Tea Rooms – The Alternative To Gin Palaces?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms. These were designed in the early years of the 20th century by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Catherine Cranston – usually referred to as Kate Cranston, or more formally, Miss Cranston. She continued to use this despite being married to wealthy businessman, John Cochrane in 1892.

In many ways, Miss Cranston was one of the central influences for Clarissa Belhaven in The Tea Planter’s Daughter.

In the year Catherine Cranston was born (1849), her father, George Cranston had  become the proprietor of a hotel in Glasgow’s city centre. As you can see in this advertisement from 1852, he was proud of the range and quality of the service he offered:

Eventually Charles would run a small chain of hotels in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. Importantly, these were to become temperance hotels, offering high-class, alcohol-free accommodation.

Perhaps it was the combined influence of her upbringing in Cranston’s Hotels, and her brother’s expertise in the tea business (he was a tea dealer) that led Miss Cranston to open her own unique style of tea shops. These were not the sombre, utilitarian outlets that had become commonplace over the last fifty years or so – they were veritable palaces in the most fashionable of styles.

Her first shop (opened in 1878, in partnership with her brother) in Argyll Street was decorated in the contemporary Baronial style. But in addition to the furnishings, and standards of service & hygiene, Miss Cranston had recognised the need to include a social element. In many ways she was creating an alternative to public houses, taking care to offer more than just food and drink.

There were rooms for gentlemen only and ladies only, as well as luncheon rooms, billiard rooms, and smoking rooms. The atmosphere was welcome to all, and Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms became social centres for business men and apprentices; ladies and maids alike. The ladies only rooms were a particular success, allowing women to meet each other and retain their respectability without male company.

By 1888, Kate’s business was independent of her brother’s, and she commissioned George Walton & Co, Ecclesiastical and House Decorators to design a new smoking room for one of her tea shops in the Arts and Crafts style. It was in 1898 when she again commissioned George Walton to design a new interior for her expanded shop in Argyll Street that she first met Charles Rennie Mackintosh. At the time, he was working with Walton, and designed some of the furniture, which included his trademark high-backed chairs.

When the Ingram Street shop was re-designed in 1900, Mackintosh was given a whole room to work on. With his new wife, Margaret MacDonald, he designed the White Dining Room and hallway to the street. Margaret was a gifted designer and artist in her own right, and was responsible for many of the flowing, sinuous designs in the murals.

Such was the success of this, that in 1903 Miss Cranston awarded the Mackintoshes the commission for the whole of her new tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street. This was to become the Willow Tea Rooms, and  is seen as the acme of the Scottish Art Nouveau movement – at least on a par with Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.

It is not surprising that Catherine Cranston’s vision of “art tearooms” was a commercial success. She ran the business until the death of her husband in 1917, when it was sold. The Willow Tea Rooms were subsequently incorporated into the adjacent Daly’s department store, and after 1954, only the first floor’s Room De Luxe remained in use.

But in 1983, the building was again sold, and over the next fifteen years it was refurbished back to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s original design. Once again, the business is doing well, and in 1997, opened a second branch in Buchanan Street – right next door to Miss Cranston’s original shop:


Tea And The Opium Wars

My research for The Tea Planter’s Daughter into the Victorian / Edwardian tea trade eventually took me back to the murky world of early British capitalism. This was the time of the British East India Company prising land off rulers in the North of India to grow opium crops.

These were used in the Opium Wars: with the loss of its trade monopoly, the East India Company needed to gain access to China’s lucrative, protected markets, and one of the main products they wanted to buy on an open market was tea. The trade in opium through intermediaries and Chinese smugglers weakened the Chinese economy by simultaneously draining it of silver while creating increasing numbers of addicts.

At it’s peak, it is estimated that ninety percent of all chinese males under forty in the coastal regions were addicted to opium.

Almost by chance, the opium growers discovered that something else grew naturally on the hot, humid slopes and rich soils of Assam – the evergreen camallia. The tea bush was growing wild, right under their noses!

So they switched to tea growing, sending out eager young men (often Scots) to chance their luck as tea planters. Judging from the cemetery records, many died young of malaria, fever and dysentery. Their isolation and misery was more than matched by the dire conditions of their bonded workforce. Lured by the chance of work from the drought-stricken areas of India, they were heded like cattle onto ferries up the Brahmaputra River, and often died of cholera or smallpox before even reaching the tea gardens.

What these early pioneers succeeded in doing though was to change the palette of the British. They were weaned off the delicate, smoky China teas, and onto the stronger, earthier varieties grown in India and Ceylon.

I found a colonial report into the industry that sums it up nicely:

It is a remarkable fact, in the British Empire that though British tea-drinking proclivities were nourished on China teas, the taste has gradually changed until Indian and Ceylon teas are now predominant. A great part of the credit for this development is due to the blenders for careful blinding in the early days of the industry, the public having been led on by gentle steps to appreciate a good ‘body’ in its tea.

The British people, wherever domiciled, are the world’s greatest drinkers of tea, and their preference is for afine, full-flavoured tea with stimulating properties… China teas are not popular in any part of the Empire, and while it may be too much to say that China tea-drinking in this country is merely a fashionable fad, that expression does approach somewhere near the truth.

By the end of the 19th century, the tea industry in India was big business. the gardens were run like factory farms and the processing – the withering, rolling, fermenting and drying of the leaves – was all highly mechanised. And those machines? They bore names like Britannia and Victoria, and were made in the industrial heartlands of the the Empire’s mother country.

Like so many products of the age, they were built to last, and some are still in use today:

A Jolly Nice Cup Of Tea

You’d never know it, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology, when I was writing last week’s post about Ringtons Tea, I was actually sitting in a salon de thé in Antibes. We were over there taking a few days well-earned R&R.

Tea shops suddenly seem to be quite the thing in France – très chic in fact. Trendy boutiques sell everything you could need to make a really good cuppa – I bought one of these little tea infusers, which now that we’re home, I’ve been using to make endless cups of green tea:

The only thing you can’t buy is a tea cosy – maybe with the warmer weather in the South of France, they don’t think they’re necessary 😉

In the salons de thé, things are obviously quite different from a British tea room like one run by Clarissa Belhaven Tyneside. There’s none of the ritual that we have – when you order a cup of tea, you get a tea cup full of hot water, with a tea bag on the saucer brought to the table. Once, the waiter even forgot to put the tea bag on the saucer – much to his embarrassment!

Maybe they could all do with learning the secret of how to make a brew – as shown in this film from 1941:

Tea On Tyneside

The Newcastle firm Ringtons Tea was part of the inspiration for The Tea Planter’s Daughter. My husband, Graeme, worked for them during school holidays when he was a sixteen year-old school boy in Wallsend, and I was always intrigued about this family business whose delivery vans are such a feature of the North East – seen in this film from the time of my teenage years:

Rington’s was established in 1907, so I’m sure you can see the close links with my character Clarissa Belhaven – the story of The Tea Planter’s Daughter starts in India in 1905. Prior to the problems with her father’s plantation, I imagined her life being fairly similar to my mother’s and uncles’, who were brought up in India in the 1920s and 30s when my grandfather was a forester in the North of the country:

My uncles photographed with the gardener in India

Mum and her brothers in Lahore

Clarissa returned to Tyneside shortly after (at about the time Ringtons were making their first delivery) with dreams of opening her own tea room to be a safe haven for the locals amidst the grinding poverty of the time.

In Edwardian England everyone shopped in the high street, but many firms ran a home delivery service – something that’s still the cornerstone of Ringtons. When they started out it was horse-drawn vans:

Ringtons is still based on Algernon Road in Byker:

It was through a conversation with the man who in the 1940s drove the last of Ringtons horse-drawn vans in Blyth that I decided to write about the tea trade in the North East of England. As I got further into the research, I visited Ringtons and spoke to the current generation of the company’s founding family, the Smiths, who were very helpful in my research, telling me about the early history of the firm.

You can read more on the history of Ringtons on their site – do make sure you take the time to look at the images at the bottom of the page!

A Baby In India

The Tea Planter’s Daughter begins the story with the idyllic childhood of Clarissa & Olive Belhaven on their father’s once-thriving Indian tea plantation.

The descriptions for this part of the book were inspired by my mother’s early life – my grandfather, Robert Gorrie was a forester in northern India:

I’m currently going through a stack of photos from their time in India, and over the next couple of weeks I’ll scan the best and post them here. In the meantime, here’s one to show you how hard the journey could be – this is how mum experienced perambulating through the Himalayan foothills:

Definitely a photo that’s a product of its time!

More Census Evasion

I’ve no idea how I missed this one – the TV Show, “Find My Past” had an episode in December about the relatives of Suffragettes:

The programme’s web page features a number of defaced census forms. These include Emily Wilding Davison‘s record as a “resident” of the House of Commons on census night (she was hiding in the crypt as a protest):

One with a leaflet posted over it, and the words, “No persons here, only women!” written in:

And finally, this one, “No vote – no census. House deserted (April 2nd to 3rd) by Suffragist who demands the vote. Considers that if she is intelligent enough to fill up this schedule she can surely make a X on a ballot paper” – a statement that gets to the crux of the matter!:

My book, The Suffragette explores the issues these women were protesting – this was a national movement, so I set the Suffragette in Tyneside to provide a backdrop of working class realism for what is sometimes portrayed now as a middle / upper class struggle.