Sir Thomas Lipton

How did Britain’s greatest tea mogul come to work on a rice plantation in South Carolina?

The front page of the October 25, 1899, Georgetown (SC) Semi-Weekly Times reported a rumor from Washington, DC that famed grocer and tea entrepreneur Sir Thomas J. Lipton was determined to invest $500,000 in tea culture in South Carolina –

Sir Thomas is familiar with the soil and climatic conditions of this State, having been at one time a laborer on a rice plantation in Georgetown County. He is now the largest landowner in Ceylon and is one of the wealthiest tea merchants in the world.
What were his roots in American soil?

In 1864, at the young age of 14, Thomas Lipton accumulated enough money to book a solo passage onboard a ship from Scotland to New York City. Unable to find work in that city healing from a great war, he headed south to the tobacco farms of Virginia and eventually ended up working two years in the rice fields around Charleston. 

In the wake of the Civil War, southern plantations often hired immigrant laborers to replace slaves. But Lipton’s wanderings in the wilderness did not last long. 

His life changed dramatically when he returned to New York City and began working for a successful grocer. By 1869, his vocation was set. And with cash in his pockets, he returned to Glasgow to take over his parents’ small grocery. Within a few years, Lipton owned several of his own stores in Glasgow and London. 

In 1878, Thomas Lipton sailed to Australia with a diversion to Colombo, Ceylon. The coffee plantations on that tropical island had been decimated by a fungus which killed nearly all the coffee trees. With cash in hand, he had the means to purchase five bankrupt plantations. He left funds to pay workers to rip out the dead trees, with the aid of native elephants, and plant tea bushes in their place. In a few years, the tea would be plucked and manufactured for his stores, now numbering nearly 300, back in Britain.

By growing his own tea, Lipton was cutting out the London tea auctions and the middlemen. This scheme and his trademark slogan Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Teapot allowed a larger profit margin on his growing tea sales. A century later, Lipton Tea would account for 14% of the world tea market.

The 1888 newspaper rumor about Lipton’s plan to plant tea in the American South did not come to fruition before his death in 1931. However, the Lipton Tea Company did eventually fulfill that editor’s prophecy when America‘s largest tea packer planted 127 acres of tea bushes on Wadmalaw Island, south of Charleston, in 1963. 

That garden, now known as The Charleston Tea Plantation, eventually came under the ownership of the R. C. Bigelow Company, America’s second largest tea packer.

Read more about America’s tea history in the upcoming edition of A Social History of Tea, by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson of Benjamin Press.

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