room, also at Ingram Street. She must have been impressed with the result, because she entrusted Mackintosh and Macdonald with all aspects of the design of the Willow Tea Rooms. The results were a sensation at the time, and remain so today, such is the enduring quality of excellent design.
Kate Cranston pursued a number of other projects over the following years, sometimes calling on the design skills of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. When he husband died in 1917 she sold her tea rooms and other business interests, and withdrew from public life. She had no children and after her death in 1934 it emerged that she had left two thirds of her estate to the poor of Glasgow.