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The British Tea Room Was Born in Glasgow

Kate Cranston
Glasgow tea maven, Kate Cranston

In 1903, The Builder’s Journal and Architecture Record reported: “Glasgow is a very Tokio for tea-rooms. Nowhere can one have so much for so little, and nowhere are such places more popular or frequented.” The central figures in the tea movement in Glasgow at the time were the Cranston family. Stuart Cranston, a true tea aficionado, opened his tea retail shop at 2 Queen Street in 1871.

Eager to educate customers about the different types, Cranston brewed tea for customers to sample, and in 1875 he came up with the idea of charging a small fee for this service. He installed a few tables and chairs for visitors’ comfort, charged two pence for a cup of tea with sugar and cream, and added an additional small price for bread and cakes. The tea room concept was now underway.

Stuart’s sister Kate decided that she too would like to be involved in the tea business, and in 1878, with a little financial help from her uncle Robert, she opened the Crown Tea Rooms on the ground floor of a temperance hotel in Argyle Street. She opened another at 205 Ingram Street in 1886, and both tea rooms catered mainly to the needs of working men, providing light lunches, suppers and afternoon teas. The atmosphere was respectable and offered a calmer, quieter ambiance than the rowdy businesses frequented by men who liked a drink or two during the working day. A very astute businesswoman, Kate recognized that her male and female customers expected different styles and facilities: the Ingram Street tea room had a large room and a separate smoking room for gentlemen, and a smaller quieter room for ladies.

Kate Cranston’s tea rooms became famous for their unique, modern design, and she sought out young, local, new talent so as to use the artists’ work in the creation of her innovative and inspirational style. Her patronage of the young artist/architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh became world famous. When she decided to expand the Crown Tea Rooms on Argyle Street in 1899, Kate had Mackintosh design the furniture while Walton worked on the decoration and the fixtures. In 1900, Kate Cranston commissioned Mackintosh and his wife, artist Margaret Macdonald, to add a ladies’ luncheon room and basement billiard room to Ingram Street.

willow waitress
Waitress at The Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow

In 1903, Mackintosh and Macdonald designed every element of the interior and exterior of the new Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street. The designs included a “Salon de Luxe” on the first floor, which the local paper The Bailie described as “simply a marvel of the art of the upholsterer and decorator. And not less admirable, each in its own way are the tea-gallery, the lunch-rooms, the billiard room, and the smoking room.” The various tearooms were popular meeting places for people from a complete cross-section of Glasgow society—men and women; young and old; upper, middle, and working class.

The Willow Tea Rooms remains as one of the must-see stops on any British tea or architecture tour.  But through various changes of ownership and uses the building had deteriorated until it was purchased in 2014 by The Willow Tea Rooms Trust. For the last 4 years, the building has been undergoing extensive restoration in order to bring it back to its former glory, and create a sustainable future. You can also visit this Sauchiehall Street location or the Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street for afternoon tea.

This is an excerpt from A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, Benjamin Press.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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