Young Lyons Nippies who served tea and comforts
to the lads of Fleet Street

The Lyons teashop in Fleet Street was like a dating agency in days of the Nippy

WHAT wonderful images the Daily Drone produces from the past. I love the snapshots of our Street of Shattered Dreams from the early Victorian days to the present. It is so interesting to see how Fleet Street changed so much, and still does. It’s an ever-moving wheel turning on the wind of time of which we were part … the people, the shops, the newspaper offices, the print rooms, the pubs and restaurants, transport and even the views down the hill to Ludgate Circus.

A chapter deserving a place in our history book was strangely the story of the biggest dating ‘service’ in the country back in the early and middle 1900s. The teashops. Or more aptly, Lyons teashops. Ours was at 61 Fleet Street, across the road on Ludgate Circus. I went there with my grandfather as a boy. His mother (my great grandmother) was a Nippy (a waitress).

Lyons was a leader in the business … and opened teashops and Corner Houses from Fleet Street and The Strand to Liverpool and Manchester. In 1924 they updated their image, especially for waitresses and held a staff competition to choose a nickname for them. At that time, they were called ‘Gladys’.  Suggestions included ‘Sybil-at-your-service’, ‘Miss Nimble’, Miss Natty’, ‘Busy Bertha’, ’Speedwell and even ‘Dextrous Dora’. But Nippy won the day because they all nipped around.

The Nippies’ dresses were also modernised, and Lyons removed its ban on bobbed hair. The (mostly) young women were given starched caps with a big, red ‘L’ for Lyons: black Alpaca dresses with a double row of pearl buttons sewn with red cotton and white detachable cuffs and collars. All this was finished off with a white square apron worn at dropped-waist level. The brief was to make them look sexy, in a classy way.

There were over 7,000 of them working for the teashops at any one time and it was reported that there were more marriage proposals to Nippies than any other working sector of women. And the men who didn’t propose, often nipped off with them. It must have been the uniforms, eh? I wonder how many Fleet Street hacks married Nippies who were in the Street back then, or went off for wild weekends? It was a countrywide, upmarket dating agency in many respects.

Staff at the Express and other newspapers at the time often used the Lyons teashop in Fleet Street, which opened up like Dr Who’s Tardis with scores of tables and chairs down below and a dozen Nippies serving them. It would have stretched as far as The Albion pub cellars, with the Fleet river running near its walls.  

Lyons gained popularity from its birth because it was a safe place for women to go whether together or alone and at the time most venues were pubs full of brawling men. The chain’s aim was to be more upmarket than the opposition, and it was, apart from the fancy hotels.

By the time the white and gold fronted Lyons teashop opened in Fleet Street, the company had 250 shops in prestigious locations in London alone, including Shaftesbury Avenue and Marble Arch. Food and drink prices were the same in each shop and the tea was always the best available in the UK. The company even had a fund for helping members of families it employed – but only if they were men.

The Corner Houses came along later and were much grander with four or five floors. The ground floor was a food hall with counters for delicatessen, sweets and chocolates, cakes, fruit, flowers and other products. In addition, they had hairdressing salons, telephone booths, theatre booking agencies and at one period a twice-a-day food delivery service.

On the other floors were several restaurants, each with a different theme and all with their own musicians. For a time, the Corner Houses were open 24 hours a day, and at their peak each branch employed around 400 staff. Many of us remember them, of course we do.

But Lyons had a fierce competitor, even in Fleet Street … the ABC shops and tearooms. The Aerated Food Company started in 1862, making bread using a revolutionary new method that saved costs by avoiding expensive fermentation. It diversified two years later into a chain of teashops. At the height of its success in 1923 the company had 150 branches and 250 teashops in London.

Today, a faded shop sign above today’s Tesco Express where the Strand meets Fleet Street, just by the old Wig & Pen Club, and opposite the Law Courts, is the only trace of them. You can still make out the words The Aerated Bread Company which are carved into the stone masonry.

The tea rooms were taken over by Allied Bakeries in 1954, which owned Fortnum and Mason. What was left of the Lyons teashops closed in 1981. They had overstretched their expansion. The Fleet Street one had long gone, as had another era.


Falling out with the Chairman

I ALWAYS count myself lucky to have served on the battleship HMS Express in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It was a great era, even if Fleet Street was dying under our feet. For the comradeship, and humour of the decent, hard working journalists and others on the editorial floor left a lasting impression on most of us. We were a battleship crew in the Fleet.

Of course, there were dark times … and of course there were some who played the game and could be nasty. Yes, there was a dark side. It could be a hard place and it could break hearts. But our friendships were to last for years well after we left the paper. That is the testimony for us all today at what we call the World’s Greatest Lunch Club when we meet in London.

Often, along the way, I would fall into a dark place … and I remember once, as Night Editor in Blackfriars, I was up against it late at night. There were so many pages to rip out and jig on the Second Edition that it was running late and overspilling into work for the Third. I was also desperate to lift or follow certain stories from the opposition and busy scanning the pages of The Sun, while shouting across to the News Desk about angles on stories we had missed, when my telephone rang. I picked it up and the conversation went something like:

“Chairman here, who’s that?”

Lord Stevens’ tone was brusque.

“Terry Manners, Chairman.”

“Who are you?”

“Nick Lloyd’s Night Editor, Chairman.”

“Where is Mr Lloyd?”

He didn't call him Sir Nicholas Lloyd, which I found strange.

“He’s not here, Chairman. I don’t know where he is, probably at home.” I looked at the clock and it was past 11 o’clock. I continued to turn the pages of The Sun.

“Well, ring him now and get him to ring me immediately! (Pause) What are you doing?”

He must have heard the rustling of newspaper pages over the telephone, as I had heard the clinking of glasses and people in the background from his end.”

“I’m reading the newspapers!”

“What? What newspapers?”

“The Sun and in a minute the Mirror!”

“How dare you, how dare you read an opposition newspaper when you work on mine!”

His brusqueness was replaced by anger, and I suspected that he hadn’t got a clue what a Night Editor does or how newspapers worked on the editorial floor. To be fair, I was tired and now angry that he should talk to me this way. I wasn't his fag at his Stowe Public School. On reflection, I didn’t show much servile respect. What I will describe as robust oral sparring followed. He was sharp, I was sharp.

It ended with him ordering me to report to his office at 9am the following morning.

“Be outside my door … and be prompt!” he snapped.

I angrily replied that I wouldn’t be there because I wouldn’t be home until 3am and I lived in Southend-on-Sea (a place east of Kensington he probably wouldn’t have heard of, although I didn’t say that. I thought it.)

“But I need to sleep,” I told him.

He repeated his order and slammed down the telephone. Darkness descended and my outstanding mortgage flashed before my eyes.

Sure enough, as I suspected, 10 minutes later Nick rang, imploring me to be outside the Chairman’s office at 9am. The Chairman, or a lacky must have rung my Editor. I refused and told my No.2, Bobby Cocksworth, to order a car to take us to Vagabonds for a beer or two before going home. By now, it was dawning on me that I was facing the executioner without a final hearty meal.

It wasn’t the best time I had ever had in Vagabonds. Bobby was predicting my demise while arranging to come in early in case he was needed to step up to the plate. I think he thought this was his golden moment, and I couldn’t blame him. Why not?

On the way home, with my head leaning back in the seat and staring at the car roof, the driver’s telephone rang. It was Nick. One again he implored me to be outside the Chairman’s office at 9am. He would come with me. I finally relented. It was 2am. I got home at three and couldn’t go to bed. I sat for the next three hours nodding off in an armchair, until showering before catching a train. I felt, and looked, like death.

At 9am, suited and booted, but unshaven with hollow eyes, I was standing outside the double doors to the Chairman’s office. It was eerily quiet, only MD Andrew Cameron walked by and nodded to be. “Morning, Terry”. No sign of Nick. He didn't ask what I was doing there. He must have known. 

Over half an hour later, as secretaries I had never seen before started to appear, Nick arrived with a large black folder under his arm.

“Just apologise Terry, right?” he said, “I’ll do the rest.”

All sorts of words that I should say had already been going through my mind on my journey in. But I was determined not to be servile. Polite but not servile, although my mortgage kept clattering about in my mind.

Nick knocked on the double doors, several times but no answer. Finally, he opened one and put his head in. He mumbled something, presumably to Stevens, before retreating and closing the door again. We stood in silence side by side like two CIA bodyguards. More time passed. At around 10 o’clock Nick knocked again and put his head around the door. We were summoned in.

What I saw was far removed from the editorial floor. It was a large, elegant room clad in expensive wood panelling and all the furniture was oak. A bit like a gentleman’s club. The Chairman was sitting at a huge oak desk with his jacket on. He nodded at the seat in front of him for me to sit down, Nick stood at his side and opened the folder.

For a few seconds I felt like I was in a scene from a West End farce. I am 5ft 11 and I knew the Chairman to be a lot smaller. But he appeared to be sitting above my eye level. My seat must have been lower, or higher. Or it was my imagination given the circumstances. The land owner and the serf, sprung to mind..

“This our new Saturday women’s section I wanted you to see, Chairman,” said Nick, taking out a selection of colour page proofs as I sat there wondering when it would be my turn. I had all sorts of speeches ready in my mind, ready to tap dance around what Stevens would say. I realised that Nick was trying to take the sting out of the situation for me.

The Chairman, I thought, paid less than economical interest to the colour proofs and soon turned to me.

I remember him saying something like: “Well, what have you got to say for yourself?” but Nick interrupted, explaining that I hadn’t had any sleep and talked about the pressures of being Night Editor, something like that. And "Terry was sorry for any displeasure he may have caused."

“Well?” the Chairman said, looking at me expectantly.

The words seemed to tumble out of my mouth on autopilot. Nothing I had rehearsed in my mind happened and I heard my bank manager say: “I apologise,” Chairman. “I didn’t mean any offence.”

A brief lesson on respect followed from the Chairman, during which I sat passively.”

“Now, take the day off and get yourself some sleep,” he said.

I thanked him and went to the door. As I opened it, he added: “You do look very tired.”

I didn’t say it, of course, but it was probably more down to drowning my sorrows at Vagabonds than anything else.


Memory Lane

For decades we have walked past the plaque at Ludgate Circus commemorating reporter and writer Edgar Wallace. Many of us will have read some of his books like The Four Just Men, or at least learned about him in school.

But many of us do not know his own personal story. I only knew bits and so for those who might be interested, like myself, I scratched beneath the surface of Wallace’s life and times last week, having looked at his head shot on the plaque a hundred times. I know, I should have found out more about him years ago.

Wallace was born into poverty, the illegitimate son of an actress but adopted by a Billingsgate fish porter. He left school at 12 and his first job in newspapers was selling them on a corner of Ludgate Circus. He was fired from his next job as a milk delivery boy for stealing money. Then came spells working in a rubber factory and a shop before becoming a ship’s cook.

In 1894 he became engaged to a local Deptford girl but broke the engagement and enlisted in the infantry to fight in the South African War. Medical records register him as having a 33in chest and stunted from malnutrition growing up in the slums. He hated the infantry and got a transfer to Royal Medical Corps, which he also hated and so he transferred again to the Press Corps, which he loved as he reported on the Second Boer War for Reuters and the Daily Mail.

In 1901 while in South Africa, Wallace married Ivy Caldecott. The couple's first child, Eleanor Wallace, died suddenly from meningitis in 1903 and they returned to London deeply in debt. Wallace got a job on the Mail and began writing detective stories to earn quick money.

Unable to find any backer for his first book, Wallace set up his own company, Tallis Press, which published the thriller The Four Just Men in 1905. But despite promotion in the Mail and good sales of the book, the project was financially mismanaged, and Wallace had to be bailed out by the newspaper’s proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, who was anxious that the reporter’s financial mess might reflect badly on his title. 

Problems were compounded when inaccuracies in Wallace's reporting led to libel suits being brought against the paper. So Wallace was fired in 1907, the first reporter ever to be sacked from the Daily Mail. Things went from bad to worse. No other newspaper would employ him, given his reputation. The family lived continuously in a state of near-bankruptcy and Ivy had to sell what little jewellery she had for food.

But over the following years, Wallace never gave up and by 1928, it was estimated that one in every four books being read in the UK had come from his pen. He wrote science fiction, screenplays, and a 10-volume history of the First World War; 170 novels;18 stage plays, and 957 short stories. His works were translated into 28 languages.

Now that’s what I call picking yourself up from the floor!

A song for Christmas

SO HERE it is, Merry Christmas everybody will have fun … it’s that time again, months of Noddy Holder’s hit Merry Christmas Everyone belting out over our radios and in shops as the tills ring and £575,000 of royalties are expected to drop on the singer’s doormat along with the Christmas cards. 

Up 10 per cent this year because of inflation. 

Noddy, still battling throat cancer, may be boring to some, but it really does sound like the festive season when his song comes along. The favourite for many of us though is Wham’s Last Christmas. Did you know the song’s royalties of £300,000 a year are donated to the Ethiopian Fund for starving children? Meanwhile, Wham’s Andrew Ridgeley lives in quiet seclusion in Cornwall and still does OK. He has amassed £10million in song royalties. Good game to be in. That’s what George Michael thought. He left £98 million.

Elephant mum's saddest day

WORKERS on their canteen tea break in the Dollis Hill depot of the Neasden Omnibus Company were in tears last week over this heartbreaking video on their smartphones of a grieving mother elephant carrying her dead calf with her trunk at its funeral. She was followed by a cortege of elephants in single file, who held up the traffic in a forest in India, before attending their service under a tree. 

It was so moving it went viral on Twitter and appeared in the Daily Mirror and other titles here. Tea lady Agnes told me that she remembered wildlife icon David Attenborough saying that many animals staged funerals. “Crows, dolphins, chimps and giraffes do too, Terry,” she said, dropping in another sugar lump.

Thought for the Day

Why don’t all the anti-democrats in our country create their own party and stand for Parliament next year? You know the ones. The ones who refuse to recognise our government that we voted for. The Orange road blockers; the Rwanda plane court blockers; the police haters; the Army dismantlers; the culture wreckers and others who want us to open our borders and live in tent cities with the Third World. Now we must add the mad women who blocked the Bibby Barge bus and want illegal immigrants to stay in five star hotels. Madness.

“Down the orifice, please John.”

23 October 2023

A Nippy talks to a customer who is having his last meal before going to war in 1939

Today’s Tesco Express in the Strand, with the faded sign of the Aerated Bread company