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Talking About Tea Evokes Many Happy Memories

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lyons-teaVisits to Chelsea Flower Show, Buckingham Palace Garden Parties, and Cadby Hall, Among Many Other Privileges

May is “International Hemochromatosis Month,” and, as it draws to a close, there is much discussion on Facebook and other media outlets among victims of this crippling genetic disorder – the worlds’ most common – which causes the sufferers to absorb iron from every conceivable source, and is potentially fatal if left untreated. Consequently there is also much talk about the properties of tea and its ability to block the absorption of iron when taken with a meal. So, here I am, once more writing about tea!

The Best Job I Have Ever Had

Years ago I was fortunate enough to be the Public Relations Officer in South Africa for J. Lyons & Co (the “Tea People”). I worked in the main office in Isando, near the Johannesburg Airport, and also in the “Corner House” Building downtown, where I helped to launch a new Lyons product known as “Corner House Tea.” I enjoyed my job so much that I often declared that I felt as if I should pay the company for for the privilege of working for it. I  enjoyed meeting tea-planters and their spouses at what was then Jan Smuts Airport, on their way home on holiday in England from what is now known as Sri Lanka, and I enjoyed giving lectures to various women’s groups on the “romance” and virtues of tea, and how to make the best “cuppa.”

Tetley imagesWhenever I was sent to London, I had the privilege of staying in one of company’s great hotels, especially the Regent which had at one time been operated by Strand Hotels Limited, a subsidiary of J. Lyons and Company, opened on 6 May, 1915. Strand Hotels also operated the Cumberland Hotel (Marble Arch, London), Kingsley Hotel, Park Court Hotel, Windsor Hotel, White’s Hotel, and the Strand Palace Hotel after the inception of Strand Hotels Limited.

Cherished Memories

It was at the Greenford Tea Factory that I ate pancakes on Maunday Thursday for first time, and discovered how the famous “miles of Swissroll” could be made in one day. J.Lyons & Co. was a pioneer in introducing computerization to business, and it was awe-inspiring to watch how this was done with the aid of what, I guess, were computers, although I had never heard of such things before. I recall that several closed “trucks,” each containing one ingredient, radiated from the plant, pumping in the flour, milk, eggs etc.

Contribution to Computing in Business

The top management of Lyons, with its background in the use of mechanical adding machines, saw the potential of new electrical computers for organizing the distribution of cakes and other highly perishable goods. They, therefore, built their own programmable digital computers and became the first user of these among businesses, with the LEO I digital computer: the Lyons Electronic Office I, designed and built by Dr John Pinkerton under the able leadership of John Simmons. It handled the company’s accounts and logistics. Lyons also included the weather forecast to ensure goods carried by their “fresh produce” delivery vans were not wasted in large quantities.

After my arrival in Canada it was a special pleasure to give talks about all this, about how South African history is connected with tea, and about my experiences with Lyons in England.

The Sheer Excitement of It All

Its automated ovens allowed mass-production on a grand scale so that Lyons then – as it does to this day – catered many high-profile events including the annual Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon tennis tournament, as well as the Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace.

My Only Really Bad Experience.

What I liked best about being sent to London by the company was that my visits could generally be arranged for times when my adored husband, who worked for South African Airways, was also there on airline business. The only drawback was that all this happened during the Apartheid era when many people were not exactly fond of us, and so, when we chatted together in public, we usually adopted an Irish accent. Once – before we had tumbled to the problem – people had left the elevator rather than ride down with us, and the same happened on a  bus to the airport.

During one of our visits, my husband, was unexpectedly sent off to Australia – leaving me alone at the Regent Palace — and when I came into  the foyer on one occasion I was accosted by members of  Peter Haine’s Anti-Apartheid league and was scared out of my wits. After that I had my meals sent up to my room as I was too scared to be seen down in the lobby.

Interesting Notes

I read somewhere that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worked as a chemist for the company prior to becoming a barrister and then a Conservative Party MP. While working for the company she helped develop methods for preserving ice cream.

In 1974, the Tetley Tea Company was bought by J Lyons and became Lyons Tetley.

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder
  • Cinderella

    Cinderella. Oh, how this takes me back! Lovely memories of tea-time in one of the “Corner House” restaurants, and dining in that splendid restaurant in the Regent Palace!

  • Marie Warder

    What has happened to all the other comments?

    • They are being imported gradually over time, Marie. Everything should be back to normal in a week or so.

  • Keith

    Reading your interesting and informative article on Lyons Tea and the association with Leo Computers reminded me of the mid 1960’s, while employed by the textile manufacturer, John Heathcoat & Co. Ltd., in Tiverton, Devon. I was then part of a team of systems analysts and programmers using a System 4-30 computer. The System 4 range of computers, designed to compete with the IBM 360 series, was made by a English Electric Leo Marconi Ltd., a merger of English Electric, Leo Computers and Marconi. English Electric Leo Marconi later became English Electric Computers, which eventually merged with the major U.K. computer manufacturer, ICT Ltd. (International Computers and Tabulators), to become ICL (, International Computers Limited).