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Gail Middleton talks about a great British institution

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 11, 2014

  • Tea shops have been credited with providing meeting places for single ladies

  • A Lyons waitress, in her black uniform, starched white cap, cuffs and pinny, was known as a "Gladys" and later as a "Nippie"

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TIME was when you were out and about and fancied a cuppa you were spoiled for choice. Back in the days when high streets were thriving, tea lovers could satisfy their thirst for real tea, made in a proper teapot, in countless outlets.

These days, massive, polystyrene mugs of scalding, liquid seem to be the norm. Of course, there are places that still do proper tea. But, they are often tucked away and increasingly hard to find.

Modern working habits have also taken their toll on one of our great institutions – the great British tea break.

In days gone by, the nation downed tools on the dot of three for tea and biccies. Even Hitler failed to come between us and our tea ritual in World War Two.

A fact helped by the wartime government wisely postponing tea rationing until it became unavoidable. Even then, tea breaks were deemed a vital part of the war effort – and essential for boosting morale.

So, it's a sad fact of modern life that the tea break – if you still get one – consists of a trying to make a half decent cuppa using a powdery teabag on a string and some hot water. Then, you have to wrangle with those - impossible to open without squirting the person next to you - milk cartons. Usually, I give up and wait till I get home where I can warm the pot and get out a favourite china cup and saucer.

For a drink that is so much a part of our make-up, tea is a relative newcomer to Britain, especially when compared with rivals such as beer, hot chocolate and coffee. This was because it was wildly expensive when it first arrived. Coffee houses had sprung up in London during the late 17th century.

But, these were places where men went to discuss prices and politics. Not the sort of venues deemed suitable for ladies.

Tea drinking first started to get popular in the 18th century. But as it was so expensive, most ordinary folk continued to wash their meals down with beer, as they had always done. Tea was reserved for the wealthy. Unlike other household groceries, it was kept in locked caddies and tea chests, the lady of the house keeping the keys on her person to stop servants helping themselves.

By the 1730s, the popular London pleasure gardens at Ranelagh and Vauxhall began serving tea as a way of rounding off evenings of fireworks, dancing and "dangerous liaisons".

The Pleasure Gardens had a dubious reputation and you needed your wits about you if you were from out of town. They were notorious for being hotbeds of debauchery, where rogues and libertines preyed on the unwary. Perhaps the tea was an attempt at some veneer of respectability. Whatever, the case, it helped popularise tea drinking.

Before long, tea was being served in more sedate tea gardens. These usually opened on Saturdays and Sundays, offering afternoon entertainment and dancing with the tea. By the early 1800s, tea was a well-established drink in wealthy households. It was also around this time that Anna, Duchess of Bedford, came up with the idea of afternoon tea – to bridge the gap between breakfast and dinner.

Afternoon tea soon caught on in fashionable circles, eventually spreading to the working classes whose more substantial high tea became their main meal.

The Victorian era saw the birth of the tea shop. This occurred in 1864, when the manageress of an Aerated Bread Company shop began serving food and tea to regular customers.

It was a ploy to get customers to buy more of their bread and cakes. And, it worked. The company grew to have 150 branches and a chain of 250 tea rooms.

The "ABC" became an important feature of Victorian and early 20th century life. The tea shops are frequently mentioned in literature of the period and have been credited with providing meeting places for single ladies, including Suffragettes.

Tea shops spread like wildfire, not least because they offered unchaperoned women a place to socialise, without harming their reputation.

They were also places where young couples could "bump into" each other without triggering too much gossip. The ABC tea shops pioneered a boom in afternoon tea which was taken further in 1894, when J Lyons and Co opened its first tea shop in London's Piccadilly. The famous Lyons' Corner Houses would become a fixture in towns and cities across Britain.

In their heyday Lyons had around 200 tea shops, each with a front shop selling their bakery goods. In the years immediately before and after the Second World War the cafes were so busy the company often had to install queue barriers to control waiting customers.

In the early days a Lyons waitress, in her black uniform, starched white cap, cuffs and pinny, was known as a "Gladys". The girls were renowned for their speedy, efficient service. And, by 1926 customers were calling them "Nippies". A legend in their own lunchtime, the girls became an institution, nipping nimbly around the crowds, dispensing cakes and cuppas and always with a smile on their face.

The Nippies worked in shifts and good teamwork was essential. The salary was small and tips were forbidden. But the girls could earn commission of tuppence in the pound during the week, and sixpence at weekends. And, for poorer girls, the staff perk of free meals was a godsend.

Many girls remained loyal to Lyons, working for the company for years, leaving only to get married, as most firms insisted upon in those days. Staff who remained with them for 40 years received a commemorative medal.

Alongside the Nippies, Lyons had an army of "Sallys" – or front shop salesgirls.

Starting early in the morning, the Sally waited for the vans delivering trays full of bread, cakes and buns. Then she arranged these into a delectable window display to tempt passers-by.

Top sellers were buns, fruit cake, Swiss Roll and Victoria Cream Sandwiches.

By the end of the day nearly everything had flown off the shelves.

Tea shops and Corner Houses were particularly popular during the Second World War.

They were favourite meeting places where people could briefly forget the horrors over a cake and cuppa. But there were times when the war intruded into these little oases.

One Saturday Nippies working at the Lyons restaurant in Southampton were told to leave early as a bombing raid was imminent. Before they could lock up the bombers arrived, forcing staff and customers to shelter in the cellar.

The tea shop survived the raid, but both sides of the High Street were engulfed in flames. The resourceful Nippies took cooking equipment down to the cellar to make soup for the firemen battling the blaze.

ABC tea shops disappeared during the 1980s, around the same time as Lyons outlets. In Wolverhampton, the old Lyons restaurant was on the site now occupied by the Halifax.

A typical tariff from the 1940s promoted its tea as "the best in the world, freshly made for each person." A bargain - at tuppence halfpenny a cup or threepence halfpenny a pot.

From eleven in the morning till three in the afternoon you could treat yourself to Lyons' "Specials of the Day". A starter of country soup cost threepence halfpenny, sauteed kidney cost ninepence, and a vegetable cutlet, threepence.

If you still had room, you could finish with boiled syrup roll at fourpence halfpenny or Bakewell Tart at threepence halfpenny. Pretty reasonable prices – considering a three-course lunch at nearby Reynolds Restaurant, in Queen Square, cost three shillings – and the meat was usually whale or horse meat!

As for me, I'm off for a cuppa and an "ommack o' caerk".

What were your memories of old tea shops, or Lyons? Email editor@blackcountrybugle .co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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