The glamorous Criterion Restaurant lies at the heart of theatreland, facing onto Piccadilly Circus. Owned by Spiers and Pond, it had been built, together with the adjoining theatre, in 1874 and during the last century and a quarter has undergone many changes – although now restored to glory. Before the First World War Spiers and Pond’s empire encompassed railway refreshment rooms as well as other large London restaurants, such as the Holborn, at the north end of Kingsway, the setting for many breakfasts held by the WSPU to celebrate the release of their prisoners from Holloway.
Although the Criterion has now only one restaurant – on the ground floor – in its Edwardian heyday it offered many more spaces – not only in which to dine – but also for hire; the Victoria Hall and the Grand Hall, on the first floor, were two such spaces. The Grand Hall, magnificently decorated, ran across the front of the building, overlooking Piccadilly Circus. The lavish interiors were very much a hallmark of the Spiers and Pond establishments – renowned especially for the high standard of their ladies’ cloakrooms – a point, I would imagine, our suffagists and suffragettes would have appreciated.
The Actresses’ Franchise League was founded at the end of 1908 and by the spring of 1909 began to hold its meetings at the Criterion, which was conveniently placed so as to allow its members to spend the afternoon listening to rousing speeches and yet be close at hand to give their own performances in the evening. By all accounts the meetings were extremely well attended, the AFL having no trouble in filling either of the two main halls.
Kate Frye (whose post-1911 suffrage diary, Campaigning for the Vote, is published by Francis Boutle ), was a proud member of the AFL, having spent two or three years treading the boards of provincial theatres. Her diary entries allow us to eavesdrop on some of those Criterion meetings.
‘Friday April 2nd 1909
Out at 2 o’clock – bus to Piccadilly Cicus and to the Actresses’ Franchise League meeting at the Criterion Restaurant. Miss Eva Moore was receiving and gave me a gracious handshake and Ada Moore was there. Also Eve, Mr Stanger [a sympathetic Liberal MP] and Miss [Frances] Sterling I heard speak. Lady Strachey was in the Chair and Lady Grove had spoken. I also heard Miss [Lillah] McCarthy, the Treasurer, speak and Miss Adeline Bourne, the Secretary, and I went up and spoke to Mr Stanger after the meeting.. His wife was also there. It was a huge meeting – no end of the profession there and they seemed enthusiastic but I have never got much faith in them. …
Friday February 4th 1910
Started off about 1.45 for the Victoria Hall Criterion Restaurant – went by bus. We went early as we wanted a good seat to see Miss Pankhurst. The place was packed before they began at 3 o’clock. Miss Granville took the chair and Miss Adeline Bourne as Secretary and Miss Maud Hoffman as Treasurer spoke in a more or less business-like fashion and Lt Col Sir something Turner spoke – an old dodderer. I could hardly keep my face straight he looked in such a loving fashion at the ladies but of course the thing of the afternoon was Christabel Pankhurst. She is a little wonder. So young and girlish looking – I suppose she is only 22 or 23 with such a charming way with her. She spoke very nicely too. It was not a brilliant speech but she was suiting herself to her audience I have no doubt – but it was so sincere and so fair. I have only heard her once before – at the Albert Hall – and one cannot judge like that – so I am glad to have been at such close quarters with her. She is not really pretty – has a crooked mouth and bad chin but her eyes are nice and she has a pretty forehead. Her hair was very untidy and I think would suit her so much better done low than on top in an ugly little knob. But though so faulty her face lights up so when she speaks and she has such a charming way with her that is very superior to mere prettiness….
Friday November 4th 1910
A bitterly cold day –had lunch then left at 1.15 – took a bus to Oxford Circus and went to steward at The Actresses’ Franchise League meeting at The Grand Hall Criterion. It was great fun.. A Mrs Fagan was in the Chair, Lady Constance Lytton, Mrs Pertwee , Mr Cecil Chapman and Mr M Campbell-Johnston were the speakers.. Then, amongst the audience, Hilda Fletcher – an old Ben Greet companion – the girl who helped me with the Banner at the second march and I chatted to lots of people – made 17/6 and had great fun. Two old gentlemen who were very taken with the Actresses and attending their first Suffrage meeting were most amusing.
Friday December 16th 1910
Changed my dress – at 2.15 bus to Oxford Circus and walked to the Criterion – to the Birthday Tea of the Actresses’ Franchise League. It was packed – a huge success. Eva Moore recited, Bertha Moore and daughter sang.’
The Criterion was used by women’s societies other than those campaigning for suffrage. Here is a photograph of a Women Writers’ Dinner held in the Grand Hall in 1900. Of the suffrage societies, it would seem that the AFL was the most regular user of the Criterion, although in April 1909 the WSPU held a breakfast there for released prisoners and in February 1910 and June 1911 the Women Writers’ Suffrage League held meetings in the Victoria Hall. It is interesting to note that on 26 October 1911, when the International Women’s Franchise Club held a dinner at the Criterion, a vegetarian option was chosen by a fairly high proportion of the guests – 25 out of the 130 who attended.
Although the suffrage sympathisers who attended such meetings were overwhelmingly middle class, one would like to imagine (as one can in a blog) that, through their association with, perhaps, the AFL, less well-off women would have had the opportunity to luxuriate in the splendid surroundings of the Criterion, enjoy a wash and brush up in the opulent Ladies’, and fill up on the tea that brought the afternoon to a close.
Based on her diary, I published Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s suffrage diary. This is now out of print. The complete collection of Kate’s diaries is now held by Royal Holloway College Archive.