Living Between the Lines

Fitting out, Sailors, Tea Ladies and Euphamisms

A Bank holiday weekend, in gorgeous Fowey, was full of surprises. We arrived expecting rain but were met with blue skies and sunshine. It may not have been the weather for lazing on the beach but it was pleasant and warm in sheltered parts.

We had arrived towards evening and my husband had booked a meal at the local sailing club for our party of three. He had also issued an invitation to a friend who was delighted to accept. Thus, we wandered down at the appointed time. Our friend, who lives in Fowey, was already there.

“Did you know it was a Fitting Out dinner?” she asked us with a wicked smile.

“A fitting out dinner?” we repeated, innocently, “What is that?”

“Oh no, you mean you didn’t know?”

We frowned, a little nervous now and shook our heads.

“Today is the day that everyone has finished fitting out their boats for the Summer and this is a celebration,” she informed us triumphantly.

Her tone suggested we should be concerned. Was there to be a quiz? Was there some secret handshake involved? It all looked fairly normal to us. A group of hardened drinkers lounged by the bar, trestle tables lined the walls, each with places laid.

“Is this a formal dinner?” I hissed to my husband.

“Well, it did say a set meal,” he offered.

I glanced at the third member of our party, she shrugged, knowing no more than I. We didn’t own so much as a dinghy between us and the only thing we had fitted out recently, was a kitchen. We are more social members of the sailing club I suppose one could say.

Oh well, we decided, we’d wing it.

Our Fowey friend, whom I shall refer to as Elle, was grinning merrily, enjoying the situation.

“You’ll be fine,” she told us,

We sat down at a table that was already occupied by three of our fellow guests. Polite conversation ensued.

Our fellow guests were retired and had been working on their boat all day it seemed but, having cast aside work trousers and boat shoes, now donned full evening wear. We had been told that they were retired Historians (can historians ever truly retire? Isn’t that a bit like saying a story-teller retires?) They certainly knew their stuff and their stories were a delight to hear.

Among the interesting facts tossed our way, we learnt that Fowey had once been home to quite a few tea ladies. Apparently, these tea ladies would wait for a ship to come in and then go down to the harbour to greet the sailors. How kind, you may think, those poor, thirsty, sailors just dying for a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’. I fear this was not the case. Apparently, the ‘tea ladies’ provided a service and offered one price for a single sailor and another for the entire ship. (That’s a lot of tea!)

Midway through the dinner, someone clapped their hands and asked for silence. He introduced someone else and sat down. A second person stood up to rapturous applause and said something that I couldn’t quite catch. This drew another round of applause and the person sat down. That, we decided, must have been the official Fitting Out Speech. If so, it was the shortest speech in history.

We turned back to our guests to continue our fascinating foray into the history of Fowey.

Having established that the title, Tea Lady, was a euphemism, we remembered hearing that our own house, in times gone by, had been listed as a Tea House. We had always thought that to mean it was used to store the tea brought in from the ships. Have we been labouring under a misapprehension?

I wont be inviting any sailors home, just in case…

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • hilarymb

    Hi Deborah – well that would have livened Fowey up! Interesting story – funny how snippets of history can translate into tantalising tales … sounds like a good meal, fun evening and even better few days if the weather stayed reasonable ..

    Cheers Hilary

  • patricia

    What a great adventure! Always good to have an outing. I am going to Hood Canal this weekend for some silence, Qigong and a supper out with a friend for her birthday. When I get through this month of 2 book reviews a week, just maybe i will write something about my adventure.

    The people who built our house owned the Olympia Oyster House – these sweet small oysters are nearly all gone now and the port is where the Striker Vehicles and troups come in from war. They are not met by tea ladies but rather war protesters All night long…Our Inlet is too shallow for the nuclear subs but they are greeted by protesters also …

    what fun….it is always nice to sit with folks who have great conversation skills –

  • Andrea

    I wonder why they felt the need in Fowey to pretty up the common name for these women with tea. I guess it supports the notion that the British use tea to smooth over pretty much everything. But this made me sad, this story. I can’t help but contrast that beautiful spot with the lives these women must have led. I’m reminded of a recent episode of “Call the Midwife.” Do you watch it? It was about a girl on a ship whose father, the captain, had ordered her to see to the sexual needs of all the ship’s men. Given the name of the program, you can imagine the outcome.

    • Deborah Barker

      Andrea, I love “Call the midwife” if only because each episode has a happy ending and a moral attached. I like the idea of the British using tea to smooth things over – it is true, we do – I just had one with my mother-in-law though not to smooth anything over, just to pass the time of day!

  • John Cowton

    I think the term Tea Ladies must have been befitting to the mixed attitudes to prostitution and brothels during the Victorian era. Indeed so called respectable society in London were divided into those who wanted to outlaw prostitution, and those who were patrons to the oldest profession. Many were opposed to the state proposing to regulate moral standards within society, and it wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the contagious diseases act was past to protect the military, allowing prostitution to continue but empowering the authorities to subject any woman found walking the streets at night to physical examination. Too uncomfortable for polite society or indeed hard working Christian families to talk about. Yes it is sad that these women had to become ‘Tea Ladies’ to survive and perhaps support an out of wedlock child, but at least it was a way that local people were able to acknowledge their existence and gave them a non-derogatory name.
    I didn’t know about the tea ladies of Fowey, Deborah, but very much liked the story. The fitting out evening sounds like it would have been full of delightful snippets of conversation. Boating people and historians, how could it go wrong. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Deborah Barker

      How could it go wrong indeed? John, the couple telling me the stories of the Tea Ladies were remembering their childhood in Fowey and since they were only in their seventies, I should think the era they referred to was the fifties and early sixties but the Victorian era was to blame I dare say. 🙂

  • Katie Gates

    Hello Debbie! I decided, quite spontaneously this afternoon, to return to blogging, and so I am making the rounds. I always enjoy your writing, and you raise a good question re whether historians can ever retire! As for the “tea ladies,” they might also be called “tease ladies,” but it sounds like they go well beyond teasing!

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