By Andrea Ledwell
Islander Andrea Ledwell's father, Bill always wanted her to write of her adventures as a Tea Lady in London. We are thrilled that she is sharing her experience with us. Andrea is currently living in Toronto with her husband Jim and their 2 adorable animals, Boy Cat and Girl Cat. She spends as much time as possible in PEI in the summer at her cottage in Keppoch.
When my temp agent, Jan, asked (a bit hesitantly I realize now in retrospect) if I’d be willing to take on a short term position as a tea lady for an international trading company, I didn’t stop to think about it. The pay was about the same as the bank clerk positions I’d been previously assigned. Sure, I’d do it. Why not?
I had moved to England just a few months earlier, having completed a university degree where I excelled academically and held multiple leadership roles. Armed with that, and my naivety, I’d imagined arriving in the city and landing a position doing something interesting and important. But when I got to London in the fall of 1991, the country was at the height of an economic recession; people were being made redundant all over the city. Finding work was challenging, and it turned out that while in university, instead of writing foreign policy essays, I might have been better off increasing my typing speed and putting together “smart” outfits.
So, by the time Jan called with the job offer, I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of being a tea lady and thought it might be kind of interesting. And when I showed up the next week, looking the requisite smart and tidy, to an austere building next to the Tower of London, I didn’t have any idea of the adventure awaiting me.
The British tea lady is somewhat of an iconic position, established during World War II, when workers needed incentives to stick to their desks, and a bit of comfort with a good ‘cuppa’ in troubled times. They were such good morale boosters, the position stuck around post war, and came to be considered part of an office efficiency. In spite of this social importance, the tea lady also became a trope in British humour, typically portrayed as an older, frumpy or on occasion younger and attractive, but always less intelligent, woman. The title became a running gag in shows like Yes, Minister, where all sorts of mishaps were blamed on the witless tea lady.
An English woman, working as a part-time tea lady, serves tea to a female worker at an aircraft factory in Bristol in 1942.
Aside from the decidedly reserved behaviour of the employees, I wasn’t initially struck by anything odd in my treatment as the office tea lady at the trading house. It was an old company, dating back to the age of sail, dealing in soft commodities, like coffee and sugar. I worked in the cocoa department. Perhaps the last bastion of British Imperialism, its staff of predominantly white men seemed to mostly be buying and selling cocoa beans from West Africa and South Asia. I got used to seeing pinups of Sunshine Girls at work stations.
But I soon came to realize that the reservation of the employees towards me was a bit more connected to my position than any particular personality of the company. One morning, when serving the Parisian guest of a young trader, I casually asked, “Voulez-vous du lait avec ca?” The trader jumped in horror and exclaimed, “What?! The tea lady speaks French?!” He was clearly rattled and I was dumbfounded. “I am Canadian” was all I could think to say, and moved away as quickly as possible.
Word spread across the trading and brokerage rooms that the tea lady was Canadian and literate. The next day I got a few questions about my experience with dog-sleds and igloos. Then they sent Stephen to interview me for more information.
At this point, I’d like to point out, that every man working at this company seemed to be named either Stephen, Alan or David. This particular Stephen was a pleasant young junior who happened to have visited Canada once, so was deemed the person to best interpret what I shared about my background. The most he gained from our interview was that I had arrived from a place called Prince Edward Island.
A day or two later, the telex operators came to get me from the kitchen, as they had something very exciting to show me. Practically leading me by hand, they took me to a part of the office with a collection of old atlases; a large book lay opened to a two-page spread of North America. The group gathered around staring at me expectantly as one pointed to PEI on the map and gently informed me, “This is where you are from.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Yes, that’s PEI.” And returned quickly to the kitchen to read my book.
“Who’s your favourite author?” A senior trader surprised me one day, when he actually stepped into the kitchen and barked this at me. I am never good at pop quizzes, so meekly replied, “Alice Munro?” as that’s what I was currently reading. He shook his head in confusion, “No, I meant, who’s your favourite author, Dickens or Shakespeare?” I was being tested for my Britishness.
Teacup sketch by Andrea Ledwell.
I started getting annoyed with the quizzes when someone came in to test me on my understanding of cocoa and seemed genuinely surprised when I correctly guessed it was used to make chocolate.
Perhaps I shouldn’t paint such a dim picture of the people I served. It was clear the employees missed their tea lady, a beloved older woman who knew how to make a good cuppa. (When someone once announced to the office that my tea was the worst he’d ever had, I asked him how I could possibly make it better given the delivery method?) I do wish I’d had a chance to meet her to find out the secret. They missed the good woman who didn’t worry them with thoughts of the world beyond their own comfortable, fading empire.
That was almost 30 years ago, and so much has since changed in London and the UK. The tea lady has practically disappeared from the workplace, though she now holds a place of honour in the sentiments of many. The few remaining British tea ladies are mostly with the National Health Service (NHS), where they are often described in heroic terms, as the heart and soul or backbone of their organizations.
In the end, it was my desire to not fit into the stereotypical British tea lady role that propelled me on to my next adventure, back to graduate school. But I do remain grateful to those people at the cocoa trading house for allowing me to experience a British tradition, and to see and be seen through a culturally and socially different set of eyes, at a time when I most benefited from it.
Though the NHS now refers to them as “host or hostess,” a title not quite having the same ring to it as tea lady, it is nice to know the position, established to provide a bit of comfort when needed most, still exists. After all, everyone could still use a good cuppa in troubled times.