Born: Catherine Cranston; also known as Mrs John Cochrane
Sector: Travel and Leisure
In October 2020, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a new design for its £5, £10 and £20 bank notes, featuring three significant Scottish women: the author and poet, Nan Shepherd; the scientist, Mary Somerville; and Kate Cranston. Kate was an entrepreneurial business woman whose innovative and successful tea rooms made Glasgow world-famous around the turn of the last century. Her tea rooms enabled women to meet socially in public, unchaperoned, she worked with innovative designers to create spaces which were beautiful to visit and worked hard behind the scenes to ensure every client had a great experience.
For a long time, much more importance was placed on Kate’s role as a patron of designers than on her own achievements in business. This was exacerbated by how little she left behind in terms of written material – there are no letters or diaries and despite being very good at drumming up publicity for her business, few interviews with her survive from the period she was working. We therefore know what Kate did but not why: what motivated her to venture into business in the first place, why she decided to start collaborating with innovative designers in the first place and how much input she had into their schemes all remain something of a mystery.
Kate was born in a hotel and into a family of hoteliers. Her mother died when she was just 18. Both her father, George, and his cousin, Robert Cranston, ran hotels, though Robert’s operation was larger and more successful and it was Kate’s older brother, Stuart, who first ventured into the tea business, setting himself up as a tea merchant when he was 23. In 1875 he moved to a larger location at 76 Argyle Street and decided to create a space where customers could sit down and taste the tea for themselves as well as choose from a small selection of bread and cakes. From this new idea, the concept of the tea room developed.
Soon after, in 1878, Kate set up her first venue on Argyle Street. Kate later said she ‘started at zero’. She may not have had great financial resources, but her family background gave her access to a useful network and her Crown Tea and Luncheon Rooms were housed on the ground floor of a temperance hotel run by a friend of her uncle Robert. Her brother was still positioning his space as a sample room and Kate’s business was the first in Glasgow to be explicitly referred to as a tea room in business directories, where Kate listed herself simply as C. Cranston (no Miss). It was popular with men and women and in 1886 she opened her second venue on Ingram Street.
A number of circumstances combined to create the conditions for the growth of the tea room in Glasgow. There was a strong temperance movement so alcohol-free establishments had a ready customer base. As the city grew, the distance between home and work grew and it was no longer feasible for men to go home for lunch, which had been the norm. Business men needed somewhere other than the pub to meet for a light meal. The retail scene was developing and for middle-class women, shopping was slowly becoming a pastime. Tea rooms offered somewhere respectable to sit down and chat during these expeditions as well as an opportunity to go to the loo. In London, the first public convenience for women did not open until 1900 in Camden (championed by George Bernard Shaw when he was a local councillor).
In 1888, Kate expanded the Ingram Street after acquiring the ground floor lease of the neighbouring building. She also hired a young artist, George Walton, to give her Argyle Street premises a mini-makeover in the run up to the International Exhibition of Art and Industry, which took place in Glasgow that same year. This initial collaboration was on a small scale, particularly compared to later projects, but it gave Walton the confidence subsequently to set up his own business as an ‘Ecclesiastical and House Decorator’.
Business was good in the following years and then on the 7th July 1892, Kate surprised many by getting married to John Cochrane, a man eight years younger than her who ran a successful boiler-making business. She broke with convention by continuing to work and keeping her maiden name for her business dealings. Marriage gave Kate more financial stability – her wedding present from John was rumoured to be an investment in her business – and she asked George Walton to work on the interiors of the new marital home in Barrhead.
In 1894 Kate acquired a new site at 91-93 Buchanan Street and the following year she made an application to take down the old building and erect a new one in its place, a four-story tea room with a kitchen in the basement. George Walton was again asked to design most of the interiors but also given a commission was a 27-year old architect and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). He was given the job of decorating the walls of three tea-rooms at the rear of the building. Peacocks, suns, moons, trees and a frieze of women entangled with rose bushes all featured.
When the tea rooms opened at the beginning of May 1897, they received plenty of attention. ‘When Miss Cranston’s new rooms..are opened to the public today, the second city of the Empire will be able to boast one of the most complete and finest-equipped dining establishments in the Kingdom’, trumpeted one newspaper. Kate was given a lot of credit for her ‘careful investigations’ of dining establishments in the UK and on the continent, which had resulted in a well-thought-out design. There were two rooms on each of the four levels, a tea room each for men and women on the ground floor, separate dining rooms on the first and second floors and a billiard room and a smoking room at the top of the building. These delineated spaces gave women much-needed socially acceptable freedom without the expense of having to join a women’s club. ‘That the public will appreciate the advantages offered in the new rooms and enterprise of their proprietress and accord it a successful future cannot be doubted’, concluded the article.
An early visitor was Gertrude Jekyll’s protege, Edwin Lutyens, who visited in June 1897 during a trip to Scotland and in a letter to his future wife described it as ‘very elaborately simple on very new school High Art Lines. The result is gorgeous! and a wee bit vulgar! ..It is all quite good, all just a little outré..’ He was back again the following year for breakfast and encountered Kate by now 48, ‘a dark, busy, fat wee body with black sparkly luminous eyes, wears a bonnet garnished with roses and has made a fortune by supplying cheap clean foods in surroundings prompted by the New Art Glasgow School.’ By now women’s fashions had changed considerably and the crinolines of high Victoriana were long gone from women’s wardrobes but Kate continued to dress in a bygone style, suggesting ‘she had stepped out of a Victorian fashion plate.’
Kate’s next expansion was the site of her original tea room, 114 Argyle Street. Now in possession of the lease for the whole building, she went about turning it into another multi-floor tea room, with George Walton designing the interiors and Charles Rennie Mackintosh designing the furniture. The much-expanded and newly-refurbished tea room opened in 1899. It was another huge success. In a long column in November 1899, a ‘lady contributor’ reflected on her shock of hearing Paris and Glasgow described as ‘the two great art centres to be reckoned with nowadays’ before acknowledging that Miss Cranston’s restaurants in Buchanan and Argyle Streets would make any ‘artistic visitor’ who came to Glasgow ‘prepared to scoff, go away to admire.’ Buchanan Street was ‘an artistic delight from beginning to end’ while Argyle Street, with its high-backed chairs, of which Kate was reported to be specially proud, were described at length.
But as the journalist rightly pointed out ‘if the artistic surroundings were not accompanied by prompt service and excellent cooking, Miss Cranston’s rooms would not have the popularity they enjoy.’ Kate’s behind-the scenes operations screamed efficiency, from the regimented dish-washing arrangements, a lightweight American oven, which could be installed on the top floor where the in-house bakery operated and a mechanised system she had designed herself for transmitting orders to the kitchens.
Next it was the turn of the Ingram Room tea rooms for a makeover. Kate had acquired more space and gave Mackintosh responsibility for the entire interior design.
Mackintosh was now working closely with another art student, Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933). Born in Staffordshire, she and her younger sister, Frances, were both students at the Glasgow School of Art. She was a painter and worked in metal but it is for the wall panels she created for Kate Cranston’s restaurants that she is best known. She married Charles in August 1900. Untangling her contribution to the tea room projects from her husband’s aside from her wall panels is impossible but they worked as a team.
Between 1900 and 1917 Mackintosh undertook numerous projects across the three tea rooms as well as at Hous’hill, Kate and John’s seventeenth century mansion. However, the pièce de résistance and the building that has become most famed was the Willow Tearooms. In this project the Mackintoshes had a totally free hand, Charles entrusted with both architectural and design responsibilities. Work started in October 1903 and after a year of work, their masterpiece was revealed, the Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street, a landmark in the history of design. Behind an unadorned white facade, customers found a lavish interior, with furniture and wall panels inspired by the poems of Gabriel Dante Rossetti. The colour schemes for the tea rooms for men and women on the ground floor were sharply contrasting and on the first floor was a ‘Salon de Luxe’ with its purple-seated silver chairs and a shimmering chandelier of pink glass balls. Even the waitresses had a special uniform with chokers of pink beads.
It is Kate’s treatment of her staff that has subsequently generated controversy. She is usually positioned as a fair but demanding employer. Recollections of waitresses shared in Perilla Kinchin’s book, ‘Miss Cranston’, suggest an operation run on military lines. ‘Maids’ were given very specific responsibilities for vegetables, puddings, sweets or potatoes. Hygiene standards were very high which meant a lot of scrubbing. Kate made daily visits to see what was going on as well as employing branch manageresses. She tended to employ orphans or girls from single-parent families. This could be seen as philanthropic or, less positively, a way to reduce the likelihood of complaints about a job where the pay was low and the hours were long. A document entitled ‘Miss Cranston’s Establishments: Rules for Girls’, from 1911, shows that girls were expected to work 13 hours a day, six days a week, with a ten-minute lunch break, which was criticised at the time.
In 1909, the Who’s Who of Glasgow was published, featuring 454 men and seven women. Kate was the only business woman. At the 1911 Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry held in Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow, Kate set up the White Cockade Restaurant, with a menu designed by Margaret Mackintosh and was the subject of a profile which claimed that ‘Everybody Knows Miss Cranston.’
As she moved into her 60s, Kate continued to experiment. In 1916, she established an 850-seater cinema de luxe alongside restaurants and tea rooms. She made one last change to her tea rooms that same year, renovating a basement space in a site adjoining the Willow Tea Rooms. Mackintosh’s design, with stripes and chevrons and primary colours, heralded the jazz age but the decision to call it ‘The Dug Out’ was not the most tactful choice when men were dying in their thousands in the trenches in France.
Within months of its opening in 1917, John Cochrane died, leaving Kate devastated. Now aged 68 she largely withdrew from her business ventures. She sold three of the four tea rooms and handed over the management of the Ingram Street Tea Rooms to Jessie Drummond. It was finally sold in 1930. When Kate was interviewed that year, aged 81, she was still wearing Victorian dress and deeply disapproving of women smoking in public and waitresses with short skirts. She died four years later and remained loyal to the city she had lived in for her entire life, leaving the majority of her estate, with a value equivalent to £5m, to benefit the poor of Glasgow.
Kate’s success is in many ways textbook. She saw an opportunity and developed it, learning as she went and actively seeking new ideas from other markets. She created successful collaborations and building the trust that allowed for radical experimentation. And she never seems to have forgotten that it was the customer experience that mattered, with rigorous attention to operational detail. If she had not been such a good operator, her cafes would not have had such a long life span and Charles Rennie Mackintosh would not have had so many opportunities to develop his practice. She deserves her place on the £20 note.
The pictures of the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh are all courtesy of Glasgow Museums, used under a creative commons licence.
Sources include: Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette 1/5/1897; Dundee Evening Telegraph 10/11/1899; ‘The Letters of Edwin Lutyens to his wife Emily’ ed. Clayre Percy and Jane Ridley (1985); Dundee People’s Journal 31/5/1930; Dundee Courier 19/4/1934; Scottish Financial News 23/11/2018.
‘Miss Cranston’ by Perilla Kinchin (2005); ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh’ by James McNaughtay (2010)
‘Catherine Cranston’ by Pamela Robertson in The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present No. 10 (1986) P.10-17