Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18, 1898 --- "Sir Tom Tea"

More than a few eyebrows are raised by the knighthood awarded to Thomas Lipton; even the Queen thought him a "mere grocer."

Since opening his first shop in Glasgow in 1871, Lipton had become one of Britain's wealthiest men and, thanks to unabashed self-promotion, he possessed of one of the best-known names in the realm. In the 1880's, he began the annual stunt of importing "the world's largest cheese" from America. Each year, the cheese wheel got bigger. In 1887, for the Queen's Jubilee, he privately offered to donate the cheddar to feed London's poor. When the Palace demurred, Lipton went public with his disappointment, displeasing Her Majesty greatly.  In 1897, for the Diamond Jubilee, he quietly donated 25,000 pounds to a "feed the hungry" campaign headed by the Princess of Wales. When that gift was accepted, Lipton soon allowed his identity as "mysterious benefactor" to be unmasked. 

When the knighthood was announced, The Spectator thought it was an "error in judgement" on the Queen's part: "If Mr Lipton had received a baronetcy at any other time we should have raised no objection, but his knighthood follows so closely upon his gift of 25,000 pounds for the Princess of Wales' ill-advised dinner to the slums that it looks as if the dignity had been bought."  The clubland wits dubbed the new Knight "Sir Tom Tea" to distinguish him from "Sir Tom Whisky," Sir Thomas Dewar. 

"Tom Tea" paid no mind to the carping. As a friend and biographer wrote, he had long ago moved beyond "the high-hatted swells of London."  Lipton was now moving in the circle of wealthy entrepreneurs surrounding the Prince of Wales.  Lipton and the Prince shared an interest (and a wager or two) in the sport of yachting. Sir Thomas' Shamrock unsuccessfully challenged for the America's Cup in 1899. He tried again - losing each time - in 1901, 1909 and 1913. Eventually, his pal, the Prince (later King Edward VII) was able to convince the snobbish gatekeepers of the Royal Yacht Club to admit the "little tradesman" to their select number.

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