Of all of this country’s bygone entertainments, the ones I most regret having missed are a night at a musical hall and tea at a Lyons Corner House. The latter’s disappearance is the more poignant, for it is a loss that today makes no sense: cafes and coffee shops are among the few real survivors on the 21st-century high street. In Legacy, award-winning writer Thomas Harding (author of Hanns and Rudolf) recounts a Jewish dynastic saga that carries striking echoes of the recent theatrical tour de force The Lehman Trilogy. Both trace an arc from modest origins in mainland Europe to unimaginable prosperity, before drastic overreach and calamitous ruin.
J Lyons and Co rose to fame via the efforts of two families, the Salmons and the Glucksteins. Harding has a particular urge to get their story right – his mother was a descendant. His ancestor Lehmann Meyer Gluckstein, born in 1787, was an itinerant scholar in Germany and was forever on the run from the wildfires of antisemitism. After a brief exile in the Netherlands, the family migrated to London in 1843, where Lehmann’s son Samuel set up in Whitechapel as a cigar-maker.
It was when grandson Monte took the reins that the business gathered momentum. In the economic boom of the 1890s he transformed it from deluxe tobacconist to caterer, shrewdly joining forces with entrepreneur-showman Joseph Lyons and ensuring the name became a byword for quality. It reached all levels of society, from Buckingham Palace garden parties to the newly leisured middle classes, who flocked to genteel Lyons teashops in relief from the squalid taverns, dining rooms and “slap-bangs” of Victorian legend.
A fascinating private story runs parallel to the imperial expansion. Early on, Monte established a central fund that would entail all income and assets being shared equally among the families. This collective enterprise underscored the tribal nature of the Salmon-Glucksteins: when one branch of the family moved west to prosperous Kensington and Holland Park, the rest followed. There was a proviso: women would be taken care of financially but were strictly excluded from involvement in the business. The fund would have unhappy repercussions inside the family later on, notably in the case of their celebrated painter, Hannah Gluckstein, AKA Gluck, who lived from 1895 to 1978, and whose Eton crop, mannish suits and bohemian lifestyle set her at odds with her parents. Such were her connections that she had to beg her mother not to invite members of the royal family to her shows at the Fine Art Society (they came anyway).
Harding, obliged to play diplomat as well as biographer, treats the ingrained sexism of the firm with bemusement, where an impartial chronicler might have taken a tougher line. Often he sounds like the dutiful son delivering a family address. In his anxiety to pay each member their due he strays into prolixity and an inclusiveness that render the book a little stodgy.
But how the Lyons operation reached deep into the public consciousness can hardly fail to enthral. Investment in West End property – the Regent Palace hotel, the Strand Palace, the Trocadero – tightened its grip on the catering market. In 1909 the first Corner House on Coventry Street was opened, and a new age of elegant public dining for the masses began.
In the interwar period, its golden years, the place expanded to seat 4,500 people at any one time. The Lyons waitress in her neat cap and pinafore quickly became known as the “Nippy”. They were valued by the family up to a point, but promotion was scarce for female staff and no senior managers or board members at Lyons were women. These were the times.
One wonders if a woman at the helm might have saved the company from its ignominious collapse. During and after the second world war, when the family were involved in the kindertransport and won the royal warrant to feed the army, the business held steady. As late as 1969 Lyons’s annual turnover was £100m and it remained a brand leader in tea, coffee, cake and ice cream. It was undone by spending in the 1970s, buying up businesses at a headlong rate just as the oil crisis hit and the world economy went into meltdown. Almost overnight the families were plunged into debt and forced to sell the hotels; by 1976 they were struggling to survive. The saddest moment in the book comes when the chief executive decides to close the tea shops and an era ends. The company was sold to Allied Breweries two years later. Sic transit gloria Monte. Is it a cautionary tale about the treatment of women denied preferment in the workplace? Perhaps. It’s certainly an illustration of financial hubris and bad advice. Nearly half a century on, the Lyons name and Corner Houses have faded, quite forgotten. I dream of them still.
• Legacy: One Family, A Cup of Tea and the Company That Took on the World by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99