Bewley, Ernest (1860–1932), founder of Bewley's Oriental Cafés, was born 14 November 1860 at Donore, Bray, Co. Wicklow, into a well established quaker business family, grandson of Samuel Bewley (qv) and younger son among two sons and seven daughters of Joshua Bewley and Margaret Hanks Bewley (née Fisher). Joshua Bewley (1819–1900), founder of the family business, began as a tea merchant in the early 1840s, trading from 20 Sycamore Alley (Sycamore St.), Dublin, as the China Tea Co. (1845) and maintained a large fleet of horse-drawn carts for delivery to out-of-town customers. Though the business norm was a six-day working week, he closed his shop on Thursday mornings – and subsequently on Saturday afternoons – enabling his staff to attend the mid-week meeting for worship. He later also advertised as an actuary and paper insurance agent. He died 21 September 1900.
Ernest was educated at Stramongate Friends School, Westmorland (Cumbria). In 1876 he joined his father and brother Charles in the business, which they transferred to 11 (renumbered 13) South Great George's St., trading also under the name of Charles Bewley & Co. tea merchants. Changes in the tea market led to diversification, and the company concentrated on the retail trade, selling tea, coffee, sugar, and oriental decorative goods.
During the 1890s Charles emigrated to Australia for health reasons, leaving Ernest in charge of the company. After a family disagreement, Ernest bought a huge consignment of coffee from a wholesaler, and to encourage its sale – for it was a relatively unknown product – gave coffee-making demonstrations at the back of the shop and served home-made cakes, which provided the inspiration for the opening of Bewley's first Oriental Café in South Great George's St. (1894), which also sold Chinese ware, hence its distinctive name. It was followed by shops and cafés decorated in oriental style in Westmoreland St. (1896) (much frequented by James Joyce (qv)), Fleet St. (1900), and Grafton St. (1927), which was adorned with stained-glass windows designed by Harry Clarke (qv). At first the cafés catered for Dublin's social and business elite, but they later attracted customers from all walks of life – poets, politicians, shoppers, and students. Thus Bewley's became, in the words of poet Brendan Kennelly (b. 1936), ‘the heart and hearth of Dublin’ (Farmar, 7). Saying that he ‘wanted the best of everything and that's not good enough’ (ibid., 29), Ernest employed continental bakers and provided high quality fare: breads, cakes, and confectionery. He imported (1903) and bred Jersey cows to provide milk and cream for his cafés, and subsequently won prizes at the Royal Dublin Society show for his butter (1920) and Jersey cattle (c.1910–30) and became founder and first president of the Jersey Cattle Society of Ireland. He also bred pigs, specialised in hackney horses, and won many awards (1900–30) at shows in Ireland, England, and Wales, not only for his draught horses and carts – one of the sights of Dublin – but also for fruit and flowers, especially roses, and was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland.
A staunch unionist, he was elected councillor (1907) to Dublin corporation with a large majority (resigning 1914), and alderman in 1911. Wealthy and fond of fast cars and fine living, he built (1904) Danum House, Rathgar, on thirty acres of farming land (it was sold to the High School in 1956). He protected the future of the company by incorporating it (1926), and became managing director, chairman, and private landlord of the café premises. His health undermined by the difficulties encountered in the purchase and refurbishing of Bewley's in Grafton St. (he reported to the board in March 1927 expenditure in excess of £45,000 from his own purse), he died 14 August 1932 in Dublin and was buried in Temple Hill cemetery, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, leaving a debt of £51, 000.
He married first (1890) Bertha Clark (d. 1908), secondly (1909) Bertha's cousin, Susan Emily Clark; they had four sons and two daughters. His eldest son Victor (1912–99), a shy young man, attracted to missionary work – in which he was later joined by his brothers Alfred and Joseph – restructured the business with the help of the family and advisers and the support of the staff, and by the 1950s the trustees of Ernest Bewley's estate were able to repay the debts incurred by the building of Bewley's in Grafton St.