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Tribute to Warren Ford – tea expertArtist Name
00:00 / 05:19

Warren Ford spent almost half a century associated with Yorkshire Tea, but the company never quite made a Yorkshireman out of him.

Victor Wild, a Swiss émigré who built up Bettys tearoom in Harrogate, had purchased the Yorkshire-based tea-and-coffee merchant CE Taylor & Co in 1962 but by the mid-1970s the business was struggling.

Wild (obituary, May 20, 2020) sought out Ford, a former senior buyer at Tetley’s tea, who recognised that a commitment to buying quality teas — “selecting” rather than “collecting” — would make the company stand out from the competition.

Ford proposed a new teabag product for the growing supermarket trade while championing the name Yorkshire to establish the brand. He also came up with the blend and even suggested the bright orange colour on the packaging, pointing out that it was the least-used colour on the tea shelf.

Taylors Yorkshire Tea hit the shelves in 1977, described as a “Yorkshire blend for Yorkshire people”, thus planting the myth that somehow tea comes from Yorkshire rather than India, China or Sri Lanka. Yorkshire Tea received a royal warrant in 2009 and a decade later was said to be the country’s bestselling brew, with a 28 per cent market share. In the early days Ford insisted on reviving the old practice of producing different blends for different types of water.

“The contrast in waters from Hull to Halifax was so great,” he recalled 40 years later. “You can turn an awkwardness into an advantage if you play to that, so we started doing separate blends of hard and soft.”

- Warren Ford

As sales spread across the country, Yorkshire Tea evolved into a single blend, though a variant with green packaging continues to cater for areas with hard water.

By then the utilitarian orange box no longer featured the original batsman in his whites nor the shepherd with his dog and crook that were once its signature marks. Instead, the county is represented by a rolling Dales landscape with a stile over a dry-stone wall and village cricketers in the distance.

Ford’s old-fashioned demeanour personified the carefully cultivated and genteel image of Taylors and Bettys. He was smartly dressed, well-mannered, good-humoured and respectful. Yet he had a steely tenacity. “He cared deeply,” said Jonathan Wild, who took over the business from his father, Victor, in 1996. “He trained his team to understand that lapses, even in the smallest detail, were not acceptable, and that we were only as good as the last blend we made.”

Warren Lionel Ford was born in Lewisham, south London, in 1933, the only child of Arthur Ford, a manager with Prudential Insurance in the City, and his wife, Hilda (née Hook), who trained as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music though did not pursue a musical career. He was educated at the Mercers’ School, close to his father’s office, but left at 16.

A friend from church recommended Joseph Tetley & Co, where he started as an apprentice in the coffee department. However, he found tea a more interesting commodity and it soon became his passion. As a young man he enjoyed squash, swimming and tennis, but a broken arm on the tennis court rendered him unfit for National Service.

Early in his career Ford spent a year in Sri Lanka followed by three years in Calcutta, working in Tetley’s tea- buying offices. By 1952 he was back in Britain, buying tea at London auctions. “You get to know people who huff and puff and so forth,” he recalled. “The auctioneer would sit up on the rostrum and another man would sit on either side of him and that was the norm. That had been the way it was done since 1700-and-something.”

He was involved in Tetley’s introduction of mass-manufactured teabags to the British market in 1953. “They were already in America but then we progressed it,” he said. “I was put in charge of the blending department.”

In 1957 Ford married Gill West and they had two sons who survive him: Kevin, who works in marketing; and Graham, who worked in water treatment before his retirement. The marriage was dissolved and in 1998 he met Judy Mahoney, a primary school teacher. They were married in 2005 and she also survives him.

 

When Tetley was acquired by J Lyons and Co in 1973, Ford set up as an independent tea buyer and consultant. He had a warehouse in the East End and offices and a tea-tasting room in Great Portland Street. He acted as a broker and buyer for smaller manufacturers and merchants.

After Ford joined Taylors as a consultant, the company decided that he was too good to share. By 1976 he had been appointed a director, though he continued as an independent tea buyer. In the 1990s he returned to producing his own tea, while remaining close to Yorkshire Tea and mentoring the company’s future generations of tea buyers.

“I think he grew very fond of us all here in Yorkshire, as we were of him, though he declined to up-sticks and move north,” said Wild. 

“He was his own man and liked his independence, History, though, will cast him as one of the heroes of God’s own county.”

- Johnathan Wild

Warren Ford, tea consultant, was born on May 16, 1933. He died after surgery for a broken hip on June 21, 2023, aged 90.

Warren Ford Obituary

OBITUARY

Tea consultant and buyer who devised the ubiquitous Yorkshire blend and propelled the success of brands such as Tetley’s.

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