The charm of the office: Tea ladies and trolley service

Mar 31, 2023
Tea lady Jessie Corbyn at the Britannia House office building in Hammersmith, London, in 1980. Source: Getty.

Nostalgia brings us Baby Boomers some happy memories. I was turning on the kettle recently and thought, “Not another cup of tea! When did I become a tea lady?”

Nothing wrong with tea ladies, I stopped to consider. Many years ago, before coffee vending machines, I was once a public servant, in assorted departments, and vacation work while I was a university student. I spent some of my youth working (!) as a clerk, pushing bureaucratic papers around the desk. This was when I encountered some noble ladies, the tea ladies.

My first paid employment was fresh from my high school exams. Monday morning in the then Department of Social Security, Child Endowment section. This was supposed to be a choice job, as clerical work went. I was wading through a pile of papers, pre-computers, when everyone around me downed their pens and stared at the large glass doors. One lad stood there, holding the door open. It was 9:38 am exactly and in rolled the tea trolley!

Ah, relief. This lady was an archetype of her breed. Kind, motherly, melons of steel and buns of iron, pushing that trolley. In other words, ample bosoms and wide of girth, but her face was wreathed in smiles. The clerical staff all lined up for a cup of tea, or coffee, poured from very large silver teapots, with a couple of assorted cream biscuits.

This was so we would not dehydrate or starve while we were pushing papers. Relieved, I returned my empty cup and got a big smile to welcome me to the tea ritual. Now we could all return to our jobs. I picked up a form requesting child endowment. “Oh, I knew you at high school! Is that what you’ve been up to? Great, I shall permit you to receive a $2 benefit from our generous Australian government. Don’t spend it on your new baby all at once!”

After a suitable public service lunch break, the clerks toiled on, until 2:14 pm. Enter, the tea trolley! Waiting for my refreshments, I asked my supervisor what would happen if we did not get a cup of tea, after all this hyperactivity. “We’d all stop work!” So, there we were, administering the land of Oz, working for the government. Really, we were governed by the tea ladies. No tea, no work. Were the biscuits fresh? Any chocolate teddy bear biscuits?

In those dim days of the past, Australia was run by the public service tea ladies. Some Monday mornings, the tea lady would provide a cake she had baked on the weekend. Apple sponge! Yum, a real treat, which we appreciated. It took away the pain of being there! If we young clerks had worked there long enough, we could have received a promotion, filled in more forms, and drank more tea.

When I graduated with my degree, I could have become a teacher, a housewife, or a graduate public servant in what was then known as the ‘Death Valley’ of Canberra. I could have received, way back when, a pro-rata amount of the male superannuation level, because I was one of those scary human beings, a female! Equal wages and opportunities arrived hard in Australia, now taken for granted. My path in life was to become a teacher, still a tutor, and a writer.

I shall sit here, drinking my cup of tea, thinking of my nostalgic memories of some lovely ladies. The public service tea ladies, now all vanished into the mists of time. They have passed over to the Great Teapot in the sky!

Did you encounter the tea ladies in your workday? Did you work as a tea lady?

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