Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'A Full Cup'

A Full Cup

Lipton's parents did not dream big. In emigrating from Ireland, Thomas Sr. and Frances had improved their lot, but they still saw life in terms of struggle and loss. Their eldest son, John, who had often been sick, died in 1857 at the age of nineteen. A few years later the Civil War in America disrupted trade and threw thousands of Glasgow men out of work. As Thomas Sr. grappled with the insecurity of his income, the solution that he and his wife, Frances, imagined was to join the shopkeeper class by opening a little grocery store. Humble and wary of overreaching, they wouldn't set out to make a success "in the ordinary sense of the word," recalled their son, but only to make a "bare living."

Tucked into a tiny space a few steps below street level, the Lipton grocery shop offered the most basic wares -- eggs, butter, ham -- to a community no more than a few blocks square. The provisions came from a friend of the family who farmed in Ireland and packed them onto a coastal steamship that arrived at Clydeside every Monday. Tommy, by now a teenager, wheeled a barrow to the dock, waited for the shipment to be unloaded, and then pushed it back up Crown Street. Inside the shop, he helped with cleaning and offered precocious suggestions, including the idea that eggs be served to customers by his mother, because her small hands made them seem bigger.

The bustle of business captivated Tommy Lipton in ways that school never did. In highly literate Scotland, even working-class families tried to give boys a proper education, but by the time their youngest was fifteen, the Liptons concluded the three pence per week they spent for him to attend the St. Andrews Parish School wasn't buying much. "I cannot say I was either a favorite or a diligent pupil at St. Andrews," he later confessed.

As the family's only male child, Tommy's potential as a wage earner was vital to his family. Soon after he left school he found work as an errand boy at a print shop and brought his pay home to his mother and father. Eager to increase his wages, Tommy moved to a job cutting patterns for Tillie and Henderson, a shirt-making company so successful that Karl Marx would eventually point to it as an example of industrial ruthlessness and gigantism. At the shirt factory, Tommy lost the independence and freedom he enjoyed as an errand boy. He felt confined and frustrated, and wound up fighting with another boy in the pattern department. This time Tommy Lipton, fully six feet tall and strong, won.

Ambition drove the restless Tommy to request a raise, which was denied in writing by a manager named David Sinclair. "You are getting as much as you are worth," he wrote, "and you are in a devil of a hurry to ask for a raise." Sinclair wasn't the only cranky older Scotsman who bothered young Lipton. At a night school he attended for a while he chafed under the rule of a "fish-blooded tyrant of whom Dickens would have made a character." Nicknamed "Auld Specky" because he wore peculiar blue-tinted glasses, teacher Thomas Neil used whippings to keep order.

With the likes of David Sinclair and Auld Specky making his days and nights unpleasant, ships on the Clyde seemed ever more entrancing to Tommy. When he learned that the Burns Line was looking for a cabin boy to sail between the Broomielaw (Glasgow's riverside docks) and Belfast, he rushed to the company's office. The job paid double what he made at the shirt factory and included meals on board. His main duty would be the care and feeding of cabin-class passengers -- mostly tourists and businessmen -- who boarded in the late afternoon, hoping to relax on the voyage and awake refreshed at their destination.

After the claustrophobia of work in a factory, the open sea intoxicated Tommy. He loved the thrumming of the ship's engines and the choreography of arrivals and departures. At sea he studied every sailor and officer at work, from the bridge to the engine room. And when he was alone on deck he reveled in the stars, the play of the wind on the water, and the blinking messages from distant flashing lighthouses. "I felt that the world was opening up to me," he would recall, "that it was good to be alive and better still to be a cabin boy on a gallant Clyde-built steamship."

The stories that crewmen told to pass the time revolved around voyages to more distant ports. Many spoke of crossing the Atlantic to New York or Philadelphia and then traveling to exotic places like Chicago and seeing prairies and cotton fields. But a young man didn't have to work as a cabin boy to hear stories about the United States. Glasgow was afflicted with a kind of "Ameri-mania," as one writer put it. A popular song about the lure of "the land of the free" evoked the dream many shared about a place where "the poorest may gather the fruits of his toil."

Glaswegians found reinforcement for their dreams in the letters sent by friends and relatives who had gone before them and succeeded. Better educated than most other immigrants, Scots tended to rise once they landed in the States. They were more likely to become supervisors in factories or skilled laborers in the trades. Scots dominated the typesetting business in New York and the dry-goods business in the Midwest. And it was a son of Scottish immigrants -- James Marshall -- who first discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in California.

Mates and sailors on the Burns liners "had made trips to America and they never tired of telling of its vastness, its wealth, the boundless opportunities, which the great new world across the Western Ocean was offering with open hands to all and sundry," recalled Lipton. "Fortunes were to be picked up for the asking. Millionaires grew at the rate of one a day! I listened eagerly and made up my mind sooner or later to try my luck in America."

A seventeen-year-old cabin boy working on the Irish Sea had reason to hope for the opportunity to transfer to a ship bound for America and work his way across the ocean. Tommy wouldn't get this chance. After a night crossing from Belfast, the Burns Line's chief steward inspected the cabins and found that an oil lamp had been allowed to smoke and stain a white enamel ceiling. With plenty of poor boys eager for a job, it was easy enough to dismiss the one who was most likely responsible. Tommy was allowed to work one more week, collect his pay, and go.

In his brief time with the Burns Line, eating free food and working such long hours he barely had time to spend what he earned, Tommy had managed to save a substantial sum. When his last week's wages were added to the pot and he left the Burns Line paymaster, he went straight to nearby Union Street and the offices of the Anchor Line to ask the price of a steerage ticket to New York.

Tommy Lipton's timing was perfect. The American Civil War had ended with the South's surrender one year earlier and Union blockades had been lifted. Ships that had served both the Confederate and Union navies were being converted to commercial use. Public interest in transatlantic travel, long suppressed by the war, had exploded. With both supply and demand at work, prices for the passage fell for a brief period and many more people felt emboldened toward adventure. (Wanderlust soared on both sides of the ocean. At the time Lipton decided to leave Glasgow, Mark Twain persuaded a San Francisco newspaper to pay his fare for an excursion to Europe aboard the converted Union warship Quaker City. The resulting Innocents Abroad would become a comic classic and signal the beginning of a more open American attitude toward the wider world.)

For a Scottish boy entering a steamship office, the moment brought a rare opportunity. A steamer taking cargo that day was about to cast off for New York. Passage in steerage would cost five British pounds. With no requirement for a passport or visa, and American laws setting immigrant quotas still years in the future, this was all he needed to begin his pursuit of a new life in the New World. Fearing they would try to stop him, he considered simply leaving without a word to his parents. His apprehension was reasonable. Scottish mothers and fathers knew that although nearly all said they would return, very few boys who departed for America ever came back. A young man could avoid a lot of tears, threats, and demands by slipping away.

After wrestling with the question, Tommy realized he didn't have the heart to simply abandon his parents and his sickly sister, Margaret. Besides, his parents had always supported his ambitions and he had talked often of making the voyage west, to the "Land of Promise." Surely they wouldn't be surprised.

If his mother and father had not made a small success of their little shop, they might have clung to their boy. But in fact they would be able to get along without his help, and his enthusiasm quickly won them over. "The parting was sad," he would write, "but I really think that my mother, at least, had such faith in me that she believed I would soon return a rich man."

Excerpted from A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America's Cup by Michael D'Antonio. Copyright 2010 by Michael D'Antonio. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Hardcover.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Michael D'Antonio