Robert Roberts today is the legacy of two great Irish families – the Goodbodys and the Wardells.
Robert Roberts Beginnings
Robert Roberts in Ireland was established by E. Gaynor Goodbody. Although, E. Gaynor was born in England, his family were Quakers from Tullamore. At a young age, he was apprenticed to Robert Roberts, the Quaker cafe and restaurant owners in Liverpool. His talent & work ethic marked him out and because of his Irish connections, he was sent back Dublin to start a business in Ireland.
Under E Gaynor’s stewardship, Robert Roberts in Ireland prospered. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Robert Roberts in the UK. They were heavily dependent on the White Star Line for custom and of course the Titanic disaster ended this relationship. It’s horses, which were core to it’s delivery business, were requisitioned by the British Army in 1914 with the promise they would be back for Christmas! The company fell on hard times and was wound up in 1916.
The Famous Cafes
E Gaynor set up a café in Suffolk street and a bakery & warehouse in South King street. The business was very successful. At that time, the area around Suffolk St. was the financial centre of Dublin and the smoking room downstairs was always a great place for the exchange of information. E Gaynor told his son that if he could have “had a tenth of the business transacted there, … (he could have) retired years before”.
E Gaynor opened his second café in Grafton Street in 1921. He was fortunate to have been able to acquire the lease cheaply as the “bullets were whizzing by from the college of surgeons on Stephen’s Green”. The last café was opened up in Dame Street in the early 1930s.
The Grafton St. café, in particular, was a haunt of the intelligentsia. It boasted a string trio and often hosted private concerts. Lady Gregory used the café as a meeting point for her PEN literary society. Maud Gonne McBride would buy her coffee no where else. Anthony Cronin remembers it fondly:
“I preferred Robert Roberts towards the top of Grafton Street. It was more continental and more of a coffee house. There was a table there at the front and every day it was more or less reserved for Jewish gentlemen who had been prominent during the War of Independence, men like Michael Noyek, Philip Sayers and Bob Briscoe. We used to go in there during the Holy Hour. When you were put out of the pub you would have to have somewhere to repair to. “
Part of the attraction of the café was the banter with the staff with regulars asking to be seated in Josie or Annie’s room.
Robert Roberts survived through many tough times in Ireland. The Economic War and Emergency were particularly challenging. It became very difficult to obtain tea & coffee through the normal UK channels and so many of the Irish merchants worked together & imported directly via Portugal. During the Emergency, as petrol was rationed, Robert Roberts once again had to rely on the trusty horse. However, Clive Goodbody remembers the commotion when he had to race out of the café to catch the horse as it bolted down Grafton Street. In 1971, Robert Roberts merged with Baker Wardell and the cafés fell prey to the harsh economic climate of the time.
The Tea Business & Wardells
Baker Wardell was founded as a family firm by John Wardell in the Liberties toward the end of the 1700s. It’s main business was importing & blending tea. John Wardell was a Quaker by birth, but he was forced to abandon his religion for owning a racehorse, albeit under an assumed name, as this was against the tenets of their beliefs. However, the high principles of Quakerism continued to influence the conduct of the business and the Wardell name was synonymous with trustworthiness and high standards. His son and grandson, both called John Wardell, in turn ran the business. The younger John, fought in the First World War and sadly, his experience during the war (he was mentioned in dispatches and also served time as a German prisoner of war) were to have a lasting effect on this most gentle of men. He took his responsibilities seriously and ran a sound organisation. He recognised the importance that phones would have for business and had one installed, the company number being “Dublin 4”. He and his wife, Dosia had two sons, John and Denny.
The Wardell family was committed to the area around the Liberties. John became involved with St Patrick’s hospital, a very worthwhile if not popular charity at the time, taking on the chairmanship of the board and starting a family relationship with the hospital that was to endure through three generations. Denny Wardell counts his time at St Pats among his best achievements. During his term there, the hospital was modernized and the walls as well as the attendant taboos were lowered.
To ensure the ongoing success of the company, John was most interested in having one of his sons learn more fully about tea. Denny was to spend two years in India, learning his trade. He later claimed that he learnt a lot more besides tea, but nevertheless was to return with talents that would stand to him over the years, when the company would undergo a period of expansion and diversity under his leadership.
Cooperating to Survive
In contrast to today, the tea market was very fragmented in Ireland. In the 1950s there were 45 tea companies operating in Ireland however English companies such as Lyons, Twinings & PG were beginning to dominate. To ensure the survival of the Irish business Baker Wardell acquired a number of these smaller companies such as Begges, Campbells, McGraths, Hoggs, Pattisons & Capital. The merger with Robert Roberts created a strong company that could meet these challenges head on. Today in Robert Roberts, though much has changed, we try to live up to the high standards of our founders. We are based now off the Broomhill Road in Dublin 24 – however we still pay the same attention to the blending of our teas and roasting of our coffees. We try to live up to their Quaker principles by taking a leading role in the Fairtrade organisation and also supporting local and national charities.