The Gardenia Restaurant, at 6 Catherine Street, Covent Garden – off the north-western curve of the Aldwych – was, between c 1908 and 1913, a vegetarian cafe much frequented by suffragettes. Unlike Alan’s Tea Rooms – in Oxford Street – and the Criterion – at Piccadilly Circus – the Gardenia was situated in the heart of militant suffrage territory. The Women’s Freedom League headquarters lay just south of the Strand in Robert Street and those of the WSPU just to the east of Aldwych in Clement’s Inn.
The Gardenia was opened c 1908 by Thomas Smith, a young man from Morpeth, who lived with his wife and two children in rooms above the restaurant. By early 1910 it would seem that the Gardenia was in some financial difficulty because it was then formed into a limited company with three additional directors. Two of these were from the Newcastle area – and were presumably known to Smith. One was Herbert Joseph Armstrong – a chartered accountant. The other, the major shareholder, was Godfrey Hastings, a photographer from Tynemouth, a member of a Quaker family, educated at Ackworth, the Quaker boarding school in Yorkshire. The third director was Richard James, who published – and sold – temperance and vegetarian books from the Central Temperance Rooms in Paternoster Row. It would, therefore, seem safe to deduce that those running the Gardenia were advocates of vegetarianism and temperance in particular – and of social reform in general.
As I emphasise in my post on the part played by the Aldwych Skating Rink in the 1911 census boycott, this area of London was undergoing extensive redevelopment at the beginning of the 20th century. No 6 Catherine Street, a tall, rather dramatic, building, had been erected in 1905 and it is likely that the Gardenia was one of its first tenants. Its frontage of stone-banded red brick echoes that used in the construction of no 2 – which was designed in 1902 by the editor of the Builder, as offices for the journal. By now this corner of Covent Garden was taking on a rather Arts and Craftsy look – making it just the place for a vegetarian restuarant.
Unlike the Criterion – or even Alan’s Tea Rooms – I have been unable to find any image to tell us what the interior of the Gardenia looked like. However the file in the National Archives giving details of the 1913 winding up of the company does contain a list of the company’s assets – including the restaurant’s fittings. From this I think it would be safe to say that the general impression of the interior was of mahogany and mirrors. – long mahogany serving counters and quantities of mirrors. The rooms were lit with electroliers – some four-branched and others three. Customers sat at tables, marble-topped on metal stands – rather like those used today by Pizza Express.
Having noted that the Gardenia’s financial situation was somewhat precarious, one imagines that the company’s directors would have been keen to develop a niche clientele to boost passing trade. And so it was; the company accounts reveal that they hired out upper rooms in the building to societies whoe interests would seem to coincide with their own – for instance, to the Syndicalists, to a Vegetarian Club, to the National Union of Shop Assistants, and to the University Fabian Society.
The militant suffrage societies also figure regularly in the Gardenia’s accounts as customers for the hired rooms. In her autobiography, My Own Story, Mrs Pankhurst refers to the Gardenia as a place where many WSPU breakfasts and teas were held – and the accounts show specific hirings of rooms by the WFL (for instance,7 March 1912, 5 guineas). In fact the Gardenia seems to have been a particular favourite with the WFL, which did its best to advertise the delights of the restaurant. The Gardenia was included in The Vote Directory –the WFL newspaper’s list of recommended retailers – and was written up in the 6 May 1911 issue when – in the course of a suffragists’ shopping day – the author has tea at the Gardenia – ’a fragrant cup of tea and some cress sandwiches made with Hovis bread’ – [Hovis was also advertised in The Vote]’ –reporting that ‘she would eat no other.’In 1912 the WFL rented a room in the Gardenia in which to hold its weekly discussions – on such subjects as ‘Jane Eyre and its relation to the Woman’s Movement’ and Mrs Brownlow on ‘Local Government’ and on 17 February 1912 three of the Gardenia’s floors were hired by the WFL for a fundraising sit-down supper, with dancing and performances by the Actresses’ Franchise League.
It was doubtless no hardship for suffragettes to attend such suppers; a vegetarian restaurant would have been particularly popular with suffragettes – many of whom had embraced this cause – and the associated anti-vivesectionist campaign – along with that of women’s rights. For Leah Leneman’s excellent article on the subject – ‘The Awakened Instinct; vegetarianism and the women’s suffrage movement in Britain’ – see here.
For its part the Gardenia management was clearly committed to the suffragette cause over and above its use as a source of income. The directors were prepared on occasion, to turn a blind eye to the use to which the WSPU put its rooms. Thus, on 2 April 1911 – census night – the Gardenia’s management allowed the restaurant to be used by suffragettes attempting to evade the enumerator. One census schedule for 6 Catherine Street shows Thomas Smith, the manager, in his flat there that night with his wife and two children, together with the restaurant manageress, two waitresses, a male chef, female cook, a male baker and a kitchen maid. But a separate Gardenia schedule, completed by the Census Office from information supplied by the police, shows that the restaurant was packed with 200 women and 30 men. These defiant evaders had moved to the Gardenia at c 3.30 am for breakfast, having spent the earlier part of the night in the Aldwych Skating Rink.
A year later the Gardenia again played its part in a dramatic WSPU publicity campaign when, on the night of 4 March 1912, women taking part in a WSPU-organinised window-smashing campaign gathered there. In her autobiography Mrs Pankhurst notes that the police thought that about 150 women went to the Gardenia that evening, arriving in twos and threes from a large meeting at the London Pavilion at Piccadilly Circus. They were followed to the restaurant by a number of detectives who then waited around outside in Catherine Street And what was it that the women were doing in the Gardenia?
At the ensuing trial Miss Jessie McPherson, a still-room maid, testifed that on the following day, 5 March, she found a dozen on so stones – on one of which was written ‘Votes for Women’ – lying in a grate in a big room on the second-floor. Godfrey Hastings, the Gardenia’s major shareholder, gave evidence that the room had been engaged by the WSPU for the afternoon and evening of 29 February and 1 and 4 March – at a charge of 45 shillings on each occasion.
The evidence pointed to the Gardenia as the WSPU’s ammunition arming station. Once they had received their supply of stones, the suffragettes led the police a merry dance.
One policeman testified that he followed Miss Wolff van Sandau and Miss Katie Mills as they left the Gardenia, went to an ironmonger’ shop in Covent Garden and then walked to Westminster, along Victoria Street to the Howick Street Post Office, where the former broke a window with a hammer and the latter with stones. It transpired in court that it was at the Covent Garden ironmongers, with the policeman in tow, that they had bought the hammer.
Another policeman reported that on 4 March he waited outside the Gardenia Restaurant for three women [Nellie Crocker, Miss Roberts and Miss Taylor]. When they emerged he followed along the Strand, to Charing Cross and then on District Line to Royal Court Theatre. A few minutes after the performance began they left and went along to 9 King’s Road – a post office – where they smashed the plate glass windows with three hammers.
Another policeman followed Elizabeth Thompson and another woman from the Gardenia to Parliament Square,where Miss Thompson threw a stone at a window of Home Office.
There does not appear to have been any legal repercussions for the Gardenia but, sadly, despite support from the suffrage movement, the business could not be made to pay and the restaurant closed in March 1913.
However 6 Catherine Street today still has a primary connection to the food trade – as the home of the Food and Drink Federation. The FDF were very generous in allowing access to their building in order to record a section of the Woman’s Hour item on ‘Suffragettes and Tea Rooms’ in the rooms where the WSPU plotted their militancy over tea and brown rice.