Lipton, Sir Thomas Johnstone (c.1850–1931), grocer, yachtsman, and philanthropist, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, second (and only surviving) son of Thomas Lipton (1805–89) of Shannock Green Mills, and Frances Lipton (née Johnston(e); 1803–89) of Kilridd, both in Co. Fermanagh, who had emigrated to Glasgow after the Irish famine. The date of his birth is 10 May, but the year cannot be conclusively determined. His education was rudimentary, and he left school at age 10, working in a stationer's and shirt-maker's, and as a cabin-boy on a Glasgow–Belfast shipping line.
Lipton's father opened a grocery shop in 1865 at Crown St., with ham, bacon, butter, and eggs shipped directly from suppliers in Co. Monaghan on a weekly basis. In the same year Lipton went to the USA, where he worked as a labourer on tobacco and rice plantations, and then as a book-keeper in a prosperous New York store. There he absorbed the American techniques of salesmanship, advertising, and management which were to become his trademark. Lipton returned to Glasgow in 1869 with $500 and opened his first grocery shop in Stobcross St. His father's business philosophy of buying directly from producers and paying promptly in cash, allied with what he had learned in America, led to Lipton, by 1880, running a chain of stores throughout the UK. Lipton moved his headquarters to London in 1890 after his parents' deaths. He pioneered brand awareness and advertising stunts. One such was in 1881, when he imported two cheeses – each weighing 3,472 lb (1,578 kg) – from the USA. Hundreds waited to see the cheeses arrive, and many more besieged Lipton stores when it was announced that, buried within the cheeses, was a large number of gold sovereigns.
Control over supply was his hallmark; at first he sourced his supplies exclusively from Ireland (often as a result of personal visits), and then Denmark, Sweden, even Russia. He bought packing plants and ranches in the USA. Lipton set up his own printing works, producing vast quantities of advertising material. He even founded a company town in Canada (Lipton, Saskatchewan) in 1904. Entering the tea business, Lipton did particularly well, buying and running plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1889 and then India, introducing tea to a mass market in the USA, and pioneering blended teas for different local markets. It is estimated that in 1900 Lipton controlled about 10 per cent of the world's tea trade. In 1898 his businesses were incorporated as a limited liability company, with £2 million in share capital. He continued to run them till his seventies when, with some difficulty, he was persuaded to retire. Unilever eventually bought them, and the name later survived in its tea business. In 1997 Lipton was still the leading ‘black tea’ brand in China. His shops remained a familiar part of the Irish retail scene till the late 1960s.
Lipton, though not a particularly proficient sailor, was a passionate proponent of recreational and competitive yachting, and presented many trophies for competition to various yachting and sailing clubs around the world, especially in the Americas and the antipodes. In 1898 he purchased a celebrated steam yacht, the Erin, on which he entertained lavishly, and which he lent to the former empress Eugénie of France for a visit to Ceylon. He is principally remembered for his five unsuccessful attempts to win the America's Cup (1899, 1901, 1903, 1920, 1930) at a cost of about £1 million. His yachts (the last an enormous J-class) were named Shamrock I–V. He came closest to winning in 1920, when Shamrock IV won the first two races of five. Considered by the Americans as the quintessential sportsman, especially after the tantrums of a previous Irish challenger, Lord Dunraven (qv) in 1893–5, his maxim was ‘win with pleasure and lose with a smile’ (Leaves from the Lipton logs, 49).
A popular contemporary celebrity and the subject of many cartoons and journalistic pieces, Lipton was immortalised by P. G. Wodehouse as a policeman who suffers the withering glance of an aunt, as a result leaves the force, and drifts into the grocery trade; ‘... and that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start’ (Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the springtime (1939; Everyman ed., 2004, 102)). He was a lonely man by his own admission; nevertheless his gregarious affability and generosity (despite his lifelong abstinence from alcohol and tobacco) won him a large circle of friends, the most prominent of whom was the prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Yet prejudice against his humble origins and his trade led him to be described by Kaiser Wilhelm II as ‘that boating grocer’ and to his being refused membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron till just before his death. As a result, his challenges for the America's Cup were made under the burgee of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, Bangor, Co. Down.
In 1907 he inaugurated a European soccer tournament. Awarded the Grand Order of the Crown of Italy, he responded by presenting a trophy for football, to be competed for by teams from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. The English FA declining to nominate a team, and Lipton insisting that Britain be represented, an amateur team, West Auckland, was sent. They won the trophy in the inaugural year and again in 1909.
Lipton saw himself as Irish-Scots. Uninterested in science and the arts, he briefly, privately, and peripherally dabbled in Irish politics. Possibly influenced by the circles in which he moved (including Lord Dunraven and George Wyndham (qv)) he was believed to be the principal financial backer of an unsuccessful attempt in 1902–3 to buy a substantial interest in the influential nationalist newspaper, the Freeman's Journal, the object presumably being to influence the paper in the cause of conciliation between unionists and nationalists.
Lipton was a Freemason (Scotia lodge no. 178). He was elected a member of the Royal Cork Yacht Club (1900) and of the Royal Irish Yacht Club (1906), and was an honorary member of the New York Yacht Club. He was honorary colonel of the 6th Bn Highland Light Infantry, and a freeman of Chicago and the city of Glasgow (1923). Knighted (1898), appointed KCVO (1901), and created a baronet (1902), Lipton died on 2 October 1931 and is buried, with his parents and siblings, in the Southern Necropolis, Glasgow. A rose (R. rugosa alba) was named after him by a US breeder in 1900. There are many photographs and a cartoon in Vanity Fair (19 September 1901). He never married, and left much of his fortune (nearly £1 million), papers, and artefacts to the city of Glasgow for charitable uses.