Pioneers of mass catering: Spiers & Pond

Spiers & Pond was the first large-scale catering business in the world. The company helped to popularise dining in the West End of London, and commissioned the Criterion Theatre. It also organised the first cricket test match between England and Australia.

Gold was discovered in Melbourne, Australia in the early 1850s. The booming economy attracted Felix William Spiers (1832 – 1911), the son of a London shipbroker, and Christopher Pond (1828 – 1881), a former printer’s apprentice from Camberwell in Surrey.

Spiers and Pond formed a partnership in 1858 and acquired the lease of the Cafe de Paris, adjacent to the Theatre Royal on Bourke Street, one of Melbourne’s principal thoroughfares.

Modelled on Simpson’s restaurant on the Strand, London, it was elegantly decorated, with stained glass domes, polished oak and rosewood floors and palatial fittings. The Illustrated London News declared in 1861, “there are few public dining rooms in the world superior to the cafe [de Paris]”.

Cafe de Paris, Melbourne, in 1862
Cafe de Paris, Melbourne, in 1862

The Cafe de Paris would frequently serve more than one thousand people a day. The pair of men complimented each other, with Pond as the charming mein host, and Spiers as the accountant. The Bohemian Pond cultivated the patronage of Melbourne’s acting and literary set.

Impressed by the large numbers of spectators at cricket matches, Spiers & Pond sponsored the first ever tour of an English national cricket team to Australia in 1861-2. Each player was paid £150 plus first class travel expenses. Spiers & Pond made a fortune from the venture.

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Spiers attempted to convince Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) to give a reading tour of Australia in 1862, but the author declined for health reasons.

Spiers & Pond sold their Melbourne assets in early 1863 and relocated to Britain. They had noticed the poor state of railway catering in their homeland, and saw the opportunity for improvement. They secured a concession in a railway arch at the Metropolitan Railway’s newly-opened Farringdon Street Station, where they sold buns and other ready goods. Spiers & Pond paid the railway company a proportion of their takings in lieu of a fixed rent, in order to ensure a mutual interest in the success of the venture.

Spiers & Pond had established concessions at several Metropolitan Railway stations by 1864. They won the catering contract for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway in 1865.

Christopher Pond (left) and Felix William Spiers (right)
Christopher Pond (left) and Felix William Spiers (right)

Two elegant London restaurants were opened in 1866, one at Ludgate Hill Station and another at Victoria Station. The Ludgate restaurant became a popular haunt for bohemian and literary types. Charles Dickens praised it as one of the first places in the country where the railway traveller could get “wholesome food, decently served”.

Spiers & Pond operated 21 refreshment bars, including 18 on railways, and employed around 800 people by 1867. The company claimed to be the first to popularise low-cost wine in Britain.

Spiers & Pond helped to popularise dining in the West End. They took over the Gaiety restaurant in 1869, next to the famous theatre on the Strand, which became one of the most popular restaurants in London. They built the Criterion restaurant and Criterion Theatre in 1873.

Spiers & Pond were well-known for hiring attractive barmaids. Dickens described the women in their employ as “bright-eyed, cheerfully obliging nymphs”, whose beauty helped to draw in male patrons. George Augustus Sala (1828 – 1895) pointed out their “fine physiques”.

Spiers & Pond had refreshment rooms at over 100 railway stations on nine different railway lines by 1873. The railway bars sold 8,000 gallons of sherry every week.

Spiers and Pond attributed their success to “capital, enterprise [and] experience”. Before long, Spiers & Pond held the catering contracts for every major railway line, supplied from a large central depot at Ludgate Hill. Spiers & Pond also diversified into the general store business, and established a mail-order catalogue.

The company acquired numerous hotels from 1879 onwards, including the Victoria Hotel in Manchester (lease bought for £33,000 in 1891) and Bailey’s Hotel on Gloucester Road (1894).

When Pond died in 1881 he was regarded even in America as “probably the greatest caterer in the world”. It was estimated that the company could feed 200,000 to 300,000 people every day. Pond’s personal estate was valued at over £215,000.

Shortly after Pond’s death, Spiers & Pond was incorporated with a capital of £500,000.

Spiers & Pond had 219 refreshment rooms at railway stations by 1886. There were 6,000 employees by 1891, including 1,000 women. The company had a share capital of £600,000 and catering contracts with 15 railway lines by 1899.

The railways noted the profitable nature of the Spiers & Pond refreshment rooms, and some began to take their catering concessions in-house . Meanwhile, competition intensified as J Lyons entered the railway catering market. As a result, Spiers & Pond began to increasingly focus on its hotels estate.

The Ludgate Hill Station restaurant was sold to J Lyons in 1905.

Spiers retired to Paris in 1905. He died in 1911 with an estate valued at over £150,000.

In 1906, following reduced profits, the directors stepped aside and handed management of the company to a shareholder committee. In 1907, due to a reduction in the value of licensed properties, Spiers & Pond reduced its capital from £1.2 million to £720,000. In 1911 both companies denied rumours that Lyons planned to takeover Spiers & Pond.

In 1913 a new board of directors and managing director were appointed. In 1916, due to difficult trading and labour shortages caused by the war, as well as recent licensing legislation, the company entered receivership,. Unprofitable properties were divested, and the company re-emerged in a stronger position.

In 1922, S&P was forced to deny rumours that it was a takeover target.

In 1925 The Times stated that Spiers & Pond were, “almost the only contractors for dining-car services on the English railways”.

The Aerated Bread Company, which had recently acquired a string of catering companies, made an offer for Spiers & Pond in 1928. Spiers & Pond directors, who controlled the company’s votes, rejected the bid, although the two companies maintained a friendly working relationship.

In 1928 S&P acquired the Grand Hotel in Scarborough, assessed by the Yorkshire Evening Post as “one of the finest hotel properties in the country”. In 1929 the Grand Hotel in Brighton was acquired.

In 1930 the Southern Railway contract was lost after 40 years, after a rival firm submitted a lower bid.

In 1937 the Queen’s Hotel in Eastbourne was acquired.

In 1959 the firm acquired the Alford House development opposite Victoria Station in London from the Aerated Bread Company for over £500,000.

Spiers & Pond was acquired by Express Dairy for £5.5 million in 1960. It was a friendly takeover, approved by the directors who held the majority of voting shares. At this time S&P was a leading hotelier in Britain with 13 hotels, as well as Chicken Inn restaurants in London and 18 restaurants.

In 1964 S&P acquired the Royal Hotel, Scarborough. In 1968 the company built the Viking Hotel in York for £850,000.

In 1969 Express Dairy was acquired by Grand Metropolitan, a hotels company. Spiers & Pond was absorbed into the Grand Metropolitan system of hotels.

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