A Search for Information: Murchie’s

It began (as it usually does) on Google; this isn’t the first time I’ve typed ‘ “John Murchie”+tea ‘ into the Google search-engine. I’ve done it a few times now, but my search usually ends with very little information, and I normally give up within the hour.

Let’s start with a background for the non-Canadians. John Murchie was a tea and coffee importer and blender; he started up the company “Murchie’s”, and is normally considered to be the man behind the unorthodox blending of green tea with black tea. Murchie’s is still around today (with two in Vancouver and more in Victoria), and is pretty well-known. Heck, I have a friend from Alabama who orders from Murchie’s to keep up on her supply of their Library Blend (she was first introduced to the company when she visited Canada a while back; sadly Murchie’s doesn’t extend into the US of A).

To begin with, the majority of the information I have gathered is not from peer-reviewed resources. There aren’t many articles out there. But I will sight the forum-posts and other resources as I go.

John Murchie immigrated to Canada (settling in New Westminster) in 1894 (1, and Murchie’s mugs [2: Cailtlin’s post]; see also Murchie’s specialty 1894 Orange Pekoe blend, and 3), from the Isle of Arran, Scotland (1: David’s first post claims hesitantly, 2: Jane claims). He at least opened his tea shop in 1894, but it is implied that he opened it very soon after he immigrated. David also mentions that he had a brother (name not listed, but we will return to this) photographer.

Shirley (see the last post on the facebook page) claims to be the descendant of a “Margaret Murchie”, sister to a John Murchie and Archie Murchie. Archie Murchie may be the photographer brother. Jane (1) claims that John had no sister Margaret (although he did have a granddaughter of that name), and puts his birth around 1855, naming parents as well. A search through ancestry.com’s database yields no results for a John Murchie born to a John Murchie (Sr) and Catherine Nicol. Results show many different John (Sr) and the occasional Catherine (of a differing surname); none with births near 1855.

David (facebook) says that, upon arriving in 1894, and seeing the beauty of BC, John wrote to and invited his brother (possible name: Archie). He says that the BC Archives contains photos by said brother. I ran a search through their Visual database off of just “Murchie”, and sifted through for a picture of “Emily Carr atop the ugliest horse/mule I have ever seen”.

The photographer is listed as one “Archibald Murchie” (giving credit to Shirley’s claim of descendence), taken in 1909 (fifteen years after John’s immigration). There is no confirmation that he is John’s brother (I do not know where David’s [facebook] source comes from). Refined search (1); many scenic photos, one includes the Duke and Duchess of Cornwell; earliest photo taken in 1901; latest work is a watercolour painting dated 1916 (assuming it is the same man; date and location suggest so, but the Archives do not seem to give any indication that they have a system of organizing works done by different people who share the same name).

David (facebook) traces a family tree in his post. John had thirteen children, including a Jim Murchie, who purchased the business from him. Another of his sons, John Raith Murchie, had three children of his own, including a John Archibald Murchie (possibly named after his father, grandfather, and great uncle). John Archibald married a Gwen, and the business was purchased from his uncle Jim. Gwen was the last Murchie to own the business. The company went up for sale in 2007 (1) and was purchased later that year (2). The new owners stated that they would continue to consult Gwen Murchie, who had been company president.

Upon first immigrating to Canada (New Westminster), John quickly struck up a relationship with his neighbours, and the tea clippers who sailed to Canada to sell tea from their boats in the harbours (1). He would import fine teas for his clients in New Westminster, and delivered them by horse-drawn wagons. He became a well-known, and unorthodox tea blender with his mixes of green and black teas; he kept his recipes secret in a “Blend Book” which was passed down through the generations; copies of these books can be found in the different Murchie’s stores, and blends from the book can be ordered special (with a minimum of 1lb order) and blended on the spot.

I know of the Blend Book through a friend, whose family had a blend made special for them, after a relative: Reverend Oldfield. You can ask for the blend special at any Murchie’s (I’m not much for jasmine, and the minimum order for any Blend Book special is one pound, so I’ve been told, so I’ve never tried it). See Steepster for more information. Also here for a bit about his other blends.

David (facebook) mentions:

One of the Seattle Newspapers in the 70s, or 80s quoted one of the founders of Starbucks as getting the idea for Starbucks from a Vancouver/Victoria based company called Murchies. (Starbucks added the “cafe” factor, and modernized/minimilzed the stock. Even the coffee “education” displays and photos Murchies used to put in stores are now commonplace in Starbucks. ) Because Starbucks went with a model of fewer products and selection, Murchies still has about 10-20x more selection…. (i.e. Murchies usually has over 100 different types of tea… sometimes close to 200. Starbucks keeps it to 5-10 unless they have increased their selection in recent years.)

I tried looking into this, but “a Seattle Newspaper” in the 70s or 80s is pretty vague. I came across (but forgot to bookmark) a few different posts that mentioned the same thing, but nothing concrete at first.

An interesting bit I came across is from an interview with Steve Smith (famous American tea blender, see Tazo Tea, Stash Tea and Steve Smith Tea) about his time at Starbucks, and about coffee before Starbucks:

How has the way we drink coffee changed since then?
Even when I started in the late 70s, there was very little going on with coffees that were anything but supermarket, canned coffees. I remember when I was a kid living in Seattle, you used to have to go up to Vancouver B.C. to get decent coffee. A place called Murchie’s was the only place around. The founders of Starbucks were this group of friends–one of them would drive up to Vancouver and buy a bunch of coffee and split it up amongst the rest of them. Through that process they thought, wow, there’s a potential niche here.

Click here for the full interview.

Finally, I came across an article from the Tuck School of Business. You can read it here (warning: PDF file), but I will include the quote:

History of Starbucks
In 1971, three atypical businessmen founded Starbucks Coffee, Tea and Spice in Seattle, Washington. Gordon Bowker, Jerry Baldwin, and Zev Siegl shared many interests, but their main reason for starting the company was their love of coffee and tea and their desire for Seattle to have access to the best of it. While attending school in San Francisco, Baldwin discovered Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley and fell in love with the rich, dark arabica whole bean coffee. Baldwin introduced his roommate, Gordon Bowker, to Peet’s Coffee, and after the two moved to Seattle they continued to order Peet’s by mail. Bowker stumbled upon another great store in Vancouver, Canada and would often make the 3-hour trip there from Seattle to buy Murchie’s coffee. While traveling back from one of these trips, Bowker had the idea of opening up a coffee store in Seattle. Baldwin loved the idea as did Bowker’s neighbor Zev Siegl, and Starbucks was born.

This is the only mention of Murchie’s in the article.

I found a similar, and slightly more detailed account in “Starbucks” by Marie Bussing-Burks (see page 9 of the E-book here, under Gordon Bowker, first paragraph):

The seed of Starbucks can really be attributed to cofounder Gordon Bowker–both the name and the company idea. In 1970, Bowker was a writer in Seattle making once-a-month jaunts to a coffee roaster called Murchie’s in Vancouver, British Colubmia. A true coffee connoiseur, Bowker found himself bringing back increasingly large loads of coffee with each 140-mile trek north. The coffee beans were purchased first for himself, then for friends, and, finally, for friends of friends. On one trip, the U.S. Customs agent gently explained to him the difference between shopping and smuggling. His solution was to start a coffee company.

All of the above is very interesting, although more for the coffee afficionado than the tea connoisseur.

David (facebook, see his second post farther down the page) also says (from a “credible source”) that during the Great Fire of of 1898 (I assumed he meant this one by the term “Fire which Destroyed New Westminster”) Murchie’s (which had still been operating in New Westminster during this time) was saved due to the Murchies’ reluctance to leave the building. The family stayed behind, soaking the walls of the building with buckets of water; they saved the structure, and also prevented the fire from moving past it to other buildings.

I ran a search, but found very little confirming this. I found two primary mentions of Murchie’s in New Westminster, both during the fire. Here, mentioning “Murchie, the tea man” occupying an area near the farthest block on Second Avenue.

Royal City: A Photographic History of New Westminster includes a mention of Murchie’s as well. “A well full of water saved the Murchie and Herring residences, the burning of either of which meant the destruction of another block of fine residences.” (see page 87). There’s nothing confirming it as THE Murchie’s, however (the sentences before the quote seem to give a general idea of its location). Another interesting tidbit shows on page 185, which shows a list of Photography Studios operating in New Westminster at the time. Sixth down lists one belonging to a “Murchie, Archibald”.

I didn’t expect to find much concerning Murchie’s during the fire, as David (facebook)  notes that “historical accounts credit the Fire Department”.

Returning to the Murchie Family Tree, it seems that John Murchie had a brother, Archibald Murchie; it was suggested and denied that he had a sister, Margaret Murchie. Bringing up ancestry.com again, I found another thread here.

I just recieved a conformation from the Owner of Murchie Tea Co, that We ARE RELATED!!! I found out that John Murchie he died in 1935. He came from the Island of Arran, his Oldest son John Raitt Murchie his wife was Emm Jane Hamilton, her mother was Jane Hamilton, they had a daughter Margaret Murchie her daughter was Janet Hamilton Cook-Eddy. John also was followed to this country by a brother Douglas, who was a photographer, he traveled British Colombia taking pictures-many of which are in the local museum.

Here I find a discrepancy. She confirms that “Margaret” was not, in fact, his sister, but his granddaughter (as noted much earlier in this post through a post via “Jane” on ancestry.com) through his eldest son, “John Raitt” (perhaps a typo of “John Raith, mentioned earlier? Or perhaps David [facebook] made the typo). However, she lists John’s Photographer Brother as a “Douglas”.

I searched for work done by a “Douglas Murchie”, both in the BC Archives and Google, but found nothing.

I did a search for both “John Raitt Murchie”, coming up with this, a John Raitt born to a John and Sarah who moved to BC, Canada in 1889; he is, however, listed as second-eldest after a Grant Nicol (note that Nicol was the supposed maiden name of John Murchie’s mother, Catherine Nicol, mentioned earlier); “Sarah Grant” was again listed as the wife (also “Raitt” was the supposed maiden name of his wife’s mother, Isobella [née Raitt] [1]).

“John Raith Murchie” only returned the facebook post.

I never came across any photographs of John Murchie (even having a photographer for a brother).

This post is two-thousand words long.

A transgendered, tea-drinking, rock-hammer wielding, mineral-collecting, fashionable, mid-twenties Canadian.

14 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. There seems so much left to discover.

    Just a question: did you try asking the company about their history?

    • AJ

      09/10/2011 at 1:20 PM

      This was just solitary research I did in the course of several hours online. The employees in-store know very little of the history, I’ve found, and I loath interacting with people over a phone.

      I did cite someone who apparently did–the lady, Suzan, who mentioned a brother of John’s by the name of “Douglas”.

  2. Perhaps you could drop a mail to their HQ?

  3. This is really interesting stuff. I’d never even heard of Murchie’s, but now I’m convinced there’s a book in there. It’s almost begging to be written.

    Nice blog.

  4. Amazingly thurough post which I enjoyed reading, thanks. To help explain the name confusion regarding John Raith/Raitt Murchie. Raith and Raitt are the same name and are both pronounced the same. Raith is how you spell it for a scottish reader and Raitt is how you spell it for an english reader. If my memory serves John spelt his name “Raith” on his wedding certificate, but his name on the death certificate is “Raitt”. I suspect the Susan which gave you information about a ‘Douglas’ may have gotten confused with a maternal branch of the family in which Douglas was a common name.

    • AJ

      21/11/2012 at 1:04 PM

      Thank you! Especially for clearing up “Raitt/Raith”. I thought it might be something as simple as an alternative spelling, but often enough that’s enough to confuse someone with a completely different person.

      And for explaining “Douglas”.

  5. John McKenzie

    04/03/2014 at 12:03 AM

    John Murchie moved from the Isle of Arran to Bathhurst NB where he married Sarah Grant in the mid to late 1800’s (John Murchies brother Donald stayed in Arran along with his sister) John and Sarah ended up having 11children – 7 sons and 4 daughters. ( It was John Murchies brother Archibald Murchie who was a very talented photographer and also talented painter. He came over to Canada after John had arrived. He was very involved taking photos with the CPR as well as the many towns and areas that the railroad went through. Archie Murchie ended up settled in the Westbank and the Summerland area. He married at age 50 and died soon after.) John and Sarah arrived on the second train out to the West in the New Westminster area with 3 kids, James John and Gertrude. It was there that he made a name for himself in B.C. as a Tea blender and delivered teas to many in the area. He had learned tea blending from his father in Scotland. They moved into the Kitsalano area and had one of the first homes in the area. He set up the Orient Tea Company on Richards Street which later became Murchies Tea & Coffee. He then moved to 720 Homer Street into a better location. Only 3 of his 7 sons married and only 2 of them Grant and John had children. His second oldest son whom you refer to was John Raitt Murchie (my grandfather) he was born in Bathhurst NB and he came out to BC with his parents & a sister and a brother. It was John Sr and Sarah that started Murchies and 2 of his sons who really ran the business operations after John Sr. died. James (Jim) & John Raitt Murchie took over from their father and then John opened his store on Dunsmuir and laterly on Robson Street, John ran the stores in Vancouver along with his brother Jim’s help, and brother Nicolas (Nick) opened and operated the store in Victoria. All of John & Sarahs kids grew up helping & working in some fashion in the stores (as did many of the grandkids and their kids). Grant and Sarah held family picnics in Stanley Park and were well respected business people in the community. John Raitt Murchie Married Ella Hamilton whose father had a large farmers market in the Mount Pleasant area. John Jr. & Ella had a daughter Margaret and then later on in life he had 2 sons John and Ronald. Son John and his wife Gwen eventually took over the business from John and Ella Murchie and ran it successfully for many years. They have since divorced and the business is now owned and operatied by a couple from Victoria.

    • AJ

      29/06/2014 at 10:48 AM

      Thank you for the information!

    • Wendy Murchie

      22/04/2015 at 12:25 AM

      Correction, John Archibald Murchie was born in 1935 and yes was son to John Raitt Murchie and Ella (Hamilton) and younger brother to Margaret. However, he did not assume the business from his parents John and Ella. He and Gwen (Young) purchased Murchie’s (store on Robson Street and Park Royal, West Van) in 1968 from Jim (his uncle) and then in 1971 purchased the Victoria Murchie’s from Uncle Nic. We have the original purchasing contracts.

      “David from Facebook” and quoted in the above article is my brother and son of John A. Murchie.

  6. John McKenzie

    04/03/2014 at 10:01 AM

    It was John and Sarah – (not Grant and Sarah) who hosted family picnics in Stanley Park

  7. John McKenzie

    04/03/2014 at 10:06 AM

    John and Sarah had 4 daughters.
    Gertrude, Katherine, Helena, & Charlotte. Katherine had 3 daughters and Charlotte had 3 sons. Gert and Helena never married.

  8. Chris Gajowski

    28/06/2014 at 11:06 PM

    When did the Victoria location open?

    • AJ

      29/06/2014 at 10:49 AM

      Hmm I found no year for their Victorian (Government Street) location. If you don’t feel like shooting them an email, I’d suggest trying to catch their attention on Twitter.

  9. Elizabeth MacKelvie

    27/11/2017 at 11:06 AM

    My aunt, Lee Murchie, married to Nick, just died last year. I did not know about the Isle of Arran connection, which was especially interesting to me, because my father’s ‘people’ came from Arran, and I’ve been there twice. Otherwise, I would’ve looked into that, as well as the McKelvie/now going by MacKelvie, lineage.

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