One of the most popular office employees was the ‘tea lady’, who dispensed tea, coffee and biscuits to employees from a trolley. Tea ladies were employed in many businesses, including factories and offices, ostensibly as a means of increasing productivity, and office routines revolved around their twice-daily appearances. It is not clear when tea ladies first became a fixture in Australia, but they were introduced in Britain during the Second World War and advertisements for jobs as tea ladies began to appear in Melbourne after the war. Johns and Waygood Ltd. of South Melbourne advertised for a tea lady in the Argus in October 1948. They offered £3/1/3d for a five-day week, with hours of work from 11am to 4.45pm. (15 October 1948) The tea lady knew everyone and often everything. She knew how workers liked their tea and which biscuits were particular favourites, but more importantly, she knew the workers and often chatted about their families as she served the tea. A good tea lady was held in great affection, and many mourned her departure when the economic downturn of the 1990s prompted many businesses to dispense with her services. Hundreds of women lost their jobs at this time. Some offices replaced the tea lady with dispensing machines, serving instant tea and coffee in disposable cups. This was universally despised. Others created small cafes, usually operating on a franchise basis. Eventually, the growing passion for barista-made coffee would come to dominate, sending office workers on a daily, or twice-daily pilgrimage to their local cafés of choice.

Eve Wilson serves tea in china cups from her trolley at the Melbourne Town Hall in 1967.
Reproduced courtesy Herald Sun