A faded shop sign above a Tesco Express where the Strand meets Fleet Street is the last trace of the curiously named Aerated Bread Company. It was the Pret a Manger of its day, in fierce competition with another catering giant, J Lyons. Both of them have completely disappeared from the High Street, except for a few ghostly reminders like this one. Pret, beware!
The Aerated Food Company started in 1862, making bread using a revolutionary new method that saved costs by avoiding expensive fermentation. It diversified two years later into a chain of tea shops. At the height of its success in 1923 the company – by then called ABC – had 150 branches and 250 teashops in London.
Lyons flooded London and elsewhere with a rival chain of teashops 30 years after the start of Aerated. Both companies employed smartly- uniformed women as waitresses, creating an atmosphere in which, for the first time, Victorian women could eat in safety together or even alone. The company went on went on to huge success in Britain and around the world.
By the early twentieth century, as company biographer Thomas Harding recalls, it was the undisputed king of British catering. It opened hotels like the Regent Palace and more tea shops than ABC. It has some claim to have produced the first programmable business computer in the world and, during the Second World War, even ran the Royal Ordnance Factory at Elstow in Bedfordshire. It is estimated that one seventh of all explosives dropped on Germany were made there.
Lyons reached its peak with the opening if its celebrated Corner Houses, some of which had multiple restaurants, stayed open all night and employed as many as 400 people. It was at the forefront of foodie trends, but not in its treatment of women. It emerged later that as early as 1873 the company had secretly set up The Fund, a benevolent provision for members of families it employed, but only if they were men.
The last of the Corner Houses closed soon after Lyons was bought by Allied Breweries in 1978 and closure of the tea shops followed not long after. The likes of ABC and Lyons were criticised by George Orwell as the “sinister strand in English catering, the relentless industrialisation that was overtaking it…everything comes out of a carton or a tin”. But ABC was lauded by others, including George Bernard Shaw, and its tea shops appeared in numerous novels by Graham Greene, Agatha Christie, Somerset Maugham and many others. T S Eliot even wrote these lines which could have – but didn’t – come from The Waste Land:
“Over buttered scones and crumpets
Weeping, weeping multitudes
Drop in a hundred A.B.Cs”
But drop out they eventually did, as changing fashions and new ways of making bread emerged. The Aerated Bread Company was taken over by Garfield Weston’s Canadian Allied Bakeries, which already owned Fortnum and Mason. London’s high streets were never the same again.
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