Puppydog tails — 23 April 2019

Nippy-Waitress

When I were a nipper at about this time of year we would go up West to see the annual pantomime at the London Palladium. In the early 1950s, the Palladium would always have its annual feast of comedy characters in drag: Frankie Howard; Richard Hearne (Mr Pastry); Max Bygraves; and my all time favourite Norman Wisdom.

But the highlight of the trip was not an early introduction into the world of theatre, but the gastronomical delight that preceded the show – a trip to a Lyons Tea Room or Lyons Corner Houses. In the days when Lyons had aspirations beyond a Mr Kipling Bakewell tart these vast emporiums dominated the casual dining market in London.

The first Lyons teashop opened in Piccadilly in 1894, the premises are still a cafe and now called Ponti’s where you can still see the original stucco ceiling of the original teashop. The Lyons teashops became so popular that in the 1950s there were seven along Oxford Street alone and 250 nationally, but it was their Corner Houses which were the most impressive. In total London had three: one on the junction with Tottenham Court Road and Hanway Street; a second at Coventry Street and Rupert Street; the third at the intersection of Strand and Craven Street.

They were huge, the entire ground floor was taken up as a food hall where Mum would buy such luxury goods as coleslaw or Parmesan cheese. Above were three or four levels of restaurants each with their own decorative style with an orchestra playing throughout the day.

But the best was the waitresses in their maid like black dresses, with white aprons and tiara type hats. Originally called “Gladys” by 1926 it was felt that name was old fashioned and suggestions included “Sybil-at-your-service”, Miss Nimble”, Miss Natty”, “Busy Betty” and “Dextrous Doris”, but they eventually were referred to as Nippies because of their ability to move speedily around the diners tables and often no doubt trying to avoid the advances of middle-aged men, although it was reported by Picture Post that every year 800-900 Nippies got married to customers “met on duty” and the publication wrote that being a Nippy was good training for becoming a housewife.

The Corner Houses also had hairdressers, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and a food delivery service. These were also pioneers of self-service dining, and an amusing anecdote by John Hall tells of the Lyons Corner House in the Strand which offered a fixed price meal, with the attraction of being able to fit as much as you could on your tray for the one price. Unfortunately, the tray was on a conveyor belt moving down the counter quicker than you could stack it with food.

Two other Corner Houses were managed under the Maison Lyons brand one at Marble Arch and the other in Shaftsbury Avenue called The Trocadero, which during the war was given over to American troops and known as Rainbow Corner, it can’t have been a coincidence
that the Windmill with its proud boast “We Never Close” which offered male entertainment was opposite.

In a world just recovering from a devastating war with much a London laid to rubble by the bombing and sweet rationing still in force, high tea was a luxury but sadly the last teashop closed in 1981. Now the good news is that Lyons style tea houses are set to return. Headed by a former operations chief at Starbucks, but don’t let that put you off, using the Lyons teashop brand the first opened in Bluewater shopping centre.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 3rd January 2012

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Gibson

(4) Readers Comments

  1. Apparently in the ‘Quadrant Arcade’. A couple of years back Havering Museum was asking Facebookers to lend/send them photos of Lyons Tea Shop for an exhibition so maybe they still have the stuff on show. I recall that we didn’t have to walk far from Lyons Tea House to the 252 & 165 bus stops in South Street. Once again thanks for the memories.

    • The 165 bus stop is now opposite a new swimming pool and gym

  2. This article is definitely a memory-jogger especially as I am currently living in the USA. Until 2018 I had only been to one panto at the London Palladium & that was Little Ol’ King Cole in 1961 starring Charlie Drake & the scrummy, luscious Janette Scott [At age 9 I ditched Jane Russell for Janette.] who I believe is still going strong at 81 years old. I had no idea until today, whilst checking up on the lovely Janette, that she is Thora Hird’s daughter. As far as Lyons Corner Houses go I remember one trip to one of the central London LCHs in the early 60s but I was a very regular visitor to the Lyons Tea House in Romford, Essex. Nip into the market to cuddle the puppies for sale beforehand. I was back at the Palladium for the Panto in December 2018. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • I now live near Romford, so where was the Lyons Tea House, presumably somewhere before they decided to redevelop the area demolishing most of the town’s character.

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