Culpeper House
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Rendezvous at the Legend
Wholesome and holistic Culpeper

History of Culpeper House and the People Behind It

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By Jennifer Jacobs

Ian Thomas is an English gentleman, slightly old-fashioned, simple, kind, modest, unassuming and understated. He reminds one a little of the characters Agatha Christie so delightfully caricatured as "the gentry", or the old school tie.

He likes to potter in the garden, is devoted to his second-hand dog Jacob and though a generous patron of charitable organisations, he runs his business along puritanical lines, not believing in unnecessary waste.

The chairman of Culpeper House, Britain's oldest chain of herb stores, Thomas who did National Service in the British army as a young man, was briefly called into Singapore on the way out of Japan and South Korea.

He then went to Cambridge where he read History and Economics. After which he became the first graduate trainee of Wrigley's Products Limited where: "I used to go around selling gum."

But Thomas was not cut out to be a chewing gum salesman. "I got fired. I think I was probably too rebellious, too independent."

After this, he went into advertising and worked for six years with a company called Ted Bates. Then at 32, one of his clients, Jimmy Goldsmith, who later became Sir James Goldsmith, invited him to become the joint managing director of Cavenham Foods.

"I subsequently founded a small publishing firm and then he and I bought into Culpeper in 1972. I bought him out in 1978," he said.

Thomas had always been a keen gardener. "I had always gardened, both as a child and when I had my first house in London. Also, being a Taurus, I like my food."

Culpeper is a holistic herbal shop with herbs for cooking, cosmetics derived from herbs and essential oils extracted from plants and flowers.

Thomas has a great admiration of the founder of Culpeper , Mrs Hilda Leyel, who started the business in 1927.

"She was a practising herbalist who had been rather worried about the fate of the ex-servicemen after the First World War. She raised rather lot of money, 300,000, in the 1920s as part of something called the Golden Ballot and she was prosecuted for it.

"She won her case that she could raise money for charitable causes of this kind, and in 1927, she set up Culpeper and the Herb Society. The Herb Society was a place you could meet and discuss about herbs, it was a sort of meeting of interested amateurs.

"And she set up this business, in her own words, to give people a taste for the wholesome and natural things of the earth.

"Mrs Leyel had very influential friends and she had been on the stage and because of the Golden Ballot she had an amazing list of supporters. Culpeper was a success from the start.

"She built the business up before the war (Second World War) to about 10 shops, in what she called the spas and watering places of Great Britain which were places like Harrogate and Bath," he said.

Thomas said Leyel gave consultations throughout the war and basically exhausted herself. She died in 1957.

"She was born in 1880, so she started Culpeper when she was 47, which by today's standards, is quite an old age to be starting a business. After she died it was run by the society of herbalists by committee and it ran down slowly.

"They gave up shops, sold off the library she had collected which was one of the best herbal libraries in private hands and although well- meaning, they did not really know what they were doing," he said.

"Very often when you have a strong personality like Mrs Leyel, they leave a vacuum when they die," he added, meditatively.

When he took over in 1972, Culpeper had the second original shop in 21, Bruton Street and it was just closing a shop in Ebury Street. "And it's been built up from there, basically on the same principles as Mrs Leyel laid down. She was a remarkable woman.

"The company at that stage was making losses of 10,000 a year on a turnover of 60,000. Today it turns over just about 4 million and makes a profit of about 250,000.

"We've built up on that basis and we've got 19 shops in the UK, we've got four in Japan and now we've got two in Malaysia. The four in Japan are unusual because there are not many British retailers that have stand-alone shops in Japan," he added.

Thomas said Culpeper is run along prudent or puritan lines, whichever one would like to call it. "It's been built up fairly slowly. We've never had any outside finance in the company at all, apart from bank loans at strategic times.

"All the business has been built up out of its own resources, out of cashflow. And I think that's the way businesses should grow," he said emphatically.

Thomas said in 1927, when Leyel started the first Culpeper shop in 10, Baker Street, nobody was interested in herbs, and it was associated with dirty little shops.

"Mrs Leyel revived the interest in herbs and kept it going. I think it's only in Britain where the fully trained herbalist has the same legal rights as an alopathic doctor.

"Herbalism has been a tradition in Britain since Henry the Eighth established the right of herbalists to practise their craft, and it has been enshrined in the 1968 Medicines Act," he said.

"The revival of herbalism basically started again in the early 1970s, when Culpeper started to reopen shops again. This caused an interest.

"In a funny sort of way, herbs went out of fashion from 1940 onwards. Before 1940, drugs prescribed were 90 per cent herbal-based. Then it went out of fashion and all these new drugs started coming in.

"In the pharmacy trade, they look at plants to extract the active ingredient. Now a herbalist would argue that here is no such thing as an active ingredient and that the plant itself buffers the active ingredient to make it more palatable.

"For instance aspirin is the active ingredient in white willow bark, but people who are allergic to aspirin can take white willow bark because the other ingredients in it are buffering the effects of the aspirin.

"So the herbalist would argue that it is better to take the whole herb than just the active ingredient but the pharmacy trade don't like that because you can't patent a plant. You can only patent an active ingredient or extract.

"And the doctors throughout the world always look for this thing that they call the magic bullet," he added.

Thomas has four children, James, Emma, Mark and Victoria and the younger two are part of the company. "My daughter Emma has just joined me from America and my son, Mark runs a sort of a subsidiary.

"Mark was working for me and I found it difficult to promote him further because his administration was so awful. He just was interested in administration.

"In a family business you can't have nepotism, it's totally wrong and anybody else who has any talent will get cross.

"So since he has a great interest in food, I bought him a small delicatessen business which he now runs. We own 60 per cent of it but I don't interfere.

"I'm not even on the board of it. He's making money with it now, but his administration still isn't much better. He is learning, however, what happens when you don't do administration and get behind on your back returns," he said with a smile.

His daughter Emma, however, who studied at Oxford and then went on to Harvard Business School is a different kettle of fish. "Her admin's pretty good."

"My eldest son, James, is the general manager of the Dorset Square Hotel in London and my youngest, Victoria works in Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong," he added.

Outside of herbs, his interests run to sailing and taking care of his second-hand dog Jacob.

"Jacob was abandoned and he was in a dog home for I think 8 months. He was on the dreaded big poster list, where they say, will anyone have him, because if they don't have him, he disappears from the face of the earth.

"He's a lurcher, a greyhound cross, not a great deal of intelligence but a very sweet dog and he takes up a disproportionate amount of time."

And as PG Wodehouse's Bertie would say to his inimitable butler Jeeves: "Noblesse oblige".

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Source: "Business Times," The New Straits Times Press, 29 Jul 1998, Page 3

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