A is for Aerated Bread Company

Now you are probably asking yourself what does the Aerated Bread Company have to do with tea… aren’t you just a little curious?

You all know that well known adage – inquiring minds want to know –  well  just keep reading and you’ll see. But first just a little background information.  The Aerated Bread Company (or A.B.C. Bakery as they were commonly known) Ltd was founded by Dr. John Dauglish in 1882 in Islington a London borough. A social reformer and sanitarian, Dauglish had earned a medical degree at Edinburgh. After having been unimpressed by the Scottish bread of his day, Dauglish decided to make his own and studied the process associated with its production. Eventually he invented some new bread leavening apparatus in which the need for physical contact by the baker was drastically reduced, thereby limiting the risk of contamination (prior to this the dough was kneaded by hand and foot.) This new method of leavening, that did not use yeast, involved bringing together the flour (out of which the bread was to be made) and water saturated with carbonic acid gas (i.e. carbon dioxide). The flour and gas were then incorporated together under immense pressure and expanded into a spongy mass, thus producing perfect dough ready for the oven.  But enough of that technical stuff.  What Dr Dauglish did then, was to set up the Aerated Bread Company Ltd in order to cash in on his apparently revolutionary invention. But wait; there is another reason why the Aerated Bread Company is revolutionary… its chain of self-service tea rooms, the first of which opened just two years after the company was set up.

ABC From Westminster City Archives
ABC from Westminster City Archives

So now the tea part…

In 1884, the idea for opening the tearoom is credited to a London-based Manageress of the Aerated Bread Company. She managed an A.B.C. bakery shop in the courtyard of London’s Fenchurch Street Railway station, two years after the company’s founding. She had been serving free tea and snacks to customers, and suggested to the directors that on – site sales of teas might increase revenues. The motivation for the company acting upon the manager’s suggestion was to supplement the income derived from bread manufacture, which was not sufficient to pay a dividend to shareholders. The tea shops proved popular among clerical workers, who appreciated their affordable prices, and by 1889 there were around 70 outlets. The A.B.C. tea shops proved rivals to the hugely popular Lyons Corner Houses. Lyon Houses were a restaurant chain, food manufacturing and hotel conglomerate founded in 1884.

ABC Fleet Street Menu

Tea rooms played as pivotal role in the history of women’s space, as they were one of the first public places where Victorian women could eat a meal, alone or with women friends without a male escort and without risking her reputation. There were ladies toilet facilities on hand, something not available at bars and taverns until after WWII. It was a public space that welcomed women, and it was the patronage of women that made the tea shops so successful. Also, considering the times, they also provided valuable space for first wave feminists and feminist organizing.  In fact, the A.B.C. tea shops were specifically recommended as safe havens to the delegates of the Congress of the International Council of Women held in London the week ending July 6, 1899.

Their numbers in the years to come…

A.B.C. served over 1.25 million customers in 1911. By 1912 there were 150 branches. By this time the tea shops had evolved into cheap restaurants. By 1913 A.B.C. was far better known for its London tea shops than its bread manufacture. By 1922 A.B.C. had a total of 200 to 250 tea shops and restaurants. By 1923, the A.B.C. tea shops would number 250, and were situated all over the world including Australia. By 1925 over 2 million people drank tea in either a Lyons or an A.B.C. tea shop in London every week. By 1925 over 2 million people drank tea in either a Lyons or an A.B.C. tea shop in London every week.  By 1926 A.B.C. had 156 branches across London. Also, in 1926 A.B.C. built the largest single tea shop in Britain, opposite Victoria Station. In 1955, A.B.C., with 164 tea shops, was acquired by Allied Bakeries, for nearly £3 million. By this time ABC was the second largest chain of restaurants in Britain. Throughout the 1960’s and the 1970’s the trade of the tea shops began to decline. Rivals with no or limited seating had lower overheads. By 1976 there were 200 A.B.C. outlets, but the tea shops were being phased out in favor of take-away bakery shops. The chain remained in business until the 1980’s, when the chain was taken over by, and then merged with, a much larger corporation.

And that’s A!

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