Ladies Afternoon Tea.
Earl Grey, Lady Chaytor, and the rules of the ritual.
Hi, Peter. How’s things?
Great. I’ve been drinking tea. I think it’s Earl Grey. A family favourite. It had to be Earl Grey.
Earl Grey? I got the same story from your half-brother John. I sent him a copy of that photo of you and my dad, standing by a campfire in the 1930s — boiling a billy. John has an ability to identify things, so I jokingly asked him what brand of tea leaves were in the bottle near Bill’s foot.
An impossible task.
Within a day I had the answer. ‘Earl Grey. Dad wouldn’t drink anything else, and I’m sure he brought up his sons to enjoy the best things in life.’
So tea was an important part of your life.
My father’s sister, Florrie — Aunty Florrie to us boys, she had a few stories to tell. When she first came down to the Manawatu with her mother and another of the brothers — Sydney — she worked as a cook and a domestic housekeeper. She cooked for a doctor, and she may have cooked for the mayor. She was very good. A big, strong woman, who could do things.
She’d do things like pluck and skin anything us boys shot and brought home. Quail. Pheasants. Rabbits. She’d out with the knife and turn it into a feed. She’d tackle anything. When we were older. if we came in with a deer, we’d throw it down and leave it to her. She’d split open the belly, drag out the guts — all that — Florrie knew what to do and wasn’t afraid to do it. So she knew about turning out a good feed.
Do you know the name of anyone she worked for?
Well, one name does come to mind. Lady Chaytor.
Lady Chaytor’s husband was Sir Edward Chaytor. He was a big shot in the army. A military man. A leader. And he was a Colonel, or Major-General or some such, and because of that he could afford to have Florrie come in and work for them. ‘Domestic Service’, they called it. He was SOMEONE! They named a side-street in his honour — between Linton Street and Fitzherbert Avenue. It was when they were dividing up some vacant land there. Chaytor Street.
Anyway, Florrie Leyland worked for the Chaytors after World War One. She’d ‘go out to work’, and she’d ‘come home from work’, and she not only brought home the money, she’d sometimes bring home a story.
‘Peter, I must say that Lady Chaytor certainly likes her cup of tea. There’s this ritual. 10 o’clock every morning. Morning tea. But that’s just the start. Lady Chaytor has her cups of tea at least three times a day. Good hot cups.’
And Lady Chaytor said to Florrie, ‘If tea were intoxicating I’d be a hopeless drunkard.’
It was just a ‘toss-away-line’ of course. Chit-chat, in the course of their conversation.
Lady Chaytor — 'a hopeless drunkard'!
It sounds like your Aunty Florrie got on well with people.
Well, the women of those houses — the socialites — they liked to have a get-together every so often for a good old gossip session. They called it their ‘Ladies Afternoon Tea’. It was their Official Name for it. Quite a thing it was — these woman in their fancy clothes, sipping tea, and wagging their tongues.
Now, these social people must have held my aunt in some regard because Florrie told us she got invited to join in, even though she was no more than a servant, so to speak.
And she sat and chatted and observed, and by listening to these women she concluded that there were only two subjects in the whole wide world that were of any importance.
The first was your health — medical stuff — all your aches and sniffles and rheumatic joints and the things women talk about.
The second was your family — how this one was doing this, and that one was doing that, and another one was doing something else, but doing it very well. And all the shocking news.
And Florrie told us that because she had no family worth boasting about, and none of the family ever got any noteworthy sickness, the whole ‘Ladies Afternoon Tea’ was a very boring affair, and therefore the women in it were, as far as she was concerned, a very, very boring group.
These ‘afternoon tea’ things happened all over town. A common thing. Any family that had a home and a bit of money and a few friends might get into this ‘afternoon tea’ thing. There were rules.
First you had to do some fancy home baking.
Then you visited a different person’s place, perhaps each week. So the members could cover a lot of ground.
And finally, each woman would be expected to fossick around to have something to boast about — some knitting, or lace making, or crochet or some such. Or talk about their family.
They’d all meet together, dressed in their frills and ruffles, and start gassing. 95% talk and 5% drinking tea and nibbling sandwiches and cakes.
Occasionally there’d be a ‘going out’ for afternoon tea. That was really something, to go to one of the big stores. A special treat. Collinson & Cunningham, or that one on the other side of the Square — Rossco’s. There was a bit of cunning in it all. The owners of the store made it so you had to go past their counters and tempting displays to get at the food. You got exposed to their wares. But it all came with a view over the city from the first floor. Waitresses in uniform. Good food. Very well done. All laid on.
Sometimes, on really special occasions we’d get to go to along on one of these outings with Aunty Florrie. She’d look through all the merchandise. Boring. The only fun for us was the fancy food. Our mouths were wide open, but not to gossip.