History lesson: how Hospitality Action’s been helping its industry for 180 years and counting

If you’ve ever been assisted by Hospitality Action (HA), you’re in very good company. Hospitality’s benevolent charity has been supporting the industry since 1837. Over the past 180 years, we’ve helped hundreds of thousands of hospitality people who’ve found themselves in difficulty or crisis.

HA began life as the London Coffee and Eating House Keepers’ Association. Snappy, no? In the 1830s, there were an estimated 1900 coffee shops and stalls across the capital. To support the people working in them – and inspired by the licensed trade, which had already created its own benevolent association for publicans – a gang of coffee house keepers met at Eastey’s Hotel (pictured), below Covent Garden on Southampton Street, and started their own. Fittingly, a restaurant, the Ivy Market Grill, sits on or beside the site, today.

Addressing the gathered throng, inaugural president John Humphreys proclaimed: “The coffee house keepers possess within themselves every material for forming one of the most extensive charitable institutions of which this Metropolis could boast” … [saving beneficiaries from] … “the alternative of dragging out a miserable existence immured within the walls of a workhouse”.

In these early years, the charity helped only the coffee house keepers, not their teams. (Only in 1923 did it broaden its remit to include employees.) This help took the shape of pensions for retired workers.

In the coming decades, the coffee house keepers  extended their remit to include hoteliers, as well as “Dining House Keepers, Restaurateurs, Ham and Beef Purveyors and similar Refreshment House Keepers”.

The association was slow to look beyond London; but by 1926, there were outpost branches in Liverpool and Manchester.

A step change came in 1952 when, to mark the Queen’s Coronation, the association moved into property, with the purchase of a site in Wimbledon intended, according to the spokesperson of the day, for “elderly members of the trade who are in straightened circumstances”. The house was fitted out using the proceeds from Mecca’s Miss World competition.

By 1968, hospitality movers and shakers felt the association needed stronger representation from the industry it served. A Grand Council (very Game of Thrones) was created, enabling the great and good to gather regularly and steer the organisation.

Further industry support came in 1972, when donations of £100,000 each from Grand Metropolitan’s Maxwell Joseph and Trusthouse Forte’s Lord Forte steadied the association’s wobbly finances. With this cash injection, it was able to add properties in Manchester, Newcastle and Birmingham to its estate.

Our potted history is nearing the present day. In 1975, an organisation called the PM Club approached the charity for help. Since the 1940s, it had run a club and hostel for young hotel and catering staff arriving in London. But the property was dilapidated and needed investment. HA took control of the club’s finances and by the mid-80s its premises were refurbished and relaunched.

Today, HA has long since divested itself of its property assets. Our focus, now, is on grants and advisory support. (My colleague Laura Clyne’s recent post has more on this.) This shift in our remit has allowed us to expand exponentially the number of people we can assist.

The threat of the workhouse may no longer loom before our beneficiaries, but the straightened circumstances referred to back in 1952 certainly do.

Whether the problem is bereavement or bullying, physical or mental ill health, marital issues or addiction, HA is here to help. And long may that continue.

(With thanks to Derek Taylor, whose 1987 Caterer & Hotelkeeper supplement celebrating 150 years of what was then the Hotel & Catering Benevolent Association I plundered.)