18 May 2024

Kate Cranston, Charles Mackintosh Glasgow

Ladderback chairs designed in 1903 by architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) for  Glasgow Willow Tea-rooms came on the London market in 2014, and put me in mind of Glasgow businesswoman Kate Cranston (1849–1934).

Kate Cranston c1900
Dressed like young Queen Victoria 
National Portrait Gallery. 

I like the description of Kate Cranston in Famous Scots. Born in the Victorian age when women were expected to be limited to the family home, Kate Cranston was fortunate to grow up in an entrepreneurial Glasgow family. Her father was a tea merchant and owned the Cranston's Hotel and Dining Rooms, her brother was a tea merchant and bought three small tearooms, and a cousin managed a hotel.

Tearooms became a feature of Glasgow in the second half of the C19th but Kate Cranston was to take the concept to new heights with high standards and innovative design. Initially tearooms had been estab­lished to encourage temperance in a society where alcohol abuse was wide spread. But by the last decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, tearooms were becoming valuable places for socialising and were frequented by men, and women if they were in company.

In 1878, Kate followed in her brother's footsteps and opened her own tearoom for the first time. Soon she was operating four Glasgow est­ab­­lishments very successfully - Argyle St, Buchanan St, Ingram St and Sauchiehall St. Precision and innovation! She provided some rooms exclusively for women; there were luncheon rooms where men and women could dine together; and there were smoking rooms and billiards rooms provided exclusively for men.

Glasgow held an International Exhibition in 1888  that would prove to be incredibly inspirational to the city’s architectural and artistic development. An enormous domed building was erected in Kelvingrove Park, surrounded by beautiful smaller structures of eastern design influence.

One of Kate's great achievements was to encourage the artistic talents of the Glasgow School designers. Early in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s career (in 1896) the very experienced tearoom owner asked the young artist to design the wall murals of the new Buchanan St tearooms. The tearooms had been designed and built by one architect, with interiors and furn­ish­ings being designed by another. Mackintosh only had to design the Art Nouveau friezes

Cranston must have liked what she saw. In 1898 Mackintosh’s next commission was to design the furniture and interiors for the existing Argyle St tearooms. Then in 1900 Miss Cranston commiss­ioned him to redesign an entire room in her Ingram St tearooms. The Willow Tearoom in Sauchiehall St was the most famous of the Cranston-Macktinosh collaborations.

Willow Tearooms.
iconic chair design,  by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Web Gallery Art

Kate Cranston understood that good design was a vital component in her success. And an ongoing component! Mackintosh returned to Ingram St a number of times, and in 1911 created the Chinese Room in a room that had been looking a bit tatty. The elegant Victorian and Edwardian ladies, who drank tea sitting on the unique high-backed Mackintosh furniture, certainly loved her tearooms. Mackintosh continued to work for Kate Cranston until 1917, designing the layout of the building and creating the furniture and décor for 21 happy years.

Mackintosh designed an art nouveau frieze 
at the top of the tearoom wall

Mackintosh also designed the exterior
for the Willow Tea Rooms

Kate had an astute business sense but was eccentric. She dressed in old fashioned Victorian crinolines, long after they were out of fashion. In 1892 she married John Cochrane, a director of the Grahamston Foundry and Engine Works. After a very happy marriage, she naturally became very depressed when he died in 1917. There were no children. She immediately sold off her tearooms and wore black for the rest of her life. And when Kate died in 1934 at a good age, she bequeathed in her will two thirds of her estate to Glasgow’s shoeless families. Alas Charles Rennie Mackintosh had already died of cancer back in 1928, only 59 years old. 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, c1893.
History Today

Many thanks to mackintoshatthewillow 


Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

The name Kate Cranston rang a bell, as I read the bell continue to ring but how or when I have heard of her I do not remember most likely I have read about her in the past just can't remember when.

Student of History said...

You remember the lovely Block Arcade in Melbourne in your blog? The timing and role of the Melbourne tea rooms remind me of the Cranston tea rooms in Glasgow, although not quite as Art Nouveau.

River said...

I always thought ladderback chairs had horizontal rungs on the backs so to resemble ladders.
I alwyas feel proud of people like Kate Cranston who break from tradition and go their own way, teaching everyone that women can do more than just housekeeping and child raising.

Andrew said...

No glass ceiling for Kate, undoubtedly a very interesting character.
Scotland had temperance tearooms, hard to imagine in Glasgow, and Australia had temperance coffee palaces. I'm given to wondering what coffee actually was in 19th century Australia.

Hels said...


I knew the Cranston name from Kate's baker father George and tea-dealer brother Stuart. At a time when men socialised in clubs and pubs that excluded all women, the Cranstons decided Glasgow needed a classy, sober tea retail shop in the 1870s. Kate was born in the right family in the right decade.

Hels said...


welcome back :)

The Block Arcade in Melbourne was the perfect location for ladies to dress nicely in the late 19th century and socialise with polite friends. Hopetoun Tearooms were gorgeous, for example, but the only Art Nouveau decoration I knew of was the wallpaper.

Hels said...


All ladderback chairs had very tall backs with two side uprights. Between these two uprights, the spindles were largely horizontal, so you were correct. But Mackintosh wanted this particular group of chairs to be taller, blacker, more elegant and less domestic.

Cate was married to a well paid engineer, and no children. Thus she not only had a vision for her businesses, but nothing to divert her endless energy. Still, she was a brave woman!

Hels said...


I would _never_ have thought of Glasgow as the Vienna of the UK. So why did the classy tea rooms start there?
It was already a city with a strong commitment to temperance facilities.
As the city grew, the distance between home and work grew, and business men needed somewhere other than the pub to meet for a light meal.
And, as I said above, shopping was developing as a pleasure activity for middle-class women with time and money.
Perhaps read Women Who Meant Business:

jabblog said...

Her bequest was amazing and very much appreciated by the recipients, I imagine.

Hels said...


When Cranston died, a lonely widow without children, she remained committed to the city she'd always lived in. Since she was always interested in philanthropy, she was happy to bequeath a good hunk of her large estate to agencies that looked after Glasgow's impoverished citizens.

Not having children had only one important benefit... it saved the children slugging it out in court over mum's estate. This apparently happens even in stable families :(

DUTA said...

Kate Cranston sounds like a very positive woman: one with initiative, great sense of business, committed to the city of Glasgow and its citizens, encouraging young designers. Her opening and establishment of tea rooms for socializing, was a successful enterprise. Her love for her husband probably placed her high in people's eyes.

My name is Erika. said...

Reading about tearooms is great while I am sipping a big mug to tea. Now I don't have any of those great chairs though, and I really would like to visit that tearoom. It's on my list now. Thank you.

hels said...

The first tea rooms were tiny spaces and not attractive. Cranston had great taste herself and she was very keen to mentor the young designers so women would feel attractive. What a great woman she was.

hels said...

After 1900, elegant tea rooms opened all over the world. If you can't get to Glasgow, you will find some closer to home. And you will love them :)

Margaret D said...

Interesting. Those chairs I like.
Sadly, there are no tea rooms anymore here but coffee rooms!

Hels said...


I suppose tea rooms were quite formal and dressy, and perfectly represented the late Victorian era and into the 20th century. Coffee shops became cafes and were much more relaxed and less elegant. There are still tea rooms in Australia (eg Hopetoun in Melbourne; Queen Victoria Building Tearoom in Sydney) but it is not like the old days, agreed.

P.S Miss Marple’s English Tearoom is in the Dandenong Ranges on the edge of Melbourne, opened in the 1980s.

Fun60 said...

Tea rooms seem to have made a come back of late. Although never really out of fashion, it is easy to find one serving tea from bone china tea sets just as Cranston would have done.

Hels said...


My grandmother had lots of grandsons but only 2 granddaughters, one of them being me. It was very important to her that she could take the two of us girls out for special days eg the ballet or concert, followed by afternoon tea in a tea room for pleasant women. Having a lot of money wasn't important to grandma, but us being clean, educated and accultured was.

I wonder if grandmothers still take their grandchildren into the City today for special occasions.

Katerinas Blog said...

Very interesting post once again Hells!
I really enjoy reading the lives of people who have made their own way.
Also that she was a philanthropist and left part of her fortune to people in Glasgow in need is amazing!
I made the story a picture in my mind and it was very beautiful!!
Thanks Hels!

Hels said...


our experience reading about very talented women, in the Victorian era and even later, was that they were subject to ridicule. This was true for scientists, business women, artists, aviatrixes etc.
Kate Cranston also had to face public criticism, but at least she had the support of her father, brother and husband. And the architects and artists she worked with admired her greatly.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - interesting to read ... I'd never heard of her - thanks for the introduction - cheers Hilary

hels said...

When Cranston's portrait went on the nation's 20 pound note a few years ago, she became even more famous. A bit late for her to enjoy the honour of course.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa noite minha querida amiga. Guimarães Rosa escreveu contos e novelas. Mas, coloquei o seu principal e maior sucesso "Grande Sertão: Veredas". Virou filme e minissérie no Brasil.

mem said...

thanks for this . Very interesting . I once read aa novel based on Mr Macintosh and his time of exile to the country during the 1st world war when he was suspected of working for the Germans . Cant remember all the details. I have often wondered about the comfort of those chairs . I guess if you were trussed up in a corset anyway it was the least of your worries!!Certainly Ms Cranston was impervious to discomfort or she wouldn't have dressed in a Crinoline . I have often wondered how on earth dealing with basic hygiene was achieved with crinolines and even more challenging with the huge paniers of the 18 th century . The Regency era must have been such a relief to a lot of women !

Hels said...


many thanks for the information.
There were clearly very talented people all around the world, even though Rosa was a generation later.

Hels said...


breaking women's ribs to get into a tight Victorian corset would have been immoral, especially if those women were forced to become pregnant every few months. But the cage crinoline was strong enough to support wide skirts and, although it made the waist appear smaller, it actually protected the woman's body. Bustles might have damaged a women's posture, but not her bones.

Kate was a very compassionate employer, with regard to the workers' salaries, time off for emergencies and work clothing.