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As easy as: ABC tea shops

The ABC tea shop was a ubiquitous part of early twentieth century London life, mentioned by T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and lambasted by George Orwell.

The Aerated Bread Company (ABC) was incorporated in London in 1862 with a nominal capital of £500,000. It was formed to manufacture bread using a new patented process which used carbon dioxide instead of yeast.

As a mass producer, the ABC had a large number of contracts with institutions such as schools and hospitals. It also had a number of retail outlets in London which sold bread and cakes directly to consumers.

In 1884 a manageress at a ABC bakery shop near London Bridge Station suggested to the directors that on-site sales of tea might increase revenues. This proved successful, and was rolled out across all outlets.

The tea shops proved popular among clerical workers, who appreciated their affordable prices, and by 1889 there were around 70 outlets.

An ABC shop at Ludgate Hill, date unknown
An ABC shop at Ludgate Hill, date unknown

From 1891, production at a centralised bakery in Camden Town helped to keep costs low. The low-margin business received criticism for the low-pay of ABC waitresses, who worked a 62 hour week.

J Lyons opened its first tea shop in 1894. Lyons branches were more upmarket and better managed than the ABC shops, and by 1911 Lyons had overtaken its rival in number of central London outlets.

ABC served over 1.25 million customers in 1911. By 1912 there were 150 branches. By this time the tea shops had evolved into cheap restaurants. In 1911 a commentator wrote that service was slow, but the quality of the tea was “beyond reproach”.

By 1913 ABC was far better known for its London tea shops than its bread manufacture.

In 1918 ABC acquired W & G Buszard, a London bakery chain with 140 shops. ABC were attracted to the merger by the strong management team at Buszard. Buszard directors, led by Charles Cottier (1869 – 1928) and Frederick Hutter (1876 – 1927), quickly came to dominate the ABC board.

Cottier was a forceful personality, and led by him, ABC undertook numerous acquisitions from 1919. These were Bertram & Co (railway catering), James Cottle (Liverpool and Manchester restaurants), Cabins, JP Restaurants (with 80 outlets around London), Newberys (shop-fitters), Abford Estates (a large property development) and a controlling interest in W Hill & Sons (29 shops), at a combined cost of just under £500,000.

By 1921 the managing director of ABC, Frederick Hutter, was described as the “Napoleon” of the London catering trade. Hutter had humble origins, beginning his career as a baker’s assistant. As well as hundreds of tea shops the company also owned the prestigious Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly.

By 1922 ABC had a total of 200 to 250 tea shops and restaurants. By 1925 over 2 million people drank tea in either a Lyons or an ABC tea shop in London every week. The manufacturing site at Camden Town covered over four acres.

By 1926 ABC had 156 branches across London. That year also saw the prim Victorian black and white waitress uniforms replaced by blue dresses.

In 1926 ABC built the largest single tea shop in Britain, opposite Victoria Station. The site was bought from the Duke of Westminster, supposedly for £500,000.

By 1929 paid up capital at ABC amounted to £1.75 million.

In 1929, in the wake of low profits, the well-known accountant Sir W H Peat was contracted to perform an independent review of the company. He argued that the numerous acquisitions did not tie in with the core ABC business, and as such, very few economies of scale could be made. He also argued that the company had paid excessive dividends, and had failed to update and modernise its shops, which had become run down.

The manufacture of aerated bread ended in 1954.

In 1955, ABC, with 164 tea shops, was acquired by Allied Bakeries, controlled by W Garfield Weston, for nearly £3 million. By this time ABC was the second largest chain of restaurants in Britain. Allied Bakeries was motivated by the increase in outlets for its bakery products, and valued the ABC estate at between £1.7 million and £2 million.

Unprofitable branches were quickly sold off, and new outlets opened at better locations. Allied Bakeries invested in the stores to bring them up to the standard of their competitors. The changes worked, and by 1959 the loss-making venture had become one of the most profitable parts of Allied Bakeries.

In 1959 Allied Bakeries sold the Abford House subsidiary, which consisted of a large freehold property in Victoria, London, for over £500,000 to Spiers & Pond, a catering company.

In 1962 ABC reported a profit before tax of over £850,000. In 1966, a pre-tax profit of £735,000 was reported.

Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s the trade of the tea shops began to decline. Rivals with no or limited seating had lower overheads. By 1976 there were 200 ABC outlets, but the tea shops were being phased out in favour of take-away bakery shops.

In 1976, production of small, hand-finished cakes at the Camden Town site was ended. This resulted in the loss of over 400 jobs. The Camden Town site was antiquated, and unsuited for modern production, and in 1982 it was closed for good, with the loss of a further 200 jobs. The ABC tea shops also disappeared around this time.

The Camden site was demolished a few years later, and a Sainsbury’s supermarket now stands in its place. Any residual ABC trademarks are held by Associated British Foods, the successor company to Allied Bakeries.