Stephen McGinty: Everything stopped for tea

At 11am and 3pm, office workers across the UK would look up in expectation of seeing the familiar tea trolley wheel into view. Picture: Getty
At 11am and 3pm, office workers across the UK would look up in expectation of seeing the familiar tea trolley wheel into view. Picture: Getty
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A BBC radio documentary exploring the history of the office reveals the source of some fascinating traditions, many now sadly relegated to history, writes Stephen McGinty

IF THERE was an obituary column dedicated to office life there would be multiple entries for items such as ledgers, smoking, and the tea lady.

Ledgers, in which all information was entered in largely chronological order, made it exceedingly difficult to retrieve information with ease. Prior to the invention of the filing cabinet in 1868, the sudden death of a valued clerk could be a disaster for a business if his colleagues were unaware of his distinctive and idiosyncratic filing system. Notes, letters and accounts could be lost for years. The arrival in the 19th century of towering drawers was a godsend for some clerks and the arrival of a whole new world of tedium for others. Even today, in the era of the so-called paperless office we still collectively cram over two million tonnes of paper in these silent sepulchres of old ideas.

Smoking was a perfectly reasonable office pursuit for hundreds of years, when Dickens trudged into the office his fellow workers liked to partake of snuff: “The clerk, smiled as he said this, and inhaled the pinch of snuff with a zest which seemed to be compounded of a fondness for snuff and a relish for fees.” Cigarettes were the fashion in offices for almost a century until corporations and the government finally wised up that smoking staff were not only killing themselves but their colleagues and, strictly speaking, killing oneself, however slowly should obviously be done on one’s own time. In my early days in journalism smoking was finally banned from the Herald’s offices, driving one member of staff, for whom the act of composing sentences was inextricably linked to the rhythms of inhaling and lighting cigarettes,to seek refuge in the Press Bar, which was, in an act of journalistic benevolence unimaginable today, actually part of the building. An hour before deadline he would retire to the bar where he puffed and wrote into a pad and then phoned in his article to the copytakers, another sad addition to the obituary of office life.

However of them all, one of the longest and most fondly remembered was the tea lady. The role was invented in 1666, as was so many elements of office life, by the East India Company when the wife of one of the directors started making pots of tea which she served to her husband and his fellow directors. Given what the company imported, she did not lack for supplies, but over the next 300 years, the tea lady evolved into an adored figure whose brew, served at 11 am and 3 pm, would sooth the most fevered brow and act as a metronome, sounding out the day. In 2003 Scottish Enterprise still had a tea lady called Isa Allan, who was given an MBE by the Queen and described as the “heart and soul” of the office. I, myself, began my career in this, still inky trade, (yes, the printing press, looking pale, poorly and with a shocking cough the obituarists are, as I type, quietly measuring him up for a digital shroud) as a form of “tea lady”, this involved no displays of transvestism but as a copy boy I was required to fetch tea and coffee for certain members of staff, reporters could get their own, heads of department could make occasional demands and the editor had immediate call upon your time but who, actually, preferred soup. He had a buzzer above the copy boys’ desk which was so loud if triggered while you yourself were enjoying a cuppa your involuntary action was to hurl it in your face, unfortunate if piping hot.

Today, however, my background as a former professional beverage manufacturer, among other tasks I might add, leads colleagues to expect nothing but the finest silver service when it comes to my turn to make a brew. At least, it did until they discovered that experience had a rather bitter, weak and watery taste.

My reasons for ruminating on what has, sadly, passed from our offices has been triggered by an excellent series of programmes on Radio 4, History of Office Life presented by Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times, which has lifted the ceiling from our modern business life and linked it up with the past. Who could not fail to identify with Charles Lamb, a 19th-century clerk with the East India Company who wrote of the drudgery of his daily chores: “Thirty years have I served the Philistines, and my neck is not subdued to the yoke. You don’t know how wearisome it is to breath the air of four pent walls without relief day after day.” He was even more enraged when management decided, on a whim, to cancel holidays and the annual Christmas lunch, known as the “yearly turtle feast”, a penny pinching move which prompted him to write: “The Committee have formally abolish’d all holydays whatsoever – for which may the Devil, who keeps no holydays, have them in his eternal burning workshop.”

Listening to the series at a time when everyone is anxious to work from coffee shops or at home, it is fascinating that office life began, in fact, in coffee shops and at home. In the past everyone worked from home as they slept where they toiled and the arrival of coffee shops in 1652 was an instant hit with traders who based themselves in one of the 3,000 that appeared over the next 50 years. The idea of an office block, a centralised centre of commerce and industry was popularised by the East India Company who built one in 1729 to house their growing staff, who when ships arrived in port toiled from 10am until 11pm at night, although they did get a rather generous two hour lunch-break. What was clever about the series was the way in which Kellaway linked the past with the present. The early riser who likes to have breakfast at his desk would have been on nodding terms with John Stuart Mill who had a boiled egg and a cup of tea at his desk.

The arrival of women in the office was particularly illuminating as I wasn’t quite aware of the fears that employers had at the time about the possibility of office romances. At the Bank of England male and female employees were expected never to meet, as each had their own entrance, floors and, in this was not always possible, women were expected to work behind a screen. At the Bank women were found to work harder and more competently than men but took more sick days, a point which almost led to the dismissal of their entire sex until it was pointed out that a women would never earn more than £85 a year while a male clerk could cost as much as £300. Prudently, management decided to keep women on the payroll. At the Post Office women were not allowed out at lunch-time for fear of what they might get up to during that idle hour, a rule that was only repealed in 1911.

The arrival of the telephone, meanwhile, caused almost as much consternation and stress and employees in skirts. Many viewed it only as a mechanical interruption that was unnecessary. William Preece, chief engineer of the General Post Office dismissed the invention and testified to a House of Commons committee of the dim view on which he took towards the telephone. “There are conditions in America which necessitate the use of such instruments more than here. Here we have a super-abundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind. The absence of servants has compelled America to adopt communications systems for domestic purposes. Few have worked at the telephone much more than I have, I have one in my office but more for show. If I want to send a message - I employ a boy to take it.” Yet like all new technology it wormed its way into the office prompting instruction manuals on how to use it with civility: “Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out ‘Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?’” Women were also expected to hang up first.

The desk telephone will surely be the next entry to the office obituary, now rendered obsolete by the mobile phone, but one thing remains certain the office itself may be four centuries old, but it remains in the rudest of health.