In our latest great blog we hear from Leila Kassir about Nell Bacon, a legendary ‘Nippy’!
Following the launch in 1894 of their first teashop at 213 Piccadilly, the catering firm J. Lyons & Co. (Lyons) became a ubiquitous presence on English high streets, providing a range of dining outlets catering for all purses. Most prolific were the teashops which, by the late 1930s, numbered 200 in London with a further 50 in the provinces[ii]. Waitresses were the cornerstone of Lyons’ service model, their importance emphasised in 1925 when they were named ‘Nippy’[iii], an expressive moniker which cemented them in the public consciousness as the key symbol of Lyons.
Despite their heavy reliance on a female workforce, the Lyons managerial hierarchy was decidedly male, centred around the founding families, the Salmons and the Glucksteins. It was therefore a beguiling moment when, researching in the Lyons’ company archives[iv], I read the contents of an envelope containing a cluster of photographs, newspaper clippings and typescripts relating the story of Nell Bacon[v] and her significant role within Lyons as “Nippy No. 1”.
The woman who would one day ultimately oversee half a million women workers was born Alice Eleanor in 1879 in Nayland, a village of fewer than 1000 residents on the Suffolk / Essex border. Leaving home for London as a teenager, Nell began working for Lyons as a temporary waitress at the Piccadilly teashop. By the time she was 30, Nell had become Chief Superintendent of Teashops, which allowed her to exert influence over all aspects of teashops management. Nell credited this business success in part to the retention of her Suffolk accent, which she believed ensured she was memorable and also gave “a clue to natural character”.[vi]
For the Nippys, their character was expected to be the essence of “alacrity, smartness and alertness”[vii] and it was Nell who, influenced by her own waitressing experiences, provided the impetus for two of the most influential factors affecting waitressing skill and appearance. Remembering her own nervousness when new to the job, particularly the faux pas of pouring tea into a customer’s silk hat, Nell was instrumental in the foundation of a waitressing school at 30 Orchard House, near Oxford Street, where all new Nippys underwent training. As one former Nippy reminisced, the training was “like a finishing school for the working class girl”,[viii]
When Nell started at Lyons in 1897 the working week was a gruelling 74 hours, undertaken whilst wearing a cashmere and wool uniform and waist-narrowing corset. By the 1920s, a “stylish, ‘human’ & comfortable”[ix] replacement was required to complement the corporate persona of the newly-named Nippys. The extent to which Nell was involved in the redesign of the famous Nippy uniform is difficult to ascertain: a 1948 article[x] claimed she designed it, while Nell took credit for introducing shorter skirts, lower collars, establishing the Lyons dressmaking department and for designing the Nippy cap. This latter innovation proved a necessity as women’s hairstyles changed and headwear needed to sit well on fashionably shingled heads. The demeanour of the Nippys was never left to chance. Each waitress underwent a daily inspection during which no detail of her appearance – fingernails, locks of hair, buttons – was too small to escape attention. This close monitoring was undertaken by the female teashop managers, who reported in the hierarchy to Nell.
Nell’s influence also affected which women were permitted to wear the uniform. Nippy was only one job within the teashops’ structure; other roles included staffing the drink urns, kitchen worker, and Sally the Salesgirl, who worked at the front shop counter. Nell could “tell at a glance”[xi] what role would best suit each woman based partly on her walk, bearing and general appearance. The risk of personal taste and prejudice to influence employment decisions was therefore strong. There were, however, limits to Nell’s powers: her wish for a teashop staffed only by red-headed women, whom she felt were beautiful and efficient, was not implemented although the news reached the Hairdressers’ Weekly Journal who penned a poem about her desire for “an army corps complete of ruddy amazons”[xii].
The archival documents don’t reveal explicit reasons for Nell’s unusual career within the male-dominated Lyons in the early 20th century. The statement in this blog’s title, written on Nell’s 40th anniversary with Lyons, perhaps provides some hints suggesting as it does that, for women, romance and career could not coexist. Nell certainly seemed to think marriage would be detrimental to her career prospects. Despite Lyons still referring to her as “Miss Nell Bacon” a mere four years before her death in 1961[xiii], it transpires that she was married[xiv] and had, successfully it seems, endeavoured to keep it a secret[xv].
Whatever lay behind Nell’s rise to the post of ‘Nippy No. 1’, she herself understood it to be based on the combination of two factors, which she had carried with her since she left her village home as a teenager: “Hard work – and a Suffolk accent”[xvi].
Leila Kassir is midway through an MA by Research in English at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching the representation of J. Lyons & Co. within archives and novels of the 1920s to 1950s. She is also the Academic Librarian for English Literature at Senate House Library, University of London. Email: Leila.Kassir.firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture 1) London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, Photo of Miss N Bacon in ACC/3527/231 from the J Lyons and Company Limited collection
[i] Typescript Nippy No. 1, , p.1, ACC/3527/231
[ii] Lyons Tea article, ACC/3527/263/002
[iii] Nippy was often officially expressed in this manner, singly and without definite articles
[v] Folder Photographs Of and Articles On Miss Nell Bacon, Chief Superintendent of Lyons’ Teashops, ACC/3527/231, London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, Lyons and Company Limited collection
[vi] Nippy No. 1, p. 6
[vii] W. Buchanan-Taylor, “Ten Million Meals a Week! : the Feeding of the Hungry Hordes by the Famous Firm of Lyons”, Nash’s Pall Mall Gazette, vol. 85, issue 443 (1930): p.111
[viii] Correspondence from Mrs Camac in response to the advert ‘Calling All Nippies’, 14 January 1990, ACC/3527/235
[ix] First Lyons’ Teashop: Opened September 20 1894 leaflet celebrating the 40th anniversary of Lyons, , ACC 3527/230
[x] “Brighton Woman’s Part in Big Undertaking”, Brighton Review, (June 1948), ACC/3527/231
[xi] Typescript My Days with Lyons by Miss Nell Bacon, , p.2, ACC/3527/231
[xii] “Ancilla’s Auburn Tresses”, Lyons Mail, (March 1930): p.260, ACC/3527/280
[xiii] V.S.B. “Miss Nell Bacon: Sixtieth Anniversary of her Association with the Teashops”, Lyons Mail, (May 1957): p.7, ACC/3527/231
[xiv] This is a similar strategy to Miss M.E. Chapman who worked as a managerial secretary at Lyons for 28 years. On her retirement in 1952 it was stated on p.12 of that year’s August issue of Lyons Mail that she was “Miss Chapman (Mrs Mason in private life)”
[xv] “J. Lyons & Co.: Extended Obituary – ‘B’: Bacon, Alice Eleanor (1879-1961), n.d., “https://www.kzwp.com/lyons.pensioners/obituary2B.htm This website was originally created by the late Peter Bird, author of The First Food Empire: A History of J. Lyons & Co. (Chichester: Phillimore, 2000)
[xvi] Nippy No. 1, p.6
All references are from the London Metropolitan Archives, City of London, Lyons and Company Limited collection unless stated otherwise.