Premium

Legacy by Thomas Harding, review: how one immigrant family fed Britain for over 100 years

5
Lyons 'nippies' in 1930, wearing their original uniform
Lyons 'nippies' in 1930, wearing their original uniform Credit: PA

When Mimi Gluckstein was a child, living a life of Kensington luxury, her father Monte would take her to Whitechapel, to show her the slums where he had grown up.

It wasn’t long since Jack the Ripper had terrorised the East End, and the area’s large Jewish population – including the Glucksteins – had been blamed for the spate of murders.

It was thanks to Monte’s vision and dynamism that his children’s lives were so different. For Mimi was a member of the famous Salmon and Gluckstein clan: a family, writes Thomas Harding (a later descendant), “who transformed themselves from penniless immigrants to industrial titans and then to failed entrepreneurs, in a little less than five generations”.

Their family business, J Lyons, was “the undisputed king of British catering, a firm that came to represent the very best of Britishness”. Over its 175-year history, it changed the way that the nation ate out, and shaped the tastes of the whole of society. 

Lyons catered for royal banquets and supplied affordable bread to working families, oversaw numerous recognisable brands from Ready Brek to Dunkin’ Donuts, helped to integrate women into the workforce, and even gave rise to the entry of a new word into the Oxford English Dictionary: “Nippy”, the smiling, aproned waitress synonymous with Lyons tea rooms.

The 'nippy', shown on a Lyons tea-bag packet Credit: Alamy

Following the family’s fortunes from 1808 to the present day, Harding’s history is also the story of Britain’s shift from the Victorian to the modern era. It is history on a scale at once intimate and grand: while a chronicle of any individual family over five generations would tell a story of changing Britain, the Salmon and Gluckstein family influenced tastes in ways that have persisted long after Lyons’s dominion ended.

Samuel Gluckstein alighted in London in 1843, determined to make his way in a country not always welcoming to outsiders. His father, Lehmann, had been born into a Jewish family in the German town of Jever, and from the age of 18 had lived itinerantly around the Rhineland, teaching Hebrew and travelling to avoid the increasingly virulent attacks on Jews. At one point, he had faked his own death to escape a debt the government demanded as a “protection fee”.

Living in a tiny flat in Whitechapel, Samuel spent his nights rolling loose tobacco into cigars he could sell on the street. The business proved astonishingly successful, and within a decade Samuel and his siblings (who had followed him to England) employed 70 full-time staff at their Soho workshop. When Samuel arranged for his 17-year-old daughter Lena to marry Barnett Salmon, a cigar salesman twice her age, the dynasty was launched.

The first schism arose when Samuel’s brothers fell into debt and brought a case against him, hoping for a payout. Samuel was represented in court by his 15-year-old son Monte; horrified at his uncles’ duplicity, Monte “swore that he would never again allow the family to be torn apart by matters of business”.

On his father’s death, Monte called his brothers and brothers-in-law to a meeting, and proposed a radical scheme. All male members of the family over the age of 23 were to pool their incomes, and each take a dividend at the end of the year. Decisions would be made collectively at weekly meetings, and all assets shared. It was an unorthodox and sometimes fraught arrangement – and one that entirely excluded women – but “The Fund” became integral to the company’s remarkable cohesion, and lasted until its closure.

The crowds outside Lyons Corner House on the Strand in the Thirties Credit: Hulton Archive

It was Monte who decided to break into catering. In partnership with a friend, Joe Lyons, he took on contracts to provide refreshments at the huge exhibitions, circuses and fairs that were popular at the end of the Victorian era. From exquisitely decorated pavilions inspired by India and China (and featuring a full orchestra and shooting range), J Lyons offered cheap, fresh tea and cakes to the delighted masses, who came in their millions.

Eager to build on this success, Monte put on his own shows. Opening on Boxing Day 1891, under the grand dome of Olympia, Lyons recreated Venice, employing set-builders to construct life-size facades of palazzi and a maze of cobbled alleyways, while Monte imported a troupe of real gondoliers to ferry visitors down ersatz canals.

After the attraction was visited by 4.9 million people in its first year – which left the family rich enough, by 1893, to purchase the giant venue and spend £60,000 on advertising their next attraction, Constantinople – the next natural step for Lyons was to roll out its services in permanent venues. At the turn of the 20th century, there were few places to eat out enjoyably in London. Only the rich could repair to private clubs, while the quality of food at taverns and chophouses (known as “slap-bangs”) was not good, and there was nowhere for women to eat comfortably and safely on their own.

What was missing, thought Monte, were professionally managed chains, where food was prepared centrally and prices standardised. His “highly unusual” aim, writes Harding, was to make Lyons shops “as identical as possible” – to gain a reputation for “quality of product, affordability and excellent service” which no individual competitor could rival.

The first Lyons tea shop opened on September 20 1894, at 213 Piccadilly; before long, Monte had acquired a 21,000 sq ft building on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, which became a glitzy entertainment complex known as the Trocadero, where all fashionable London flocked to be seen. The programme for the opening night contained a paean by the society playwright Clement Scott. The Trocadero, he gushed, was “the newest, the latest, the most luxurious of London’s most modern developments in refinement, order and good taste”.

On New Year’s Day 1909, the family opened the first Lyons Corner House, a magnificent arcade just off Piccadilly Circus with a plethora of restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets. A marble colonnade housed shops selling wines, cheeses and chocolates, while upstairs were grills, tea-shops, bars and fine-dining restaurants. The Morning Post called it “the most magnificent and comfortable light refreshment house in Europe”, praising its “light meals” and “light charges”.

Soon, Monte began selling loose tea to grocers – by 1910, Lyons was the third-biggest supplier of tea to the British public – and branched into hotels (the Strand Palace Hotel, established in September 1909, was fully booked for a year on its opening night). The Bystander reported that “in the development of the business there is something uncanny, something savouring of the magician’s wand.”

The family’s assimilation into British life, though comprehensive, remained precarious. In 1914, the head of Lipton’s Tea sent a memo to his agents saying that their rival J Lyons was made up of “German Jews”. Furious, Monte placed an advertisement in the Times insisting that “J. LYON’S & CO (by appointment to His Majesty the King) is an ALL-BRITISH COMPANY.”

In 1933, members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists stood outside a Lyons Corner House selling copies of The Blackshirt. But Monte’s son Isidore – a Conservative MP, known as the “young Napoleon of caterers” – dealt the insurgent fascist group a serious blow when he persuaded Viscount Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, to abandon his support for the Blackshirts by threatening to withdraw Lyons advertising from the newspaper.

Lyons’s adaptability was its greatest strength. During the Second World War, it built and managed a secret ammunition factory, which supplied a seventh of the high-explosive bombs dropped on Germany by the Allied forces. Isidore’s son Sam sailed home from America bearing ice cream (not yet popular in Britain) in a container he’d commissioned especially to keep it cold during the voyage.

A young Margaret Thatcher was one of many scientists recruited to develop the perfect recipe, at a time when milk and sugar were still restricted. In the Sixties, alert to consumers’ enthusiasm for American culture, Lyons branched into hamburgers, investing in the soon-ubiquitous Wimpy. The company also funded technological research, and the first office job ever performed by a computer in Britain was the stock calculation for the Lyons bakery department.

Harding’s extremely readable book pays tribute to his family’s ambition, care and camaraderie: his leading characters become friends, though no less fascinating are the supporting cast – often the women of the family, like the flamboyant painter Gluck, or Monte’s indomitable sister Lena – whose stories lurk beneath the surface of these annals. Legacy, Harding insists with his customary panache, is a “tale of tragedies, triumphs, loves, losses and, above all else, the loyalty that bound the family together”.

It is also a story of hope, and a timely reminder that a quintessentially British institution was the work of plucky immigrants, whose commitment to their vision left the whole country changed and enriched.

Francesca Wade's Square Haunting is published by Faber in January. Legacy is published by William Heinemann at £25; to order your copy for £20, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop