The Boer War had not yet begun. Postage cost a penny - an old penny! In America, the West was still wild, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbing trains. In the same year Groucho Marx was born.
In old Covent Garden, where John Poupart at the tender age of nineteen years took the bold step of setting himself up as a market agent, the market was already bulging at the seams. As well as the wide range of produce grown by local market gardening families, such as the Pouparts, many different fruits, some of them fairly exotic ones, had begun to be imported but the import business was just in its infancy, as was refrigeration. There was a great deal of competition but it was nonetheless a good time for a young man with drive and integrity to start a business and we in today’s company are proud to continue success 118 years on.
What is Poupart like now?
Poupart has evolved and developed during its hundred and eighteen year life. It has moved from a single proprietor business, growing and marketing its own produce, to a subsidiary of a major food group representing growers from the UK and around the world, supplying every type of client. Today the company and ten associated businesses, have an annual turnover in excess of £340 million. Its future is clearly focused on customers and growers and is secure in its position as the interface between these two parties. Increasingly, the businesses are concentrating on unique products, proprietary brands and varieties of fruit, which are exclusive to the group.
The company’s true strength is its personnel who are a major asset to the business. Throughout its life the company has benefited from the skill and dedication of those it has employed. This is as true today as in 1895. From this secure foundation the company’s ambitions and future will always be assured.
John Poupart, The Company's Founder
It was a young man called John Poupart who at the age of 19 years, in May and June of 1895, took the steps which were to form the original Poupart Company.
But to explain how that came about, we need to look much farther back to the eighteenth century. A Frenchman, a Huguenot, named Jean Poupart arrived in England and though we have no documented evidence, we think he was a market gardener by trade. What is certain, is that in 1776 his son Jacques was in the market garden business on a piece of land which, Chelsea supporters might like to know, is now part of Stamford Bridge, Chelsea Football Club’s ground. Jacques’ son Samuel born in 1807, probably the great uncle of our founder, John Poupart, had a market garden at Battersea on Lord Spencer’s estate. We think John’s grandfather, William, was Samuel’s younger brother. The family farmhouse, which stood a mile or so north of today’s Clapham Junction, was demolished to build the railway lines and was commemorated till the 1960s by a signal box known as Poupart Junction, not so far from New Covent Garden Market at Vauxhall.
By the middle of the nineteenth century there were at least four Pouparts selling their produce in the London markets. Three are listed as members of the Market Gardeners, Nurserymen and Farmers Association between 1851 and 1860, which campaigned for a better deal for many of the market gardeners who had to sell their wares in the open in competition with the lucky few who had obtained sheltered shops in the new Charter Market. Samuel Poupart was one of the signatories of a petition for a new building.
The early market gardeners had produced and sold their own crops but as the London markets grew larger and holdings moved further out, it often fell to one family member to travel to the city, and market the produce, usually the eldest son.
The Pouparts of Twickenham 1882 - 1895
So it was that we find William Poupart, William’s son and Samuel’s nephew, had first sold the family’s produce from their market garden at Bermondsey, later from another family farm at Kew and finally set up in business on his own account at Twickenham. At Marsh Farm he grew apples, pears, plums and cherries, under planted with cauliflowers and lettuce on sloping beds. William Poupart became an expert on fruit and was a judge for the Royal Horticultural Society. He was also a Justice of the Peace and a benefactor.
It was William of Marsh Farm’s first son (the third William in the line) who now travelled to London to sell the produce, but when he developed eye sight problems, it was decided that John should take over. In November 1892, at the tender age of 16, he took on the mantle of market salesman in Covent Garden.
The Fledgling Company 1895
John proved keen and adept at selling and soon his enthusiasm and reputation for honesty brought him increasing numbers of customers to his pitch “on the cobbles”. His integrity and well-graded produce (something of a rarity at the time) became well-known and so when some of the smaller growers in the Hampton area approached him in 1895 to sell their produce for them, he jumped at the chance. He decided to form a separate business under the name T. J. Poupart, the ‘T’ standing for Twickenham to differentiate himself from another John Poupart, said to be his uncle, who was then market-gardening in Essex.
On 20 May 1895, he paid 21 shillings for a telegraphic address and three days later opened an account with the London County Banking Company in Henrietta Street. The story goes that a friend decided he must also have a warehouse and ignoring John’s hesitations took on premises on his behalf. On 3 June, at any rate, a shop at 51 Drury Lane was rented at 18 shillings a week. On 18 June, came the great day and the first entry in the diary logbook, records the first sale of 6 pecks of tomatoes and 22 rims of strawberries for the princely sum of £4 9s 6d, returning £3 14s 8d to the supplier Messrs J Penfold & Son.
Taking on the first Employee
The business grew and prospered. John also began to sell produce from developing Lea Valley. John liked to take a close personal interest in every aspect of produce being supplied, to talk man-to-man with senders on packaging and quality and so in 1897, took on a young man who had impressed him, a buyer called William Ravenhill. It is said that John could not really afford to take this step and so had to give up smoking to help pay the wages of his new recruit. However, it was the right move and the two men forged ahead, John concentrating on the home grown produce and William Ravenhill on the development of imported fruit. William was the first to import oranges from South Africa, and as the business expanded, rare tropical fruits began to appear in the showrooms. He was taken into partnership in 1906.
Expansion 1901 - 1939
John Poupart and William Ravenhill took on further warehouse premises and in 1901 a shop in the coveted Central Avenue had been procured. Later this was expanded to five shops and in 1907 they reached Long Acre. By 1936 T J Poupart had come into possession of all the buildings from 107 to 115 Long Acre and set about commissioning architects to rebuild the frontages with a steel framed structure in Portland stone still there to this day.
The business had expanded enormously during these years: before the First World War, in 1913, a Spitalfields branch was taken over. In 1921, T J Poupart (Northern) was opened in Liverpool. By 1923, the partners’ sons had joined the business, John’s eldest, Harold Poupart and William Ravenhill’s only son Donald, who was later to run the business. After a year or so, however, Harold declared a preference for the growing side and returned to John’s farm now at Walton-on-Thames and his brother Alec stepped in. In 1930 when William Ravenhill died, Donald, as a young man, was ready to take on his father’s importing role.
More branches were added, notably Southampton in 1928 and Bristol in 1930 and by the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the firm could claim branches in most of the largest ports in Great Britain, as well as depots in Worthing, the Lea Valley and Guernsey and even a South African branch in Cape Town. Over the years the company could boast many firsts: salesmen such as George Burns brought in the first kiwifruit (or Chinese gooseberries, as they were then called); the exclusive agency for Uglifruit (a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine) was secured in 1926; Donald Ravenhill who was a friend of Jomo Kenyata’s imported the first Kenyan ‘bobby’ beans.
The War 1939 - 1945
The Second World War changed everything. The business built so much on worldwide trade had to fall back entirely on the home-grown side. When the Ministry of Food wanted to set up the wartime tomato scheme, John was one of the leading organisers. Donald Ravenhill and Alec Poupart both joined up, leaving John again to shoulder responsibility on his own. He narrowly escaped death several times during enemy bombing and in 1945 before the war ended and just four months before the company would celebrate its Golden Jubilee, John Poupart died.
His contribution to the development of a modern fruit trade was certainly acknowledged at the time and should be remembered today. It was T J Poupart which was instrumental in first bringing to the UK many of the products we take for granted today.
More Recent History 1986 to Present Day
In 1986 T J Poupart was bought by Hillsdown Holdings plc and the then managing director, Les Baker, retired. Within eighteen months Hillsdown encouraged the Olins family to invest in the business and manage it from then on. The company was relaunched, becoming Poupart Limited, with Laurence Olins as managing director.
The Olins Family
The Olins family have been involved in the fruit industry since the end of the 19th century, when Woolf Olins began his greengrocery business. He had emigrated to England in the 1880s from Kiev in the Ukraine. Unfortunately, he died at a young age and his son Louis Olins, was forced to work in the family horse-drawn transport business until he opened his own fruit wholesale business in 1919, at Spitalfields Market. He traded under the name of Louis Reece, using his step father’s surname. The company prospered by Louis’s expertise, enterprise and speculative positioning in the future’s market in fruit.
In 1935, Louis’s eldest son, Wally, joined the business. The company was now acting as an importer and wholesaler, specialising in near Continental produce. Leading up to 1939, the company became Limited and had spread its procurement net throughout the Empire. The war curtailed the business and so it bought fruit farms in Cambridgeshire to compensate for the loss of overseas fruit. After the war the business grew apace, opening wholesale businesses in Covent Garden, Birmingham, Wigan, Leeds, Wolverhampton and Hull, along with the purchase of more fruit farms in Kent. By now Louis’s younger son Bernard, had joined the business and a central packhouse and transport fleet had been established in Kent. The company then focussed on deep water imports, coupled to a very strong involvement in UK fruit. A legacy we at Poupart are proud to continue to this day.
By the mid-sixties, the company commenced direct sales to the supermarket sector, of which it became a major player. In 1969 Laurence, Wally’s son, joined the company from university and ran the Covent Garden business. His twin brother Paul, joined in 1972 and stayed for several years before leaving to start his own retail fruit businesses. Jonathan, Wally’s younger son, joined in 1976 and specialised on imports whilst Adam, Bernard’s eldest son, joined in 1982 and was involved in sales to the multiples.
In 1985 the family business was sold to a major listed fruit and distribution company, namely Glass Glover plc and in 1987 the Poupart Buy-In team of Laurence, Paul, Adam and Jonathan joined Poupart. The rest as they say is history, though now continues firmly into the fifth generation with Ben, Laurence’s son and Adrian, Paul’s son both working at senior levels for Poupart.
In 1997, Poupart was sold by Hillsdown Holdings plc, to Argent Group Europe, who bought it with the backing of Cinven, a private equity company. In 2010, the management of Argent Group Europe created Fletcher Bay Investment Company and completed a buyout of Poupart and its sister companies, from Cinven. Since then, the ownership of Poupart has been widened to include further members of the management team.
Today, the Poupart Group operates from its Head Office in Hertfordshire and offices in Essex, Kent and Surrey, along with its associate companies and branches in Holland and Spain. The Poupart Group is proud of its long heritage and is ready to meet all the challenges and changes the fresh produce industry may bring in the future.
Poupart’s Managing Directors
1895 – 1945 John Poupart
1945 – 1976 Donald Ravenill
1976 – 1986 Les Baker
1986 – 1987 Neville Wilde
1987 Tony Beeson
1987 – 2007 Laurence Olins
2007 – Present Adam Olins