Lovely tea rooms emerged in Britain in the late C19th. Staffed by smart waitresses in black uniforms and serving tea and cakes, tea rooms were patronised by a new class of clientele. Classy enough to attract well dressed women, but not beyond the budget of the new working women who were being increasingly employed as office workers in the big cities. These were places women could comfortably visit, with their husband or women friends, or even alone; their presence was seen as perfectly respectable.
None was more successful than the Lyons Tea Rooms group. The Salmon and Gluckstein families, struggling Jewish families from the Netherlands and Germany respectively, had had a tough time in the East End of London. They weren't naturalised as citizens until 1861.
The two families worked extremely long hours in Aldgate High St; until 1887, their business interests united in the firm of Salmon &
Gluckstein, tobacco manufacturers and tobacconists. So it would be interesting to know why the two families wanted to diversify into NEW business interests (catering). Initially the two men funded the food business, and eventually J. Lyons & Co. Ltd was registered as a limited public company. The first directors of the 1894 J. Lyons & Co Ltd were:
Isidore Gluckstein (1851-1920) was the accounting genius who took over the family tobacco interests of Salmon & Gluckstein when his father died in 1873. Isidore’s brother Montague Gluckstein (1854-1922) became the Chairman of J Lyons & Co in 1917. It was Montague's idea to branch out of cigarette and cigar manufacturing and to diversify into catering. He was a fine businessman and oversaw the firm’s growth to the largest food producer in Europe.
Barnett Salmon (1829-97) became a tobacco salesman who met Samuel Gluckstein, also a tobacco salesman. Their friendship flourished after Barnett Salmon married Samuel Gluckstein's daughter in 1863 and became Isidore’s and Montague’s brother in law. Many of the subsequent descendants from this branch of the Salmon (nee Gluckstein) family played active roles in the story of Lyons.
Sir Joseph Lyons (1847-1917) was a talented and successful water-colour artist. As a teenager Joseph Lyons wrote short plays and sold them to the theatre goers at the Pavilion Theatre (where he met his theatrical wife). But it was while he was running a stall at the Liverpool Exhibition in 1887 that he was first approached by his cousin Montague Gluckstein to join them in the new catering venture. Sir Joseph was made Chairman of J Lyons & Co in 1887.
Sir Joseph was only a cousin of the original and most hard working of the directors. So I have to assume that the tea rooms were named "Lyons" because it was more acceptable to English ears and less foreign sounding than "Salmon and Gluckstein".
Alfred Salmon (1894-1928) was the eldest son of Barnett Salmon and eventually became Managing Director. One of his grandchildren, Vanessa Salmon, married the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Margaret Thatcher's government, Nigel Lawson. Their daughter, Nigella Lawson, became very famous in her own right.
postcard of Maison Lyons in Marble Arch
The first tea room opened in 1894 and was soon followed by 250 other modest tea houses. The first impressive Corner Houses first appeared in London in 1909 when Lyons opened huge restaurants on four or five levels, each staffed by some 400 workers. Each floor had its own restaurant style, and all had orchestras playing to the diners almost continuously throughout the day and evening.
The Corner Houses were particularly fond of modernist architecture and decoration, eventually specialising in an art deco style. The ground floor was usually taken up by a large food hall where many speciality products from the Corner House kitchens could be bought.
In 1938, Lyons purchased the Bee Bee Biscuit Company in Blackpool, and changed the name to Lyons Biscuits. But in my memory, it was the cakes and pastries that stood out.
There were three Corner Houses in London: Coventry St, Strand and Tottenham Court Rd. The two Maison Lyons were at Marble Arch and Shaftsbury Avenue. After WW2 a new type of restaurant opened called the Steak House, popular in the leafy, prosperous suburbs. Some were opened further afield in the prosperous towns like Tunbridge Wells, Brighton, Bristol, Norwich and Gloucester.
Lyons began to close some of its London tea shops and hotels in the early 1960s, caused by economic circumstances and changing eating habits. I have no doubt that the Edwardian Period, loosely defined as 1900-1914, was the actual peak of tea room culture. Nonetheless I was still besotted with these lovely old sites in the middle 1960s.
The horrors of WW1 ended and life could become somewhat normalised again.
Photo credit: J Lyons and Co homepage
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