Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings

Rooms of Their Own:Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Clubs

‘The Ladies’ Reading Room’ – the genesis of the woman’s club, c. 1858, as it appeared in an advertisement in Barbara Bodichon’s guide book, ‘Algeria Considered as a Winter Residence for the English.’

‘The multiplying of women’s clubs, and the accompanying facilities for social intercourse, is distinctly a latter-day feature of London society. Twenty years ago they were practically unknown: today they are to be met with on all sides. They are a sign of the times; women have awakened to the fact that they want something outside their domestic and home duties’. Thus observed a Lady’s Realm journalist in 1898. One might, indeed, go further and state that, 20 years earlier, not only were clubs for women practically unknown, but that the concept was all but inconceivable.

During the first three-quarters of the 19th century economic and social regulation had kept the majority of middle-class women in a family home, either that of their birth, that of a relative or that of their marriage. For those who had neither such support nor the wealth to maintain their own house-hold, the alternative was a life spent in rented rooms. Such lodgings controlled a woman’s social life just as strictly as any family. Under this regime there was little opportunity for women whose interests did not coincide with those of their family to make contact with one another. What were required were places in which women could relax in company, but yet be beyond society’s reproach.

In the mid-19th century the idea of ‘the club’ was synonymous with ‘a man’s club’, a development of the 18th-century coffee house where men gathered to discuss the news of the day. By the mid-19th century the number of clubs, their popularity and comforts had increased apace. Club culture was firmly established among the middle and upper classes, but was absolutely a male culture. The story of how women managed to create a parallel tradition is yet another strand in the history of women’s emancipation.

The idea had first been mooted in 1857 when Bessie Parkes and Barbara Bodichon thought of opening a club room on the same premises as that of the feminist journal they planned to publish. Initially their aim was very modest, merely to provide a room in which to make available the magazines and papers they knew women of cultivation but limited means would like to read but could not otherwise afford.

The club room did materialise, by 1860 known as the Ladies’ Institute. It was housed in premises in Langham Place, just north of Oxford Street, comprising a Reading Room, open from 11 in the morning to 10 at night, a Luncheon Room and a room for the reception of parcels. The latter was a boon for women travelling into central London to shop at the new department stores. Thus the club provided rest and recreation not only for London’s many middle-class working women, such as daily governesses, who were likely to be living alone in lodgings, but also for her like-minded, but more leisured, sister.

Needless to say the club room’s opening did not pass without criticism. The Saturday Review commented, ‘If all that is meant is a lounge for the unprotected female, in which she can daily meet her like-minded and strong-minded sisterhood to discuss the Divorce court till half-past one, and then console the inner woman with sandwiches and sherry, we can only hint to the ladies that this may be a mistake.’ However, despite this reprimand, the Ladies’ Institute proved popular for the seven years of its existence. The general subscription was one guinea a year, but for the category described as ‘professional ladies’ – such as daily governesses – it was reduced by half.

The Ladies’ Institute closed in 1867 but its spirit continued in the Berners Club, which opened in Berners Street, again just north of Oxford Street, and continued in existence until almost the end of the century. In the 1870s it shared premises and personnel with the leading London suffrage society. It followed the pattern set by the Ladies’ Institute, was principally aimed at working, middle-class women, had a reading room, a drawing room and a dining room and was open until 10.30 each evening.

From the 1880s, once the idea had been shattered that clubs were only for men, women’s clubs multiplied, two distinct types emerging. There were those that followed the tradition set by the Ladies’ Institute and the Berners, appealing to independent-minded working women, and those that provided ‘tea and shopping facilities’, social in their aims and fashionable in their membership.

I will consider both types of clubs in future posts.

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