For much of the 20th century an iconic element in the British way of life was the Lyons teashop, a feature of high streets up and down the land. At their height there were more than 200 of them, each instantly recognizable by its white fascia with “J Lyons & Co Ltd” set on it in chunky gold letters. Their popularity with the general public stemmed from a number of factors. Certainly the quality and value-for-money of their tea and baked goods, but just as important were the waitresses who dispensed them. By the mid-1920s they were known affectionately as “nippies.” Lyons dressed their girls in chic black dresses embroidered with double rows of tiny pearl buttons, white collars and cuffs, white aprons and fetching black and white caps.Nippies were a feature also of the up-market version of the teashops – the three Lyons Corner Houses in London’s West End. In Legacy, which Thomas Harding subtitles One family, a cup of tea and the company that took on the world, the writer describes how a Jewish refugee family from central Europe succeeded in building a multi-faceted business empire in the UK, of which their teashops became an important, but far from sole, element.During the first years of the 19th century in the small town of Jever, some 100 kilometers north-west of Bremen, anti-Jewish sentiment flourished and Jewish families found it increasingly difficult to make a living. One day the teenage Lehmann Glückstein, his parents and siblings, packed their goods onto a cart and left the town, making toward the West. They found refuge with family members, but young Lehmann decided to push on and make his own way in the world.His adventures sometimes read like lurid fiction – especially, perhaps, his marriage to his five-months pregnant fiancée, and his false death and burial, complete with tombstone, followed by a “moonlight flit” to escape his creditors. Lehmann’s son, Samuel, inherited his adventurous spirit and, aged just 22, made his own way to London to seek his fortune. Harding recounts how Samuel fell almost by chance into the cigar trade, and made such a success of it that in 1847 he was able to bring his parents and four siblings over to London.In due course Samuel’s 17-year-old daughter Lena married 34-year-old Barnett Salmon, a cigar salesman, and the family was set on the path to the financial success it won as Salmon and Gluckstein, soon to become Britain’s premier tobacco retailers.The outstanding businessman in the family was to be Samuel’s son, Monte. Largely responsible for the continuing success of the tobacco business, managed as it was by the ever-increasing descendants of the Samuel-Gluckstein founders, Monte’s fertile brain devised a revolutionary way of running a family firm. He proposed establishing what he called “The Fund,” which would pool the incomes and assets of all the male descendants working in the business. The Fund would then distribute to each on an entirely equal basis, including the dividends and all other benefits such as houses and carriages. It was to be an early version of the kibbutz in action. Except for one or two of the family members who chose to go their own way, the rest agreed – and it was on this basis that the business was run and the family fortunes prospered.MONTE HAD an uncanny feel for business opportunities. In 1887 he persuaded the other members of the family to allow him to bid for the catering contract for a huge exhibition to be held in Newcastle. They made one proviso. The name Salmon and Gluckstein was too well connected to the tobacco trade. Monte would have to choose something else – preferably something not too Jewish – for his catering enterprise.Monte immediately thought of a personable young salesman of novelties that he had once met – Joseph Lyons, known as Joe. He tracked him down at an exhibition in Liverpool, and presented his proposition. With Salmon and Gluckstein finding all the finance and making all the decisions, would Joe agree to allow his name to be used for the business and to act as front man? He would – and J Lyons and Co Ltd was born.The Newcastle catering venture was a huge success, and the company soon expanded. In 1889 Monte won the catering contract for Barnum & Bailey’s Circus in London; in 1891 he took over Olympia and mounted a spectacular exhibition, Venice in London, to which nearly five million visitors flocked. It was surpassed only by his London in Constantinople, staged two years later.The business led by Monte was ahead of its time in many ways. The teashops were eventually a model of standardization. All the products were manufactured to exacting standards at the company headquarters in Cadby Hall and shipped from there to the teashops. It was this exacting adherence to manufacturing quality that led the Lyons organization into top-secret diversification during the Second World War. A fair proportion of the explosives dropped on Germany were manufactured at the Lyons munitions factory at Elstow in Bedfordshire.The company were pioneers in computerization. As early as 1951 they had conceived and set up LEO, a computerized method of stock-taking and valuation. The venture eventually became LEO Computers Ltd.The story is far from one of unalloyed success. Eventually the company found itself unable to keep pace with changing consumer fashion. Additionally, the firm made some catastrophic strategic errors. For example, in the 1970s Lyons caught “conglomerate fever” and borrowed heavily to fund a buying spree that spun out of control. Eventually the economy turned against the sort of extended operation that J Lyons had become, and the vast commercial enterprise was forced out of business.In producing Legacy, Harding, himself a member by marriage of the Salmon-Gluckstein hierarchy, delved deep into his family’s history. From his research he has produced a fascinating account that explains on a human level the successes and failures of some remarkable entrepreneurs. He sets his story against the backdrop of the social and political events of the time, all of which feature in the unfolding and interwoven history of the family, the company and Britain itself.