‘The Greatest Grocers in the World’: International Tea Company’s Stores


Guildford Street, Chertsey, c. 1950 (© Historic England Archive fww01_01_0599_001)

‘International Stores’ was a common sight on English high streets from 1878, when the first shop opened in Brentford, until 1988, when all remaining outlets were rebranded ‘Gateway’.

To give the company its full name, ‘International Tea Company’s Stores’ was the trading arm of the food importing and processing firm, Kearley & Tonge, whose vast headquarters and central warehouses were based at Mitre Square in the City of London.

Newspaper Advert 1928

International Stores newspaper advertisement January 1928     Below: International Stores, Attleborough, Norfolk.

International Stores 4 April 2022 (7) - Copy

With over a thousand stores at its height, International claimed to be ‘the greatest grocer in the world’. After the Second World War, its small grocery and provisions shops – mostly located in southern England – were redeveloped or superseded by urban supermarkets. As a result, very few of the pre-war shops have survived intact. And those that do survive are not easy to recognise.

Until the 1930s, fascias bore the name ‘International Stores’ in bold brilliant-cut gilded lettering. The name was repeated on the deep brass sills of the stall risers, and often on an additional glazed panel positioned between the sill and the stall board.

IMG_8687 - Copy

Former International Stores, Southwold (© K. Morrison, 2018)

IMG_2786 - Copy

Former International Stores, Uppingham (© K. Morrison, 2019)

Many of the shops had large windows with fixed glazing, but large branches – such as Uppingham and Southwold – had a sash to one side of the entrance, corresponding to a provisions counter. Uppingham and Southwold, although 130 miles apart, shared the same style of olive green tiled pilasters and capitals. The attractive glazing pattern seen at Uppingham, probably dating from c.1910, was repeated verbatim at a long-lost store in Eastbourne.

IMG_8687 - Copy - Copy

‘Ceylindo Tea’, Southwold (© K. Morrison, 2018)

008 - Copy

‘Ceylindo Tea’, Uppingham (© R. Baxter, 2019)

The brand name of International’s tea, ‘Ceylindo’, was sometimes affixed to a thin ventilation grille that ran along the top of the windows – this survives at both Southwold and  Uppingham. Old photographs show that the transom beneath the grille was usually supported by small spandrels, sometimes terminating in pendants.

Rugby Sheep St 2000 - Copy

Sign on rear elevation of International Stores, with phone number, Sheep Street, Rugby (© K. Morrison, 2000)

In other respects, International Stores from the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s displayed considerable variety in the style of their pilasters, consoles, doorways, and even lanterns. The house style was never as distinctive and coherent, or so universally applied, as that of – for example – Home & Colonial Stores or Lipton’s.

Despite its fairly loose house style, International must have undertaken a lot of building and renovation work because, from the 1890s until around 1930, it had a marked preference for freehold property – often snapping up shops that had been vacant for some time.

Although this saved money on rent and meant that permission did not have to be sought from landlords for alterations, the Chairman had to justify the policy to stockholders who believed the capital might be better invested elsewhere. International Stores must have had active in-house architects’ and shopfitters’ departments, but little is known about them before the late 1940s, when Mr R. O. Slipper was the Chief Architect.

The real estate policy changed during the depression of the early 1930s. Under a new Chairman, International set up a subsidiary, ITS Property Development Co. Ltd., to develop property by building not just single shops, but pairs or groups of shops. Its first schemes were in London and Brighton. In an allusion to the central office – and to some of International’s branded provisions – new buildings might include a bishop’s mitre motif. An example can be spotted in Reigate.

IMG_2816 - Copy

Former International Stores, Oundle (© K. Morrison, 2019)

A chaste modern style of shopfront was adopted in the 1930s. The well-preserved example in Oundle has a flush stone surround rather than an applied wooden frame. A domed display case stands between two doorways: provisions to the left; groceries to the right. The general lines of this layout – though not yet couched in a modern style – had emerged in the 1920s and was illustrated in a widely-published press advertisement of 1928 (see above).

At Oundle the name ‘International Stores’ has been removed from the mosaic floor, leaving decorative garlands. But another example, with full lettering, can be seen in Petersfield.

IMG_2860 - Copy

Former International Stores, Oundle (© K. Morrison)

21ChapelStPetersfield c Brian Kerr 2016 - Copy

Former International Stores, Petersfield (© Brian Kerr, 2016)

International began to expand through acquisition before the war, buying the Star Tea Company (and with it, James Pegram & Co and Ridgway Tea) in 1928. Star brought 463 shops to the group, giving it a total of 926. In 1935 George J. Mason, with 385 shops centred on Birmingham, took the count well over 1,000. An early post-war purchase, in 1947, was the Payantake chain.

After 1945 International was at the forefront of the rush to implement self-service. Experiments in the years 1947-51 enabled managers to weigh the cost of conversion against that of maintaining fully serviced branches. The devotion to freehold property was long forgotten, and in 1959 International began to negotiate sale and leaseback contracts with the Legal & General Assurance Society. This helped to finance not just conversion to self-service (50 by 1955 and 263 by 1960), but the building of supermarkets (that is, units with over 2000 sq. ft. sales space) on new sites. In 1962, the first tranche of unwanted small shops was put on the market.

Having modernised its portfolio, International, with 900 outlets, was taken over by British American Tobacco in 1972 for £68 million. At this time the supermarkets had fascias with red lettering (‘International’) on a white ground and displayed a red basket logo. After a series of acquisitions and disposals, International, now with just 380 outlets, was bought by the Dee Corporation in 1984 for £180 million. The International name vanished when the shops were rebranded Gateway in 1988. These later became Somerfield, a name which would itself disappear in 2009-11.

International’s basket logo in Malvern Link c.1970.
Photo: Rock Davidson Associates, Historic Building Consultants
This entry was posted in Grocers, Provision Dealers and Dairies. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to ‘The Greatest Grocers in the World’: International Tea Company’s Stores

  1. Phil Darlington says:

    Very interesting – I remember International mainly as my Gran lived in Malvern where you can still see traces of the very much less grand modern International supermarkets. In Malvern Link, the Francis carpet shop used to be International (until recently the store still had the white fascia and the Entrance/Exit doors – you can see this on Google Street View if you use the history feature and go back to 2008), this store closed in the early 80s when the big International opened in Great Malvern (this store is now Wilko). The style of this store is very much like the one I’ve seen in Uttoxeter – it was very controversial when it opened; not least as it meant the closure of a Liptons supermarket as well!


    • Patrick Hogan says:

      I opened the store in Malvern in the early ‘80s on behalf of the architects’ dept at (mid-market) International. At the opening the then Mayor told me that the Council had hoped aspirationally for a Fortnum & Mason. (F & M funnily enough actually being owned by Garfield Weston together with mass market Fine Fare………..)


    • Russell Lutwyche says:

      Back in 1978 I used to travel down from to manage the small
      International stores in Barnards Green, I was 19 at the time.
      At 15 I started my working career with George Masons in Mere Green Sutton Coldfield, which was taken over by international stores


  2. George Spence says:

    I have A Preference Dividend 38 (No.3042) dated 31st May 1938 to the account of Major Thomas G C Gerrard & Anor is this of any interest to you .

    George Spence


  3. I think you are missing out some later info as regards branding priorto the Dee Corporation purchase. The well known red letters on white became cream letters on red. I know that’s true because i finished my days with International Stores at their Swadlincote branch (1633-7) and i wore a red jacket with cream and red tie

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Skipper Skipper says:

    I started an apprenticeship with International Tea Company Stores in Lancing Sussex in 1961 at age 16 (just). Leaving school at end of Christmas term, still 15. Took the Grocer’s Institute courses and examinations ,a couple of years relief management on the south coast and became Manager of the Burgess Hill branch at age 20. Resigned from the company in 1971/2 before its takeover by BATobacco. These stores had been recently converted to Self Service before I joined but still in a conservative dark wood panelled effect and were soon refitted to ‘modern’ standards. Re-fitting in those days meant staff worked through the night for security and cleaning for reopening for business promptly. Good memories of a very wide stock selection and exciting Christmas trading days, 6 day weeks with half day closing. The nearest comparison to our stock then is Fortnum and Mason today.


  5. Paul King says:

    I started at International Stores in 1975 in Saxmundham then moved around different stores saw the transition to Gateway then Somerfield and now still working in Saxmundham but with Waitrose who bought the store when COOP took over actually managed the Southwold Store as well.


  6. Fred Johnson says:

    I started at Star Supply Stores in Grantham in 1956 as errand boy the started as apprentice at the age of 15, used to go relief management, assistant manager at North Hykeham, my 1st management was at Sleaford before moving down to Chatteris and St Ives, Ramsey and Whittlesey, nearly 40 years service


  7. fragrancehouseltd says:

    One of their logo’s does still exist and is protected by the new occupant Fragrance House LTD. It’s in Malvern Link behind a metal screen with a plaque on the exterior


  8. Edward John O'Connor says:

    i worked with gerry fisher manager at soho,poplar,tooting and worlds end chelsea


  9. Steve Jones says:

    Very interesting article. I’m a little bit confused about the history of the store names. In 1974 we moved to a small town in North Wales, called Dolgellau. It had an International there. Then in the late 70s it became Price Rite. But all the info I’ve found says that it was the other way round, that all the Price Rite stores were renamed International. So what was going on – why did this one International store become a Price Rite, while the existing Price Rites stores became International? After we moved in the early 80s, the shop became a Lo-Cost and I don’t know if it ever was a Gateway or Summerfield, but I think it’s now a chemist shop.


  10. Alexander Cooper says:

    This was interesting history. There was an International in Stamford when I was a boy. It then became Gateway then Somerfield. There’s a Waitrose on the site now.


  11. David Simmonds says:

    My adoptive father, (my great uncle) Harry Simmonds, worked as a bacon smoker for K & T in Whitechapel and then, from 1963 as foreman in their bacon smokery in Egham, Surrey. He passed away in 1980. David Simmonds


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s