Yorkshire Tea: Man credited with inventing iconic Yorkshire Tea dies aged 90
One of the most influential figures in the beverage industry, he was running his own tea consultancy in London when he was recruited by Taylors in the early 1970s.
During a period when tea bags were changing the way people made a cuppa and supermarkets revolutionising the way they shopped, it was Mr Ford who recognised the importance of selecting and blending individual teas to suit the water.
He also championed the name ‘Yorkshire’ as a way to establish the brand for a regional market and suggested it be packed in orange boxes to distinguish it from the other packs on the shelf.
Warren Lionel Ford was born in Lewisham, south London, in May 1933, the only child of Arthur Ford, a manager for Prudential Insurance, and Hilda (née Hook), a concert-level pianist who trained at the Royal Academy.
Warren attended the independent Mercers’ School in Holborn, leaving at 16 when a contact at church recommended training at the London tea firm founded in Huddersfield a century earlier by brothers Joseph and Edward Tetley.
He started as a junior in the coffee department. A broken arm sustained while playing tennis kept him out of national service, so he worked his way up the Tetley’s ranks, with a posting to Sri Lanka and then three years in Calcutta, in the tea buying offices.
He became involved in Tetley’s push to introduce mass-manufactured tea bags into the UK, but when the firm was acquired by J Lyons and Co in the early 1970s, he decided to set himself up as an independent tea buyer and consultant.
With a tea warehouse in the East End and offices and a tasting room in Great Portland Street, he acted as a broker and tea buyer for smaller manufacturers and merchants, and held a licence to produce Beatrix Potter teas.
It was in that capacity that he was approached by Victor Wild, who had added the ailing, Leeds-based Taylors Tea and Coffee business to his Bettys Tea Room empire, and recognised that additional expertise was needed to revitalise the beverage side.
Victor and his son Jonathan Wild, who had joined the business as a management trainee, were impressed by Warren’s demeanour. “He was old fashioned in the nicest possible way: smartly dressed, well mannered, good humoured, respectful – a real gentleman,” Jonathan recalled. “But there was a steely tenacity about him and an unconventional streak that enabled him to navigate us stealthily into an ever more challenging world.”
By 1976 Warren had been appointed a director of Taylors and the following year, along with Victor, Jonathan and sales executive Eddie Hardie, he became one of the ‘Gang of Four’ responsible for the creation, launch and early success of Yorkshire Tea.
At a time when quarter-pound packets of loose leaf tea were still common, it was Warren who conceived the idea of launching a new brand of tea bag for the growing supermarket trade
“Yorkshire Tea took over our lives and compelled us to stretch ourselves beyond the limits of our experience – and inexperience,” recalled Jonathan Wild. “I’m not sure that at any other moment in time we could have created something so unique and ultimately so successful.”
In the new product, Warren established the tea buying and blending practices that future generations of tea buyers would build on. He pioneered the production of different blends of Yorkshire Tea for different types of water – something no other brand offered. “The contrast in waters from Hull to Halifax was so great that we started doing separate blends of hard and soft,” he recalled 40 years later.
In 1998 Taylors opened its own tea buying office in London and, with the closure of the London Tea Auction, moved its tea buying operation to Harrogate four years later. Warren, meanwhile, continued to be an independent tea buyer and consultant, dividing his time between Taylors and his own businesses.
Taylors never made a never made a Yorkshireman of Warren, who continued to live in the south and failed even to spot that the county name had been misspelt on a test run of packages.
“I think he grew very fond of us all here in Yorkshire,” said Jonathan Wild, “He was his own man and liked his independence. History, though, will re-cast him as one of God’s Own County’s heroes and he will be long remembered and honoured as the creator of – and the genius behind – Yorkshire Tea.”
Mr Ford is survived by his second wife, Judy, whom he married in 2005; by two sons from his first marriage, and two grandchildren.