Roaring trade: a history of J Lyons (1894 – 1949)

J Lyons was the largest catering business in the world.

Barnett Salmon (1829 – 1897) and Isidore Gluckstein (1851 – 1920) established a tobacconist chain which undercut rivals by passing on bulk discounts to customers. With 140 shops, it was the largest tobacconist chain in Britain when it was acquired by Imperial Tobacco for £400,000 in 1902.

In the 1880s Montagu Gluckstein, a travelling partner in the firm, lamented the poor state of catering at trade exhibitions. Gluckstein suggested that Salmon & Gluckstein enter into the business of non-alcoholic refreshment. A trial was established whereby the business catered for the Newcastle Exhibition of 1887. Contracts for other exhibitions soon followed.

In order to pursue catering further, J Lyons & Co was established as a public company with capital of £120,000 in 1894. The original stakeholders were Montagu Gluckstein, his brother Isidore, brother-in-law Barnett Salmon (maternal grandfather to Nigella Lawson) and distant relative Joseph Lyons. The Lyons name was adopted to distinguish the company from the Salmon & Gluckstein business.

The first Lyons tea shop opened in September 1894 at 213 Piccadilly. It had 200 seats and a £30,000 lease. After a year the shop had made a profit of £11,400, and the company was able to pay a dividend of ten percent.

The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly
The first Lyons Tea Room was sited at 213 Piccadilly

The early tea room exteriors were enticing and extrovert, and the interiors were often glamorous, and intended to evoke the great Victorian exhibitions and Parisian cafes.

The Lyons tea shop girls went on strike in protest against low wages in 1895.

Cadby Hall was opened in Hammersmith to centrally produce baked goods for the company’s 17 tea shops from 1896. There were 37 tea shops in London by 1900, and expansion had begun in the provinces, with six branches in Manchester, four in Liverpool, and two in both Leeds and Sheffield.

Quality was good and prices were reasonable. The tea rooms were particularly popular throughout the daytime with lower middle class office workers. Cinema and theatre-goers patronised the chain on evenings.

The first Lyons Corner House was opened on Coventry Street in 1909. The Corner Houses were much larger than the tea rooms, with a greater appeal to the middle classes. Live bands and an informal atmosphere helped to cement their popularity. The Coventry Street outlet became the Lyons flagship outlet, and seated 2,000 diners on multiple floors. It was the largest restaurant in the world. A second Corner House at the Strand opened in 1915, capable of seating 1,200 diners.

J Lyons was one of the largest caterers in the world by 1911. Half a million meals were served every day through 200 shops and restaurants. The company employed over 12,000 people, including 2,000 people at Cadby Hall. The Cadby Hall works covered ten acres and included sixteen bakehouses, five cold storage rooms and three butchers’ shops.

20,000 people were employed by 1913. J Lyons was the largest baker in London, the largest tea merchant in the world and the largest restaurant operator in the world.

J Lyons also expanded into hotels, building the Regent Palace Hotel in London at a cost of £600,000. Opened in 1915, it was the largest hotel in Europe, with 1,028 bedrooms.

Lyons tea was far and away the market leader by 1915: five million packets were sold every week by 160,000 shopkeepers. The company accounted for one in four cups of tea sold in London.

Lyons had a capital of over £2 million by 1917.

Tea, coffee, bread, cakes, ice cream and groceries which had originally been produced for the tea rooms began to be sold directly to the customer, all manufactured at the company’s Hammersmith site.

In 1918 Lyons acquired two leading packet tea companies, positioned second and fourth place in the market respectively: Horniman of London and Black & Green of Manchester. The acquisitions were intended to increase Lyons’s market share in the North of England: Horniman was strong in Yorkshire and G&B strong in the North West.

The company had a share capital of £3.5 million by 1919. By this time Lyons was likely the largest catering company in the British Empire. There were 182 tea shops by 1919, making it easily the largest chain of its kind in the country.

Cadby Hall was struggling to meet demand by 1919, so Lyons acquired a 30-acre freehold manufacturing site at Greenford, on the outskirts of London. Lyons opened the largest tea packing plant in the world there in 1920. Coffee, cocoa and confectionery production were also transferred to Greenford. It was the sixth largest manufacturing site in Britain.

J Lyons was the largest catering business in the world by 1921. Cadby Hall boasted the largest bakery in the world.

There were over 22,000 employees by 1922. There were 160 Lyons tea shops in London, and a further 50 throughout Britain.

It was calculated that seven million people drank Lyons tea each week in 1922.

The Trocadero Restaurant was acquired in 1921.

Lyons opened the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, which was the largest hotel in Europe, in 1922. The Coventry Street Corner House was extended in 1923 to create what was likely the largest restaurant in the world, with seats for 4,500 diners.

Ice cream manufacture at Cadby Hall had reached the mass production scale by 1923.

In 1930 Lyons was the 20th largest company in Britain, with a market value of £12.1 million and 30,000 employees. Over ten million meals were sold each week. Lyons held 14 percent of the packet tea market, with over 1.25 million packets sold every day.

The teashop chain continued to grow strongly until the onset of the Great Depression. Teashop losses between 1934 and 1938 totalled £374,000. Despite this, due to its manufacturing and hotel concerns, the company remained the largest catering company in the world in the latter half of the 1930s.

By 1937 there were over 42,000 employees.

In 1939 Lyons produced 3.5 million gallons of ice cream.

By 1939 Lyons had 253 tea rooms. Due to wartime labour shortages, self service was introduced at the tea rooms from 1941, and rolled out across the chain from 1945.

Lyons led the world in sales of packaged tea by 1948.

From the late 1940s the company’s catering arm supplied the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis tournament.

Part II of this post can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Roaring trade: a history of J Lyons (1894 – 1949)”

  1. Lovely post, as are several others.

    I was hoping you could tell me where you got these numbers, listed below.

    “By 1915 Lyons tea was far and away the market leader: five million packets were sold every week by 160,000 shopkeepers. The company accounted for one in four cups of tea sold in London.”

  2. In 1967 I worked in Tottenham on the Lyons Bread delivery lorries saturdays going from shop to wimpy bar I was 13. The driver used to give me a fiver and all the left over bread I could carry off home.
    I loved that part time job.
    And recently.. at almost retirement age? I’m going back into the bakery game.. it’s like going full circle.

  3. I used to enjoy a cup of tea and a ‘fruity bun’ in the Lyon’s on Leadenhall Street in the city in the 1960’s. 50+ years later and living in British Columbia I still miss those buns!

  4. Was lyons corner house in Vines Street Piccadilly open in the first world War only my mother said she worked there and remembers Piccadilly being bombed is there any history of this?

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