Toast to tea heritage

Caroline Thompson, left, with Faye Smith.
Caroline Thompson, left, with Faye Smith.

A CENTURY after the launch of an historic Sheffield business, its legacy is being revived by a 21st century successor.

Ingram’s Teas began as a one-man enterprise, operated from a handcart. Over the next 50 years it grew to become a leading city company, with a fleet of vans, a 70-strong workforce and 1,000 agents nationwide.

Heritage: Vans outside Ingram's on Ecclesall Road.

Heritage: Vans outside Ingram's on Ecclesall Road.

Now mementoes of company’s glory days are to go on show as part of a collection being amassed by Sheffield entrepreneur Caroline Thompson – who, as the Girl With The Golden Cup, has just launched an award-winning tea company in her own right.

The project came about after Caroline met marketing consultant Faye Smith at a business networking event.

They got talking and it emerged that they had more in common than just a flair for enterprise…

“I was really interested in Caroline’s business, then it occurred to me that my family had imported tea too,” says Faye, who is the great-granddaughter of Ingram’s founder Robert.

That prompted her to delve into the family archives and she was thrilled to come across a collection of old photos and newspaper cuttings that she has now handed over to Caroline.

“I’m proud of what the family did and Caroline was keen to learn more about the heritage,” she adds.

In the early days Robert and Edith Ingram’s seven children formed the workforce. His daughters packed the tea into bags which Robert sold from his cart.

From small beginnings, Ingram’s grew rapidly until, in 1938, it opened a four-storey factory in Ecclesall Road (now Plantation House).

“Imposing headquarters erected in reinforced concrete,” trumpeted the Sheffield Telegraph that week.

The building – the city’s first concrete construction – was erected by Allan Ramsay, Ingram’s son-in-law, who was responsible for building much of Ecclesall Road.

The building was billed as the most up-to-date of its kind and one of the best protected against air raids: an important consideration as the Second World War brewed in 1938.

A newspaper feature about its opening explains the intricate business of tea trading in detail.

It began with tasting, a process carried out by Faye’s great-aunt Winnie, one of only two female tasters in the country. She carefully adjusted each blend to account for the local water and ensure that the flavour was exactly right.

Chests of tea were then mixed accordingly and any impurities were removed – including tin foil, ‘injurious metallic impurities’ and even nails, which were retrieved with a powerful electro-magnet.

Lastly, the tea was packed, ready for delivery to customers nationwide.

The final member of the Ingram dynasty was Faye’s father, the improbably-named Gordon Ramsay (“It causes some jokes,” admits Faye), who still looks back fondly on the heyday of the family business.

It is he who has written out his memories for Caroline, who is fascinated by the story.

“As someone who doesn’t come from a background like this, I’ve found it really inspiring to meet someone who can give me so much of the history,” she says.

Caroline launched her business last summer and within months was a runner-up in the regional food and drink awards.

She has gone on to win the retail excellence prize at Sheffield Chamber of Commerce Business Awards and is negotiating with retailers including Harrods, which wants to stock her teas and tissanes.

“I want to become the best – the finest tea blender in the world, Sheffield’s tea alchemist!”

Her company is currently based in Attercliffe where she hopes shortly to open a tea salon.

It is here that the relics of Ingram’s tea empire will go on display, along with a range of historic teapots, teachests and china.

And in tribute to the firm that inspired the collection, Caroline has promised to develop a new Ingram’s blend of tea, based on the original family recipe.