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Lyons (company)

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Lyons (company)

J. Lyons & Co. was a market-dominant British restaurant-chain, food-manufacturing, and hotel conglomerate founded in 1887 as a spin-off from the Salmon & Gluckstein tobacco company.

Joseph Nathaniel Lyons (1847-1917) was appointed to run the company, and it was named after him.[1]

J. Lyons & Co. was a pioneer in introducing computers to business. Between 1951 and 1963, the company manufactured and sold a range of LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) computers.

Products and image

The company was a substantial food manufacturer, with factories at Cadby Hall in Hammersmith, and from 1921 at Greenford, producing bread, cakes, pies, tea, coffee and ice cream.

To the public, J. Lyons & Co. were best known for their chain of tea shops which opened from 1894 and finally closed in 1981, and for the Lyons Corner Houses in the West End of London. The tea shops were slightly more up-market than their ABC (Aerated Bread Company) counterparts. They were notable for their interior design, from the 1920s Oliver P. Bernard being consultant artistic director. Until the 1940s they had a certain working-class chic, but by the 1950s and 60s they were quick stops for busy shoppers where one could drink a cup of tea and eat a snack or an inexpensive meal. The tea shops always had a bakery counter at the front, and their signs, art nouveau gold lettering on white, were a familiar landmark (before the Second World War service was to the table by uniformed waitresses, known as 'Nippies', but after the War the tea shops converted to cafeteria service).

Corner Houses

The Corner Houses, which first appeared in 1909 and remained until 1977, were noted for their art deco style. Situated on or near the corners of Coventry Street, Strand and Tottenham Court Road, they and the Maison Lyonses at Marble Arch and in Shaftesbury Avenue were large buildings on four or five floors, the ground floor of which was a food hall with counters for delicatessen, sweets and chocolates, cakes, fruit, flowers and other products. In addition, they possessed hairdressing salons, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and at one period a twice-a-day food delivery service. On the other floors were several restaurants, each with a different theme and all with their own musicians. For a time the Corner Houses were open 24 hours a day, and at their peak each branch employed around 400 staff. They featured window displays designed by Kay Lipton (née Man) and, in the post-war period, the Corner Houses were smarter and grander than the local tea shops. Between 1896 and 1965 Lyons owned the Trocadero, which was similar in size and style to the Corner Houses.[2]

A Corner House window display


As well as the tea shops and Corner Houses, Lyons ran other large restaurants such as the Throgmorton in Throgmorton Street (pictured right). Their chains have included Steak Houses (1961–1988), Wimpy Bars (1953–1976), Baskin-Robbins (1974-) and Dunkin' Donuts (1989-).


The Regent Palace Hotel, Glasshouse Street, London was operated by Strand Hotels Limited, a subsidiary of J. Lyons and Company and opened on 16 May 1915. Strand Hotels also operated the Cumberland Hotel (Marble Arch, London), Kingsley Hotel, Park Court Hotel, Windsor Hotel, White's Hotel and the Strand Palace Hotel after the inception of Strand Hotels Limited. The last London hotel that they operated until the demise of the group in the mid-70s was the Tower Hotel situated by Tower Bridge in London.


In 1938, Lyons purchased the Bee Bee Biscuit Company, which manufactured biscuits from its factories in Blackpool. Six years later, Lyons changed the company's name to Symbol Biscuits Ltd. and began selling biscuits under the Symbol and Lyons brand names: one of their innovations was Maryland Cookies in 1956. In 1990, Lyons changed the Symbol Biscuits name to Lyons Biscuits Ltd.[3]

Other activities

Supporting the war effort

The rearmament period just before World War II saw a big expansion in the number of Royal Ordnance Factories, (ROFs), which were UK government-owned. However, due to shortages of management resources some ROFs were run as Agency Factories; and J. Lyons and Co. ran at least one ROF, ROF Elstow (Bates, 1946). The management and stock control systems needed in the ROFs, in respect of control of raw materials and "perishable" finished products, were somewhat similar to those used in the catering business; and J. Lyons was ideally suited to this task. They do not appear to have any involvement in managing these after 1945, when the ROFs started to run down.

Contribution to computing in business

The top management of Lyons, with its background in the use of mechanical adding machines, saw the potential of new electrical computers for organising the distribution of cakes and other highly perishable goods. They, therefore, built their own programmable digital computers and became the first user of these in businesses, with the LEO I digital computer: the Lyons Electronic Office I, designed and built by Dr John Pinkerton under the able leadership of John Simmons. It handled the company's accounts and logistics. Lyons also included the weather forecast to ensure goods carried by their "fresh produce" delivery vans were not wasted in large quantities.[4] Google chairman Eric Schmidt called this "the world's first office computer", built in 1951.[5]


The company was losing money in the 1960s but remained under the control of the Salmon family, descended from a founding partner. Lyons began to close some of its London tea shops and hotels; in 1963 it also merged its LEO Computers business with English Electric's computer interests to form the jointly owned English Electric LEO.

In 1964, Lyons sold their half-stake; and English Electric merged the company with Marconi's computer interests to form English Electric LEO Marconi Computers. A continuing problem in the British computer industry was both lack of investment capital and competition with the much larger U.S. computer companies, such as IBM. English Electric LEO Marconi Computers became International Computers Limited, (ICL), but ICL has now also disappeared as a UK computer company.

In 1978, Lyons was acquired by Allied Breweries and became part of the resulting Allied Lyons. It fell on hard economic times in the late 1980s; and was sold, eventually being broken up with its ice cream and ice lolly products, which were branded as Lyons Maid, being sold to Nestlé. Other parts that were sold off included Lyons Cakes being sold to RHM and ending up as part of their Manor Bakeries subsidiary which also makes Mr Kipling's Cakes and Ready Brek cereal ending up being owned by Weetabix Limited. At the end of 1994, Lyons sold its Lyons Biscuits Ltd. to Hillsdown Holdings, which later sold it to a U.S. investment firm which subsequently sold it to large biscuit manufacturer Burton's Foods Ltd..[3]

The J. Lyons & Co. papers are now stored in the London Metropolitan Archives. The niece and nephew of the Gluckstein brothers were Hannah Gluckstein, a painter; and Louis Gluckstein, a Conservative politician. A descendant of the Salmon side of the original partnership is Nigella Lawson.

Notable employees

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worked as a chemist for the company prior to becoming a barrister and then a Conservative Party MP. While working for the company she helped develop methods for preserving ice cream.[6]


  • 1894–1917 Sir Joseph Lyons (Kt. 1911
  • 1917–1922 Montague Gluckstein
  • 1923–1928 Alfred Salmon
  • 1928–1941 Sir Isidore Salmon (Kt. 1933)
  • 1941–1950 Harry Salmon JP
  • 1950–1956 Major Montague I. Gluckstein OBE
  • 1956–1960 Isidore Montague Gluckstein
  • 1960–1965 Barnett Alfred Salmon
  • 1965–1968 Sir Samuel Isidore Salmon Kt. CBE, JP, MP. (Mayor of Hammersmith 1968/69)
  • 1968–1972 Geoffrey Salmon CBE
  • 1972–1977 Brian Lawson Salmon CBE
  • 1977–1981 Neil Lawson Salmon

See also

  • Horniman's Tea, once the largest tea company in the world, selling prepackaged tea, once owned by Lyons


External links

  • (relating to the Lyons computerization)
  • Bates, H. E. (1946) The Tinkers of Elstow: the Story of the Royal Ordnance Factory run by J. Lyons and Company Limited for the Ministry of Supply for the World War of 1939–1945. Privately published


  • Bird, Peter. (2000) The First Food Empire. A History of J. Lyons & Co. Phillmore. Chichester, West Sussex. ISBN 1-86077-132-7.
  • Ferry, Georgina. (2003) A Computer Called LEO. Lyons Teashops and the World's First Office Computer. Fourth Estate. London. ISBN 1-84115-185-8. (Published in United States 2004 Hammersmith: Harper Perennial. ISBN 1-84115-186-6.)
  • Bird, Peter J. (1994) LEO: the First Business Computer. Wokingham: Hasler Publishing Limited. ISBN 0-9521651-0-4.
  • Caminer, David, John Aris, Peter Hermon and Frank Land (eds). (1996, 1998) User-Driven Innovation (published in the United States as LEO: The incredible Story of the World's first Business Computer). McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-009501-9
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