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New documentary explores fascinating life of tea tycoon Sir Thomas Lipton and his Fermanagh's roots

Laurence White finds out how a chance encounter by NI television director Dave Allen led to the making of The Man Who Charmed The World, which will be shown on BBC tomorrow night

TV presenter Duncan Bannatyne with a bust of Sir Thomas Lipton during filming in Bangor
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He was one of the most remarkable figures of the Victorian era, the man who changed the way we shop and who had strong associations with Northern Ireland.

Sir Thomas Lipton, probably still best known for Lipton tea, was born of Ulster Scots parents and came from abject poverty in the Gorbals area of Glasgow to become a billionaire in today's terms, a friend of royalty and a man who charmed America.

It was a chance encounter on the waterfront of Newport, Rhode Island, more than 30 years ago which led Northern Ireland television director Dave Allen to explore the remarkable life of Sir Thomas and the resulting documentary will be shown on BBC Two NI tomorrow. It is presented by former Dragons' Den star Duncan Bannatyne.

Dave recalls: "I was only about 19 or 20 at the time and had visited Newport which was the spiritual home of the prestigious yacht race, the Americas Cup. A guy came up to me and began talking about a boat moored there, called Shamrock V. It was painted white and had a huge green shamrock on the side.

"Having heard my accent the guy said that I must know of the man who had once owned that yacht - Sir Thomas Lipton who had tried five times to win the Americas Cup. Quite honestly I hadn't a clue who he was talking about. Then years later a yachting friend in Northern Ireland said I should do a documentary on Sir Thomas and loaned me a biography of him - The Man Who Invented Himself.

"If you work in television, people always pitch ideas to you and the vast majority never see the light of day but when I read about Sir Thomas I was amazed that no one had produced a documentary on him before."

Sir Thomas' parents were well established Ulster Scots families in Fermanagh - his mother's ancestry there could be traced back to the 1600s and the Liptons to the early 1700s. The family left their home on what is now the border with Monaghan and moved to Glasgow to escape the famine.

Dave (45) from Newtownards says: "Sir Thomas was born shortly afterwards on May 10, 1848. His was an unpromising start in life. The Gorbals was one of the biggest slums in the world at that time with overcrowding, poor sanitation and residents had a frighteningly low life expectancy. He was one of five siblings and all except him died before the age of 30. It was incredible that he would live to the age of 82".

As a teenager, Sir Thomas's first job was as a deck hand on a Glasgow to Belfast freighter and it was the stories of far off lands which he heard from the other sailors that sparked his interest and was to lead him to America.

As chance would have it, he was employed by an Ulster Scots entrepreneur, retailer Alexander Turney Stewart from Lisburn who had opened the world's first department store.

In pitching his documentary to the BBC, Dave told them that they were getting the story of two Ulster Scots legends for the price of one.

Dave adds: "Sir Thomas was a visionary. He may have been young but once he saw Stewart's operation he thought this was the future of retailing.

"Five years later back in Glasgow he opened his first tiny shop.

"But he also remembered his Northern Ireland roots and went back to Fermanagh to the market in Lisnaskea and met with local farmers. He agreed to buy their beef, pork and other produce for a price which was better than they would get at the market but which would guarantee him a supply chain and fresh, good quality produce.

"Indeed at one stage he ran out of money to pay the farmers and had to pawn his gold watch until more funds could be sent from Glasgow."

His shops - he would eventually open a large chain of them across the British Isles, one in Dublin was later to become the famous Bewley's cafe - were an almost instant hit with customers but he ensured that every opening was accompanied by a fanfare of publicity to drawn in the crowds.

Dave says: "In a way he was like a Victorian Michael O'Leary (head of Ryanair) with his publicity stunts. For example if a circus was in town he would hire an elephant for the day and parade it through the streets with a huge Lipton placard on its side. Essentially he was a wonderful marketing expert."

He replicated his Fermanagh farmers' deal with tea producers in Sri Lanka ensuring he had a constant supply and could guarantee its quality.

He also pre-packaged the tea, keeping it fresher and less open to adulteration.

The title of the Dave's documentary, The Man Who Charmed The World, reflects the generous and charming nature of Sir Thomas. And, for the most part, it seemed he lived a charmed life.

"There was not much darkness in his life. Certainly he was affected by the death of his parents which left him as the sole remaining member of his family in his 40s, but otherwise life was good."

"There was not much darkness in his life. Certainly he was affected by the death of his parents which left him as the sole remaining member of his family in his 40s, but otherwise life was good."

He amassed a fortune through his retailing and added to that by cashing in on his business, leaving him with more than £1bn in today's money.

But the quest to make the Lipton brand even better known led to him challenging for the Americas Cup yacht race trophy.

And again he turned to Northern Ireland to help fulfil that dream. Every challenger for the trophy had to be associated with a yacht club and after he was blackballed by the Royal Yacht Squadron he applied to and was accepted by the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in Bangor.

It was under their flag that he campaigned five times with various yachts all named Shamrock, built in Glasgow and crewed by men who sailed along the Scottish and Irish coasts.

On one occasion he came within an ace of winning the trophy, taking the first two races in the best of five contest, but losing the rest. Had he won, the Royal Ulster would have hosted the prestigious race - it was the only international competition at that time pre-dating the Olympic Games and World Cup.

After Sir Thomas' failed attempts, it was another 60 years before any challenger beat the Americans.

While a fierce competitor he was a most gracious loser and that endeared him to Americans. He moved effortlessly among the rich and famous there and on his own private yacht, Erin, he entertained his guests in lavish style.

Dave says: "A lot of people argue that Sir Thomas was not really interested in winning the trophy but only in the publicity which his attempts generated for the Lipton brand. But there is no doubt that had he won the cup and brought the race to Northern Ireland, he would have been a more revered figure in this part of the world."

Sir Thomas was also involved in one of the most remarkable sporting triumphs in football history. He put up a trophy for a competition involving several European teams.

England was represented by a team of Durham miners, West Auckland FC (some sources argue that they meant to send Woolwich Arsenal but chose the wrong set of initials) which won the cup twice - defeating Italian side Juventus 6-1 on the second occasion - and was given it in perpetuity. Sadly it was later stolen and never recovered.

Sir Thomas' role in this competition was another example of his vision as Dave says: "It could be said that it was the forerunner of international competition between soccer teams and also an example of sport sponsorship which now is a huge industry. He saw the interest ordinary people would have in such competitions."

While Sir Thomas had a charmed, and charming life, the First World War was to cause him his darkest days.

He kitted out his yacht as a hospital ship, fully equipped and staffed with doctors and nurses. Dave says: "While other rich men loaned their ships to the war effort and armed them with guns, his motivation was humanitarian.

"I believe he genuinely just thought about the suffering that the war was causing to ordinary people. His ship was to be used to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the battles."

But it was to have a tragic end. A German submarine sank Erin although it displayed a huge red cross on its sides marking it out as a hospital ship.

Dave points out the irony: "Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II had been a frequent visitor on the Erin when Sir Thomas entertained his guests in America and then it was his navy which sunk it.

"Sir Thomas was bereft because as well as the injured, the medics and nurses, the Erin was being crewed by men who had served him for many years. Now all were dead."

The documentary also reveals how Sir Thomas saved the British royal family from huge embarrassment. Princess Alexandra of Denmark who was married to the future King Edward VII proposed a huge party for some of her subjects but donated only a paltry sum of money for the event.

Sir Thomas stepped in with a huge donation - over £1m in today's money - and with his expertise in logistics helped ensure the event was a success.

On his death, Sir Thomas's fortune was donated to veterans and nurses of the First World War and also to the city of Glasgow. In Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Yacht Club has a room named after him as well as artefacts connected with his failed attempts to win the Americas Cup.

The Man Who Charmed The World is on BBC Two Northern Ireland tomorrow at 10pm

Belfast Telegraph

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TV presenter Duncan Bannatyne with a bust of Sir Thomas Lipton during filming in Bangor

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Duncan Bannatyne with Ed Wheeler from Royal Ulster Yacht Club out on Belfast Lough during the filming of The Man Who Charmed The World

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Duncan Bannatyne with a portrait of Sir Thomas Lipton

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Sir Thomas Lipton