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At the Corner HouseRosemary Hill
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Vol. 42 No. 4 · 20 February 2020

At the Corner House

Rosemary Hill

1775 words
We had a rag at Monico’s. We had a rag at the Troc,
And the one we had at the Berkeley gave the customers quite a shock.
Then we went to the Popular, and after that – oh my!
I wish you’d seen the rag we had in the Grill Room at the Cri.

JohnBetjeman’s ‘’Varsity Rag’ is a hymn to the bright young things of the 1920s, who roared round London’s smartest venues, baying for broken glass. The smartest venue of all was the Trocadero, the ‘Troc’, which opened in 1896, a ‘state-of-the-art restaurant and bar complex’ on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. It rapidly established a reputation for good food, good wine and the latest in musical entertainment. The somewhat older Café Monico was one street away, while the Criterion (the Cri) was opposite, on the other side of Piccadilly Circus. In ‘Such, such were the joys’, George Orwell wrote of their heyday before the First World War in softer tones: ‘crazy millionaires in curly top hats and lavender waistcoats’, champagne parties and slang, ‘chocs and cigs and ripping and topping and heavenly … divvy weekends at Brighton and … scrumptious teas at the Troc’.

The Troc represented a considerable achievement for its creator, Monte Gluckstein, the son of a German-Jewish immigrant ‘raised in the sordid streets of Whitechapel’. Legacy: One Family, a Cup of Tea and the Company That Took On the World (Heinemann, £25) is the story of the Glucksteins and their relations the Salmons, and the rise and fall of their commercial empire. Thomas Harding, a descendant through his mother, grew up knowing little about that side of his family; his book is an engaging blend of historical research and personal affection. The Glucksteins began as the Glücksteins in Jever near Bremen and seem always to have had a knack for crowd-pleasing enterprises. Lehmann Glückstein and his son Samuel made a living in the 1830s as travelling showmen with an invention of theirs called the Polyrama Panoptique, a box in which cut-out scenes of landscape views or topical events appeared illuminated. The travelling was not always voluntary. Buffeted by the changing fortunes of Prussia, France and Russia and by varying degrees of local antisemitism, they spent years on the move around the Low Countries until, in 1843, Samuel was sent to England to establish a beachhead for the family. They settled in Whitechapel, where Samuel’s daughter, Lena, married Barnett Salmon, another East Ender rapidly working his way up from barrow boy to businessman – and so the dynasty began.

In two generations the humble Polyrama had given way to shows of epic proportions. Venice in London, held at Olympia in 1891, featured full-size canals and gondolas, which Monte Salmon bought in Italy for £40 each and which came with ‘a squad of gondoliers’, as well as a replica of the Doge’s Palace and a waterborne ballet – ‘probably’, the Times reported, ‘the most imposing spectacle of its kind ever witnessed in London’. Behind the spectacle lay the more prosaic but lucrative chain of tobacconists, S&G, which made the family’s first fortune. By 1887 there were sixty shops in London, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol, with their own horse-and-cart delivery service. The enterprise for which the family was to be most affectionately remembered, however, was the one that didn’t bear its name.

While the champagne flowed at the Troc, tea and cakes were being dispensed to more workaday customers at the Lyons tea rooms a couple of hundred yards away in Piccadilly. The first Lyons, Monte’s brainchild, opened in 1894. His experience of mass catering had led him to realise how few restaurants there were; indeed, for unaccompanied women there were no acceptable places to eat out at all. Calculating that the potential market for ‘a network of shops selling tea and cake’ must be at least half the population, Monte put the proposal to the rest of the family, explaining that the tea shops would not serve alcohol and that centralised management would guarantee standards and prices. The family had a strict policy of joint decision- making, and this idea did not go down well. A compromise was reached whereby Monte would go ahead but on the understanding that he would not use the Gluckstein Salmon name. He decided to use his brother-in-law’s name, Joseph Lyons, instead. And so it was that Joe Lyons, a largely passive figurehead in the business, became world-famous, seeing his name not only in gold lettering above the tea rooms but in due course on packets of tea, ice cream and frozen peas. It was Lyons, not Gluckstein, who got a knighthood and, in 2016, half a century after his death, a blue plaque.

The tea shop, like the department store, was an idea whose time had come: the ‘new woman’ of the 1890s wanted to exercise her independence while remaining respectable. Three years after the first Lyons, Catherine Cranston opened her Buchanan Street tea rooms in Glasgow, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Lyons cafés were less artistic than Miss Cranston’s, but Monte understood the value of brand identity. As each new branch opened, with the same fresh gold and white decor and the same tea and cakes, another member of the rising generation was deputed to run it. Gradually the menu was extended to include coffee, chocolate and iced Bovril and soda, which was presumably nicer than it sounds. In 1909 the family launched their best-loved and longest remembered enterprise, the Lyons Corner House. The first one, on the corner of Coventry Street, near Piccadilly, had within its marble halls a shoeshine parlour, shops and a hairdresser, as well as a tea room and restaurant, and was ideally suited to matinee-goers and what the Globe called ‘that immense class who, although of modest pocket, like things served well’. The waiting staff were female, which was unusual at the time and, still more unusual, they included married women, who found shift work convenient. As they darted about in their fetching black and white uniforms they acquired the nickname of ‘nippies’, and the nippy was soon established as a friendly, cheerful character in urban life. It was ironic, as Harding points out, that while the Lyons enterprise was so helpful to women, the family behind it remained resolutely anti-feminist. ‘Don’t tell the women’ was the men’s business mantra, and no women were allowed to attend the weekly meetings to discuss the workings of the family fund. The fund was Monte’s mechanism for ensuring family unity, which he saw as the secret of success. All profits were pooled and shared out equally. This meant that nobody could have a carriage until there was enough money for everyone to have one; the same went for houses.

Over time the scale and range of the family empire grew to vast proportions. Beyond the shows and the restaurants, shops and hotels, were factories making ice cream and frozen food, both of which were still novelties. Lyons tea came from the company’s own plantation in Nyasaland. Lyons were the caterers for Wimbledon and for garden parties at Buckingham Palace. For the 400th anniversary of Aberdeen University, two trainloads of Lyons staff steamed up from Euston with sixty tonnes of food and enough glasses, plates and cutlery to serve ten courses to 2500 guests. In the spring of 1939, George VI wisely agreed to Isidore Salmon’s proposal to establish an Army Catering Corps, and when the war came, Lyons boosted morale on the home front by keeping the tea and cakes coming despite rationing. Meanwhile, at the Lyons Enterprise at Elstow in Bedfordshire – officially an industrial laundry – a staff of more than three thousand was busily turning out bombs.

In Harding’s careful detailing of his family’s shifting relations, familiar patterns of generational change play out. The first Salmons and Glucksteins, used to poverty and hard grind, put the family before its individual members. Monte’s sister Lena, a tough negotiator of contracts who never demanded official recognition of her role in helping to manage the family fund, retained the frugal habits of the Whitechapel days. As the family fortunes mushroomed she refused to buy a new hat, though she persuaded Monte to use real gold for the first Joe Lyons shopfront. With time and prosperity came more secure social status and a loosening of family loyalty. Isidore Salmon was knighted in 1932, by which time his younger cousin Hannah Gluckstein was also making a reputation. Gluck, as she became known, was a fashionable portraitist and noted lesbian. Her parents disapproved but didn’t cut her off, so Gluck had to live with the trustafarian’s dilemma: she railed against the family’s control over her income, but the income was too big to give up – it provided her with a house and supported her as an artist. Paternalism of the Salmon-Gluckstein kind was under increasing pressure after 1945, as women tried to keep hold of the freedoms they had enjoyed as workers during the war. Among the bright young chemists recruited to the Lyons ice cream factory to test new and cheaper recipes was the young Margaret Roberts, whose photograph – she’s seen staring fixedly at a glass flask in the Lyons laboratory – went round the world when, as Margaret Thatcher, she became prime minister in 1979.

Diverging interests combined with family tensions. A younger generation, who had no memory of the Whitechapel days, felt less loyalty to the past and were rich enough to get into trouble. The all but inevitable drugs scandal came in 1976 when Simon Salmon was arrested for manufacturing speed. In a warped version of the family modus operandi he had set up a perfume company as a cover for the necessary chemical supplies, but these were ordered in such bulk that suspicion was soon aroused. The headline ‘Son of Joe Lyons Tycoon Held in Jail’ coincided with a low point in the company’s fortunes and marked the beginning of the end. The tea shops and the corner houses closed the following year. Control of the company passed out of the family and the fund was wound up and shared out. Harding came to his family’s story at the right time and from the right angle. The part of the past that is just within living memory is always the most difficult to access. Scandals and quarrels are still live. Papers are still in private hands. Recollections are contradictory. Harding arrived at the moment when the last generation to remember the heyday were ready to hand over their history, especially if they could keep it in the family.

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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

Rosemary Hill’s evocative piece about Lyons Corner House brought to mind the time in the 1950s when my uncle Fred was in Gloucester Royal Infirmary (LRB, 20 February). In the next bed was an old lag from the local prison. Uncle Fred asked him what he was in for. ‘Oh nothing much,’ he said. ‘I just popped into Joe Lyons for a cup of tea and an overcoat.’

When the Lyons family’s greatest legal luminary, Sir Cyril Salmon, was appointed a law lord in 1972, he loyally took the title Lord Salmon of Sandwich.

Stephen Sedley
Oxford

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