Puppydog tails — 03 January 2012

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 were 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 Trocodero, 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 and female members of the CabbieBlog were among the first to sample the delight of finger sandwiches, scones and cakes: And their opinion? Brilliant.

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Gibson

(1) Reader Comment

  1. Every blog that you write evokes memories,,,,
    It was the first week of Jan 1957. I had decided to do “The Knowledge”. I had found myself a partner who knew absolutely everything there was to know (?). He had all the runs copied out (by someone else) and a list of every point asked since 1645 AD. I turned up at his parents flat in Downs Court (?) , a block of flats overlooking the Pembury Circle. It was 7.30am and I was riding my Rudge Whitworth bicycle that my Dad had bought me in 1949 in “Club Row” for a fiver. His mother, answering the door told me that he (cant remember his name) was still in bed. From under the bedclothes he mumbled that it was too cold to get up. In disgust I took off on my own. My knowledge of London was far less than nil. I had no idea that there was a Euston Station, Or Marylebone or Cannon ST. , Blackfriars, Charing Cross or London Bridge. Who could possibly want all those stations? I cannot remember what sort of ‘run’ I was doing, but I found myself in Wilton Crescent leaning back on my bike and looking up at the church spire. It suddenly took on a wobbly shape and everything went black. When I came too I realized that I had been ‘OUT’ for at least 30 mins. and I was lying on top of my bike in the middle of the road. No one had come to my assistance. With great difficulty I got to my feet and leaning on my bike (it was very difficult to walk), i trudged around up to Hyde Park Cnr, and down into the subterranean toilets ( they are probably not there now). The attendant there must have taken pity on me. I gave him the 3 pence for a standard wash and he gave me the De Luuxe treatment. Two wonderfully soft white towels, all the hot water I wanted, a face cloth and a bar of soap. That was the sixpence treatment. After I had recovered somewhat I staggered across Knightsbridge (no underpass in those days0 and into “J. Lyons” tea shop. I had a steaming hot cup of tea and a large sugar covered Chelsea Bun. It was delicious.So I had another and another.
    I roe my bike home and the next day went out and got myself a job as a ‘top machiner’ in a sweat shop. I restarted “the Knowledge” at the end of February with a new partner and I started from scratch,,, I passed in the middle of Sept.

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