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LIFE ABROAD: Britain - Much-loved Tea Ladies Fading Into Past

March 13, 1987

LONDON (AP) _ Just about every British office had at least one much-loved tea lady who came around twice a day, smilingly serving tea in fine china cups, dropping an occasional juicy bit of gossip and, when needed, passing along a little motherly advice.

But Britain’s tea ladies are dwindling - replaced by machines.

It’s a trend regretted by many.

″There is something very British about tea ladies,″ said Mark Chapman, an independent television producer.

He recently made a documentary about tea and said he discovered that ″more and more people were going to tea-dispensing machines, and that the tea ladies were an endangered species.″

One is Noreen Hosburgh, who has been a tea lady for more than 20 years. She’s retiring in August but doesn’t like the idea of machines dispensing tea.

″From the tea ladies’ point of view it’s a very said thing,″ she said, ″because for lots of mothers, after bringing up children, it was sort of an opportunity to get back to work without having to study and everything else.″

There are 180,000 machines dispensing tea in offices, factories and other locations throughout the country today, said Roboserve Ltd., a major vending machine maker.

That number will increase by 10 percent in each of the next five years, the London-based company predicted.

The number of British machine manufacturers, meanwhile, has grown to six, reflecting the size of the market in a country that leads the Anglo-Saxon tea- drinking world with an annual average of 1,355 cups per person.

The accounting firm Stoy Hayward let five tea ladies go when it moved to a new building and introduced machines three years ago. The firm kept one tea lady to serve the top partners and important meetings.

″The tea ladies were getting old and past retirement,″ said Brian Udell, a director. ″It was an amicable arrangement. They went off happily.″

But things haven’t been the same since.

Stoy Hayward had to install a new make of machines in December because the previous ones weren’t reliable, but the new machines already have had water- pressure problems.

The firm also has to charge employees 7.5 cents a cup; the tea ladies’ tea was free.

Then there is the problem of people spilling their tea on the way back to their desks, although the firm does supply trays.

And, there are the gripes from the 800 employees.

″People like being served,″ Udell said. ″They don’t like getting up and getting it for themselves.″

In addition, he said, ″Some people don’t like the quality. It doesn’t please everybody. Most people don’t like drinking out of plastic cups (although) most of us have gotten used to that.″

The company is installing a sixth machine, and it dispenses beverages into your own cup.

The machines, which Stoy Hayward rents, are slightly cheaper than employing tea ladies, whose salaries are estimated at $4,500 to $9,000 a year.

But cost wasn’t the primary consideration, Udell said. Convenience was.

″The main benefit is that we could produce drinks all day or night,″ Udell said. ″We do have staff working late hours.″

The machines also offer a much wider choice. Besides tea, they dispense coffee, soft drinks, soup and cold water.

But Sheila Brewin, a secretary, said she prefers a tea lady - and is lucky enough to still have one, because she works for a top partner.

″I like the personal touch,″ Mrs. Brewin said. ″I also like a little gossip with her. A tea machine can’t talk to you.″

Mrs. Brewin swears the tea lady keeps mum about important business conversations she overhears.

″It’s only the little tattle she gossips about, like who’s having an affair wih whom, who’s having a baby, etc.,″ Mrs. Brewin said.

Does Mrs. Brewin tell her tea lady her troubles?

″She usually tells me her problems,″ Mrs. Brewin said, and laughed.

Besides making their rounds, tea ladies traditionally have provided a social function, organizing Christmas caroling and such.

At Butlers Till Ltd., a money brokerage firm, two ladies ply tea on a frenzied trading floor, and Mike Redgwell, deputy managing director, said it’s a tough job supplying the busy traders.

But Butlers is determined to persevere.

″We have a machine as well, but they (the tea ladies) won’t be replaced under any circumstances,″ Redgwell said.

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