J. Lyons & Co. was a substantial food manufacturer, with factories at Cadby Hall in Hammersmith, and from 1921 at Greenford, producing bread, cakes, pies, tea, coffee and ice cream.
To the public, J. Lyons & Co. were best known for their chain of tea shops which opened from 1894 and finally closed in 1981, and for the Lyons Corner Houses in the West End of London. The tea shops were slightly more up-market than their ABC (Aerated Bread Company) counterparts. They were notable for their interior design, from the 1920s Oliver P. Bernard being consultant artistic director. Until the 1940s they had a certain working-class chic, but by the 1950s and 60s they were quick stops for busy shoppers where one could drink a cup of tea and eat a snack or an inexpensive meal.
The tea shops always had a bakery counter at the front, and their signs, art nouveau gold lettering on white, were a familiar landmark (before the Second World War service was to the table by uniformed waitresses, known as ‘Nippies’, but after the War the tea shops converted to cafeteria service).Corner Houses
In Context I
A nippy was a waitress who worked in the J. Lyons & Co tea shops and cafes in London. Beginning in the late 19th century, a J. Lyons waitress was called a “Gladys”. From 1926, because the waitresses nipped (moved quickly) around the tea shops, and the term “Nippy” came into use. Nippies wore a distinctive maid-like uniform with a matching hat.
By the 1920s it was already long established in the advertising world that attractive females could sell products, and the tea business of J Lyons & Co was no exception. Nippies appeared in all manner of advertising, on product packages, and on promotional items.
The Nippy soon became a national icon. Unlike other endorsements of the day, which often took the form of popular celebrities or cartoon characters, a Nippy was contrastingly accessible and close to home. A Nippy was someone who could be seen and interacted with every day, and perhaps this was part of the appeal of the concept.
J. Lyons was very careful to maintain the Nippy image as wholesome and proper — strict cleanliness standards applied for Nippy uniforms, and before World War II J. Lyons would not hire married women as Nippies. So popular was the image that miniature Nippy outfits were popular for children dressing up for special events such as fetes.
The Corner Houses, which first appeared in 1909 and remained until 1977, were noted for their art deco style. Situated on or near the corners of Coventry Street, Strand and Tottenham Court Road, they and the Maison Lyonses at Marble Arch and in Shaftesbury Avenue were large buildings on four or five floors, the ground floor of which was a food hall with counters for delicatessen, sweets and chocolates, cakes, fruit, flowers and other products.
In addition, they possessed 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. They featured window displays designed by Kay Lipton (née Man) and, in the post-war period, the Corner Houses were smarter and grander than the local tea shops. Between 1896 and 1965 Lyons owned the Trocadero, which was similar in size and style to the Corner Houses.
In context II
Lyons-style tea houses to take on the coffee shops
With its finger sandwiches, scones and pastries, all served on a silver stand, a new High Street chain promises to bring back the elegance of the Lyons tea houses. The first Cadbury Cocoa House is to open next week with a hope for at least 50 more of the quintessentially British outlets in the next five years.
The theme has echoes of the Lyons Corner Houses, with their uniformed waitresses – the ‘Nippies’ – which were hugely popular before the last war. The concept will challenge the dominance of the bland US coffee shop culture with its foreign mix of paninis and ciabatta, capuccinos and lattes. The team behind the concept includes a former operations chief at Starbucks UK, who has also organised Royal garden parties and was a senior executive at Harrods.
The restaurants, which are more upmarket than existing coffee shops, will offer a ‘Ritz-style’ tea for two served on a tiered silver stand. It includes a collection of finger sandwiches, such as cucumber, cream cheese and garden mint, and oak smoked salmon and lemon butter. These come with freshly baked scones, served with Devon cream and raspberry preserve, together with a collection of pastries and Twinings tea.