The Tea Ladies

By Amanda Hampson

Publisher: Penguin/2023

Publisher’s blurb

They keep everyone’s secrets, until there’s a murder…

Sydney, 1965: After a chance encounter with a stranger, tea ladies Hazel, Betty and Irene become accidental sleuths, stumbling into a world of ruthless crooks and racketeers in search of a young woman believed to be in danger.

In the meantime, Hazel’s job at Empire Fashionwear is in jeopardy. The firm has turned out the same frocks and blouses for the past twenty years and when the mini-skirt bursts onto the scene, it rocks the rag trade to its foundations. War breaks out between departments and it falls to Hazel, the quiet diplomat, to broker peace and save the firm.

When there is a murder in the building, the tea ladies draw on their wider network and put themselves in danger as they piece together clues that connect the murder to a nearby arson and a kidnapping. But if there’s one thing tea ladies can handle, it’s hot water.

Reviewer: Narrelle Harris

Many readers of this fabulous novel won’t remember tea ladies – the older women who, once upon a time, wheeled a tea trolley through every floor of a business, bringing tea, biscuits, a sympathetic ear (and occasionally gossip) to everyone from the mail room to the executive suites. But that doesn’t matter at all, because Amanda Hampson brings that history, and four very different tea ladies, to perfect life in The Tea Ladies.

It’s 1965 in Sydney’s rag trade district, and four tea ladies who work in the surrounding fashion manufacturers meet regularly on their own breaks. The gentle Hazel, bossy Merl, slightly ditzy Betty and rough-as-guts Irene (who herself has a colourful past).

The story kicks off when Hazel sees a woman seeming to ask for help from an upper window of the abandoned bond warehouse beside her workplace, Empire Fashionwear. The police aren’t particularly interested, even when the warehouse burns down a day later – and Hazel discovers the corpse of the new accountant inside the Empire building.

Hazel Bates is calm, sensible, kind and has a special skill for knowing when somebody is lying. Frustrated at the lack of interest from the police, she and her network of tea lady friends begin their own investigation. It’s always a treat to see older women as lead characters in a book, and these four very different women, with a common job but vastly different lives, create a terrific set of storytelling dynamics.

But Hazel isn’t just a Miss Marple type – she has her own approaches, and her own troubles, too, with her discovery of her husband’s secrets (and keeping one of her own). These elements weave around and through each other as the tea ladies court get deeper into dangerous territory and begin to wonder who they can trust.

At the same time, Jean Shrimpton has sent shockwaves through Australia’s fashion industry by appearing at Derby Day in Melbourne in a miniskirt. Amidst all the mysteries surrounding the murder, orders of their old-fashioned designs have dried up. The response of the factory floor is another delightful thread of gold weaving in and out of the main crime plot.

All of these elements are beautiful combined with a powerful sense of place and time, a hint of nostalgia, wonderfully crafted characters and friendships, a soupçon of magic realism, and an intricate crime plot that brings deadly danger to one of the most delightful amateur sleuths I’ve read.  

The Tea Ladies is a fabulous book, and highly recommended.