Suffrage Stories: Suffragettes and Tea Rooms: Suffragette Tea from Suffragette China

WSPU china – ‘Angel of Freedom’ design, 1909

A week of posts on ‘Suffragettes and Tea Rooms’ cannot end without looking at the tea rooms that the suffragette societies themselves ran – in their shops and at their fund-raising bazaars – and the china they commissioned in which to serve that tea .

The best known of the fund-raising events is probably the WSPU exhibition held at the Prince’s Skating Rink at Knightsbridge in May 1909. There the tea room was run by Mrs Henrietta Lowy, with help from her four daughters and another young upper-class suffragette, Una Dugdale. In the spirit of exuberance and professionalism that marked this the first of the WSPU’s fund-raising bazaars, a decision was taken – presumably reasonably well in advance of the Exhibition – to commission a Staffordshire pottery – H.M. Williamson of Longton – to make the china from which the tea would be served in the Exhibition’s Tea Room.

The white china has strikingly clean, straight lines, rimmed in dark green and with angular green handles. The shape is, I am sure, a Williamson standard – but how very different the WSPU pieces look from, say, Williamson’s Rosary design–in which pink and grey ribbons and roses are applied to the same shape and every edge is gilded. In contrast, the WSPU china design is pared back, almost stark.

It is more than likely that, from the range offered by Williamson, Sylvia Pankhurst chose this shape, keeping the design simple so that the ‘angel of freedom’ motif that she had designed specifically for the Exhibition should be shown to best effect. Each piece of the tea service carries this motif; behind the angel and accompanying banner and trumpet, are the initials ‘WSPU’ set against dark prison bars, surrounded by thistle, shamrock, rose – and dangling chains. At the end of the Exhibition, the china – tea pots, cups, saucers, tea plates,  sugar bowls etc – was offered for sale, made up into sets of 22 pieces. Many years ago, early in my ephemera-dealing days I bought – and, of course, immediately sold – a comprehensive service. Although I have subsequently sold individual pieces of the china, I never again seen such a complete set. Ah well.

Pieces of this design are held in archives such as the Museum of London and the Women’s Library – but one variation design is not, as far as I know, represented in any public collection.

This cup – its design based on Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘portcullis’ motif which, used on the WSPU’s ‘Holloway brooch’, can be dated to the spring of 1909 – came from a collection that also contained items of the ‘angel of freedom’ china. I bought this wonderful haul some years ago at auction and, although the provenance was not divulged by the auctioneer, I am pretty sure that the china had once been belonged to Mrs Rose Lamartine Yates who held fund-raising teas for the Wimbledon WSPU on the lawn of Dorset Hall, her 18th-century Merton house. This  ‘portcullis’ cup does not carry any maker’s mark but, as the shape is identical to the Williamson pieces, I think we can be pretty certain that they probably also made this. As, in the early 19th-century, when women set their tea trays with ‘anti-slavery’ china, so in  the early 20th, suffragettes who bought these tea services  could – like Mrs Lamartine Yates – use them as propaganda tools -promoting the movement, most elegantly, in a bid to convert their ‘anti’ neighbours.

 I have only ever had in stock – and that only fleetingly – this cup and saucer (see left), part of the third identifiable range of WSPU-commissioned china. I believe, however, that the People’s Palace in Glasgow holds a similar two pieces . They formed part of the Scottish version of the Prince’s Rink tea service, commissioned from the Diamond China Co, another Longton pottery, for use at the refreshment stall at the Scottish WSPU Exhibition held in Glasgow at the end of April 1910. Here the ‘angel of freedom’ is allied, on white china, with the Scottish thistle, handpainted, in purple and green, inside transfer outlines. After the exhibition this china, too, was sold  – Votes for Womeni, 18 May 1910, noting that ‘a breakfast set for two, 11s; small tea set 15s , whole tea set £2, or pieces may be had singly’. It will hardly surprise readers to learn that WSPU china – now so very rare – commands a very high price.  But what a wonderful addition a piece would make to any suffrage collection.

Although the china they used was probably more basic, some of the shops and offices run by both suffragette and suffragist societies offered their members – and the general public – a tea room. For instance, the Birmingham NUWSS office at 10 Easy Row included a shop at which tea could be taken and suffrage papers read. And the Glasgow WFL shop, at 302 Sauchiehall Street, as befitting the city  in which Miss Cranston perfected the art of the tea room, served tea in its ‘artistic hall’, decorated in the WFL colours. (By the way, when in Glasgow do not fail to visit the De Luxe Room in The Willow Tea Rooms, also on Sauchiehall Street, originally designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Miss Cranston  – it may be a reconstruction, but it’s lovely).

As a final thought, the WSPU not only sold their own china, but also their own tea – much advertised in Votes for Women. Unfortunately, the only reference I have ever come across to anyone buying the tea was an aside by Mary Blathwayt, who noted in her diary that she had had to return a bag that was ‘off’ to the Bath WSPU shop. But I am sure that merely reflects the fact that the hundreds of satisfied customers had no need to comment and I will end this sequence of posts by conjuring up the image of a WSPU tea party, cucumber sandwiches sitting delicately on the elegant  WSPU plates, as the assembled company receive WSPU tea into their WSPU cups from the WSPU pot. How, then, could the ensuing conversation be of anything other than ‘Votes for Women’?

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  1. #1 by Sholly Silver on October 28, 2014 - 10:11 am

    Really interesting reading your posts.

    A friend of mine is currently doing a project on ‘disobedient objects’, an insulation the V&A is currently holding,and found a WSPU cup from 1910 (in your post it features as 1909) among its collection.

    My interest in this subject led me to your posts and I wondered if the cup, which where sold primearlly at found raisers for the WSPU, where not also a way for women, whom perhaps where not actively fighting the front lines, perhaps the more submissive house wife, to show support and solidarity for the movement in a more discret way?

    I would welcome your thoughts on this subject and accept any supporting documented evediance to support my theory.

    • #2 by womanandhersphere on October 28, 2014 - 10:32 am

      Yes, I certainly think women did hold consciousness-raising tea parties using their suffrage china. One who did was Rose Lamartine Yates of Dorset Hall, Merton in south London. You can read more about suffrage china in the entry ‘China’ in my book – ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide’.
      The WSPU china was first produced in April 1909 – which is why I date it to then. I’m not sure why the V & A chose to date their cup to ‘1910’ – perhaps they have a particular provenance for it? There may have been a further bout of production after the first for April 1909 but I haven’t checked that out

  1. What would Mrs Pankhurst do? Hold a Bazaar. | Historian Interrupted

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