Melbourne’s oldest tea rooms, the Hopetoun Tea Rooms, were originally set up as a small tea room in the fashionable Block Arcade for the Victoria Ladies’ Work Association, a charitable organisation that gave needlework commissions to “ladies in somewhat pinched circumstances”. The tea room was named after the association’s patron, Lady Hopetoun, wife of the Victorian Governor.
The Victoria Ladies Work Association was formed in 1879 to provide assistance to the “educated poor”. As The Australasian explained in 1892:
There is a large class of women who are not educated highly enough to become governesses yet are willing and anxious to assist in supporting the household. To such as these the association holds out a helping hand in the form of almost regular employment at plain needlework.
Clients of the Association placed orders, which were then passed on to the ladies in question, who were spared the embarrassment of touting their own wares. The customs of the times are revealed in the Association’s assertion that “Trousseaux (with perhaps the exception of ball and dinner gowns) can be carried out completely down to the smallest detail.” Few brides today are concerned with preparing their trousseau.
Similarly the Association’s ladies would undertake “layettes” – a complete collection of clothes for a newborn infant. Other offerings included lace-making, embroidery, panel and flower painting.
The Association’s move to the Block Arcade in 1892 had the advantage of making their offerings more readily available to the public. “For the convenience of patrons the committee have had a very pretty little tea and writing room fitted up, and as the premises are situated in what is now the cleanest, coolest and most central portion of the city, the Work Association ought to be on the high road to success,” reported The Australasian.
However, it seems that just two years later the Hopetoun Tea Rooms were no longer run by the Work Association but by Miss Chrissie Robertson who was, according to Punch, “connected with several of the leading Melbourne families”. She hoped to “secure the patronage of the many who cannot enjoy tea in the ordinary public cafes.” Yes, poor things, mixing with the hoi polloi could completely destroy one’s enjoyment of one’s tea.
By 1896 Miss Robertson had moved on, catering to the high society of Coolgardie on the Western Australian goldfields. Were the same social niceties observed there, I wonder? The Victoria Ladies’ Work Association was dissolved in 1907.
The Hopetoun Tea Rooms became famous for the cake displays in the windows and was a favoured location for upmarket events. It continued to trade in Block Arcade under various owners until 2019, when the proprietors, the Koutoumanos family, could not resolve a dispute with the Arcade’s owners resulting in financial difficulties. In 2020 the business (or at least the business name) was sold.
The new owner is businessman Vikramjeet Singh, who has a tea plantation background from India. Unable to resolve issues with the lease, he is relocating The Hopetoun Tea Rooms to a historic building previously occupied by Kozminky’s jewellers. However, the tea rooms in the Block Arcade are subject to a heritage order and will continue as The Block Arcade Tea Rooms 1892, dropping the Hopetoun name.