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The Tetley Tea Story

Milton Keynes Citizen, October 18, 2012

Oh, dearie, dearie me. It seems so sad when an icon of children’s literature feels the need to break with the creation of magical innocence, of an appeal to young and old, and become debased by a venture into the supposed ‘adult’ realms of expletives and sexual depravity.

Which is precisely why I’ve decided to pull the plug on ‘Half a Dozen Hues of Slightly Off White,’ my milder counterpart to ‘50 Shades of Grey.’

And instead, with retirement thankfully looming, I’ve decided to capitalise on over 40 years in the workplace by encapsulating this experience in the potential block buster, ‘All Based on Bovine Manure. The Secrets of Success in British Management’ (of course in the actual title Bovine Manure is replaced by a single word of equivalent meaning, but this would hardly be suitable for a family newspaper).

As for the content, this will range from that ubiquitous essential, ‘meetings’ – where only the most verbose and those well versed in theatrical body language survive – to those manoeuvrings necessary to preserve an empire, by obviating the career threatening need to deal directly with some toxic department.

Yeay, it’s always a joy to behold the wailing and gnashing of teeth when such baggage is suddenly dumped on an unsuspecting subordinate. As also is the dumper’s expression of sheer relief, at having secured damage limitation through the welcome installation of an insulating fall guy, while still preserving the imperial boundaries. Of course by pleading, histrionics or sheer skulduggery the more savvy of underlings then swiftly replicate the process, leading to a scenario where in the more incompetent of companies the number of chiefs almost equates to the number of Indians.

But all this is for the future, and so back to scribbling about the local past and the story of one British company that was everyone’s cup of tea, Tetley. The firm had originated in Huddersfield in the 1830s, when from the back of a pack horse two brothers began peddling tea and salt across the Yorkshire moors. They then opened in London in 1856 in Commercial Road and later moved to Aldgate, but during early WW2 their warehouse and head office were bombed out.

New offices were then opened in London but the manufacturing side was moved to a safer refuge in the former premises of the Sterilised Milk Co. in Osborne Street, Bletchley. Originally this had been the Bletchley Sanitary Laundry, whose custom had come to greatly benefit during WW1 from the Royal Engineer’s Depot at Staple Hall.

Hopefully the factory was now removed from the perils of bombing but as a reminder of the possibilities it would feature as a target in a Civil Defence exercise.

During the 19th century the company had opened an agency in America and there teabags were first introduced. Then between the wars the teabag trade developed, but it was not until 1953 that Tetley first introduced this innovation to the UK retail trade.

Two years later their introduction of coffee bags to the British Catering Trade proved successful and the demand for their products eventually caused a staged move to a new factory in Denbigh Road in December 1957.

The firm of Vavasseurs Food Products then took over the Osborne Street premises. By 1968 demand had overtaken the capacity of Tetley’s factory and a new facility began operation in Stockton on Tees in 1969.

As for Bletchley, with 450 people employed, further expansion was planned and the factory was now producing 40 million teabags a week, 80 per cent of the business, for sale in 63 different countries.

With an office still retained in London the head office remained in Bletchley and in 1972, as part of a £23 million package, the company was taken over by Lyons.

However, in the year of a massive coffee theft from the premises the factory closed in early 1977.

Four hundred people were thereby put out of work, with the reason cited being a drop in demand for teabags and the impending cost to replace obsolete equipment.