He founded the Buttercup Dairy company, which had 250 shops at its peak, but Andrew Ewing’s story did not always have a happy ending
As the founder of the Buttercup Dairy empire, Ewing made an important contribution to history. But, as the shops disappeared from our streets, so too did their story.
Only those with very long memories would today recall a retail empire that, at its peak, boasted 250 shops across Scotland, employing hundreds. The Buttercup Dairy’s livery was near-ubiquitous in much of Scotland’s Central Belt and lasted more than 60 years. But ultimately this is a story of a successful business that was eventually undone by the generosity of its founder as much as by increased competition and bad luck.
It was while doing family research that Bill Scott, the author of The Buttercup – The Remarkable Story of Andrew Ewing and the Buttercup Company, realised how little information remained about Ewing. As a devout Christian, Ewing decided that all eggs laid on a Sunday were to be donated to charity. Given the farm’s capacity, this amounted to a staggering five million per year.
Scott grew up on Ewing’s enormous Corstorphine poultry farm, nicknamed Hen City, where many family members also lived and worked. His mother worked as a poultry assistant and farmhand, and his aunts were Ewing’s housekeepers.
His grandmother, grandfather, uncle and great uncle were also employed there. “There was quite a tribe and most of it stemmed from Andrew Ewing’s decision to take my grandfather and Uncle Tom out of the pits in 1934 and give them ‘clean jobs’ at the Buttercup,” says Scott.
Ewing was born near Stoneykirk, near Stranraer, in 1869. Following his father’s death the family moved to Dundee. It was here that he started work as an apprentice grocer. The talented lad was soon promoted to manager and he began to harbour ambitions to run his own business. In 1894 he opened his first, a grocer’s named simply “A. Ewing. Grocer”.
It didn’t take Ewing long to see that the future lay in multiples – chains as we know them now – and following four years of planning and investment, the Buttercup Dairy Company was born.
The first shop opened at 136 Commercial Street, Kirkcaldy, in 1904. This was followed closely by Bowhill and, by 1905, Ewing had established his head office in Elbe Street, Leith.
Stores opened in Edinburgh from 1908 and the empire grew at an average rate of 15 units per year, numbering 250 at its peak. Rapid expansion led to a new head office and depot opening in Easter Road, Leith, in 1915.
Ewing was married by then, and he and his wife, Nellie, lived in Wardie Road, close to his headquarters.
The Buttercup shops were part of daily life and those who remember them do so with great affection. Having an eye for design, and taking particular pride in his window displays, Ewing collaborated with architect James Davidson Cairns to create the Buttercup image, which was captured on ceramic tiles. The centrepiece depicted a fresh-faced little girl holding a buttercup under the chin of a cow. This became an intrinsic part of the brand and some of the tiles, designed by Glasgow firm James Duncan, survive today.
The stores were almost always staffed by women. They sold a range of high-quality produce, including eggs, butter, margarine and condensed milk. Eggs were eventually supplied by Ewing’s Clermiston Mains poultry farm, which spanned 86 acres and housed 200,000 laying hens. In his book Scott refers to this Scotsman account of a 1930 visit by the World Poultry Congress: “Even the American visitors, who are accustomed to ‘big’ things in the States, were impressed by the immensity of the Clermiston Mains enterprise.”
The farm employed around 100 staff at its peak. Again, these were largely women, who were considered more beneficial because of a natural maternal instinct. There was a strict dress code and no girl was allowed to have her hair bobbed in the flapper style of the day.
Ewing was by now one of the wealthiest businessmen in Scotland. He lived in a large house set within extensive grounds at Clermiston Mains in Edinburgh. There he indulged his passion for cars, particularly the luxurious Belgian Minerva, popular among the British elite in the 1920s.
But, despite his wealth and standing, Ewing was generous and thoughtful, strongly committed to following his Baptist faith. “I prefer not to use the word philanthropist to describe Andrew,” says Scott, “because this usually describes someone who through the act of giving also enjoys the prestige of being recognised. Andrew strongly believed that giving was something you did in secret.”
In fact, piecing the together the Ewing story was not easy for Bill Scott and the book represents four years of research. Much came anecdotally from Ewing family members, Buttercup workers and their relatives. “The story was close to my heart, and someone said to me it was the best way to write a book,” he says. “I just felt that the story needed to be told, and that if I didn’t do it, it would probably be lost forever.
“Much of the book is based on e-mails, letters and interviews. It’s an unusual way to obtain information, but there was very little written down. In order to progress, I placed appeals in local papers across Scotland, asking for information and help.”
As responses started to pour in, Scott recognised the book’s potential. Not only were Ewing’s relatives willing to help, there were also former employees happy to contribute. Many had felt the same as Scott, that this was an important part of history that deserved more attention. He was also able to draw on personal reminiscences, striving at all times for authenticity to ensure he did the great man justice.
A significant factor in the lack of information was Ewing himself, says Scott. An incredibly private man, Ewing lived by a strict Baptist faith and much of his charity work was done secretly. “In the Bible it says that if you give in secret, God will reward you, and this was a core part of Andrew’s beliefs.
“Andrew kept himself to himself, and had few photographs taken. When I visited the church where he is buried, the minister had never even heard of him.”
Scott himself has fond memories of the great man. “Although I was very young when I lived at Clermiston Mains, it had a deep and lasting impact on me. From a very young age, I was aware that Andrew Ewing had taken my grandfather out of the pit, when he was ill. My parents and grandparents thought the world of him and I was regularly regaled with tales of ‘Mr Ewing’, which were often humorous and inevitably involved some act of generosity.
“Andrew Ewing was in his eighties when I knew him and had obviously mellowed with old age. For us children, he was our very own ‘Mr Chips’, and invariably we would each receive half a crown whenever we encountered him on his afternoon walk. If we were particularly lucky, he would send us down to the ‘Big House’ for ice-cream – a rare treat in the early 1950s.”
The Depression signalled the start of a decline for the business. Competition was also a major factor, with the amalgamation of rivals, Home & Colonial, the Maypole Dairy and Liptons. Ewing’s attitude to business also became problematic. His often stated wish to die a poor man and frequent donations to charity hindered the struggling business. By the mid- 1930s Ewing had given away or sold most of his shares, and the company was severely in debt.
The problems were compounded by a devastating fire in 1936 which caused £40,000 of damage and effectively put an end to the poultry business. Over 40 stores were closed in the years immediately after and by the 1950s less than 30 remained.
Ewing, who never had children, passed away in August 1956 following a coronary thrombosis. As he had wished, he died with virtually nothing, his company worth little.
The young and able businessman, John Noble, was appointed managing director following the death, and set about improving the company’s finances. The cold store business was sold to Christian Salvesen in 1964 but he was unable to save the shops. The last of the Buttercup Dairy stores closed its doors in Edinburgh in 1965.
l The Buttercup – The remarkable story of Andrew Ewing and the Buttercup Company is published by Leghorn Books at £9.95.