In ‘The Ladies’ Clubs of London’, an 1899 article, the journalist Dora Jones identified ‘the evolution of the independent professional woman’ as the catalyst in the explosion of women’s clubs, writing:’ The modern professional woman, be she artist, journalist, clerk, doctor, teacher, or nurse, living as she often does in rooms in the suburbs, needs some fairly central haven of refuge where she can drop in, when she has a spare hour, for a rest, a cup of tea, and a glance at the newspapers. She is probably an intelligent woman, with a keen interest in everything that affects the interests of her sex, and she likes to have a place open to her where she may have a chance of meeting those like-minded and of discussing questions of common interest. And, unfortunately, she is very likely to be a lonely woman, and there is no loneliness which presses one more cruelly than the isolation of a great city.’ Dora Jones concentrated her researches on clubs, such as the Somerville, the University Women’s, the Pioneer, and the Writers’, where women such as she described might be found. In the early days the clubs were open during the day and in the evenings but did not offer members residential facilities.
The Somerville Club (named for Mary Somerville) had been founded in 1878 and by 1888 was based in utilitarian premises above an ABC cafeteria in Oxford Street, later moving to Hanover Square. It always hovered on the edge of financial disaster, its membership subscription kept low in order to appeal to the poorer, working, middle-class woman. The Somerville allowed her a respite from cramped lodgings, the prospect of mildly radical lectures and discussions on subjects such as ‘Rousseau ‘and ‘Poets and Poetry as Moral and Spiritual Teachers’.
The University Women’s Club, or the University Club for Ladies as it was originally termed, aimed to ‘afford facilities of intercourse for Women educated at the Universities’, its members initially drawn mainly from Girton and Newnham, with some from Oxford and a few from London, particularly from the London School of Medicine for Women. By late 1886 premises had been opened in New Bond Street, in a setting of Morris wallpapers and Chippendale chairs, and subscriptions taken to various weekly and monthly papers and to a circulating library. By 1896 the club had 270 members.
The minute books of the University Women’s Club (and it is the only club whose committee books are extant) reveal the prosaic details of running such an enterprise. For instance in 1890, when the club had no cooking facilities of its own, relying on meals supplied by an outside restaurant, there were complaints that the tariff was limited and that ‘a chop was not always wanted’. Writing of the club in 1888 Amy Levy (a graduate of Newnham) commented that ‘the mingled sense of independence and esprit de corps which made college life at once so pleasant and so wholesome are not wanting here in the colder, more crowded regions of London club-land’. However, in 1890 when a fortnightly house dinner was instituted, presumably to encourage greater camaraderie, the minutes record that these dinners were not largely attended.
From 1902 gentlemen were welcomed as guests. The resolution allowing this pointed out that ‘it was very inconvenient to members who lived in lodgings, and perhaps had only one room, not to be able to ask a gentleman to their Club’. On the night of the census, at a time when the club was at 4 George Street, Hanover Square, three members were recorded as staying there that night – one was a teacher, one a hospital nurse and the third of ‘private means’.
The minutes emphasise that the club’s purpose was social only. This is the only one of the 19th-century women’s clubs to survive, although, alongside a programme of social activities, it is nowadays quite happy to host the occasional lecture.
The apotheosis of the clubs associated with the new breed of ‘strong-minded’ women was the Pioneer. This had opened in 1892, by 1894 was ensconced at 22 Bruton Street, the home of Mrs Emily Massingberd, its founder, and had around 400 members, who, in order to eliminate class differences, were, while in the club, identified by their membership number.
Dora Jones commented that ‘Country ladies who have heard it whispered that there is a smoking room at the Pioneers’ still, I believe, mention the place sometimes with bated breath, as the resort of alarming beings with short hair, strident voices, and unbecoming garments of a masculine cut. A visit to the club some afternoon would make short work of these preconceptions. For a woman to succeed in the battle of life at the present time, she must be neither a “frump”, nor a “crank”’. However, writing in the feminist journal, Shafts, in January 1894 its editor, Mrs Margaret Shurmer Sibthorpe, declared it was her intention to adopt Rational dress and that she meant ‘to go freely to and fro in it wherever my business may call me, to appear in it at my club (the Pioneer), and at many places of public resort.’ Moreover, Viscountess Harberton, a co-founder of the Rational Dress movement was a member of the Pioneer.
That the Pioneers, whether or not ‘alarming beings’, welcomed independence of mind may be seen in the club’s programme of debates, each of which was preceded by a club dinner.
In 1893 the summer session included ‘Why should not women vote?’, ‘Will socialism benefit women’, and ‘Should women marry?’.
Although the Pioneer continued well into the 1920s there seems to have been some doubt in 1897, after the death of Mrs Massingberd, as to whether it would continue, many members leaving to join the Grosvenor Crescent Club (15 Crosvenor Crescent). This also catered for the professional working women, by 1900 boasting not only a telephone, but also an exchange telegraph to provide stock market reports. However, on the night of the 1911 census there were five woman members staying at the club, none of whom claimed to have any paid occupation, looked after by an ample staff.
In London most of the Victorian and Edwardian ladies’ clubs tended to be located in the shopping, feminine area south of Oxford Street, north of Piccadilly and west of Regent Street. Not only were they conveniently situated for shopping and socialising, but the fact that they were in an acceptably feminine area appears successfully to have negated the masculinity inherent in the idea of the club.
However in 1892 the Writers’ Club, founded to provide a social and working centre for women authors and journalists, did open its doors in an essentially masculine area, Norfolk Street, just off the Strand. Based in Hastings House, a building sheltering many small businesses associated with publishing and journalism, the club comprised a reception room (originally decorated with what Dora Jones affectionately terms ‘a greenery-yallery tinge’), a dining room, an occasional room, and a writing room, where silence was enforced in order that members might work and which was well supplied with works of reference. The Writers’ Club held a Friday house tea, which Dora Jones described as having come ‘to rank among the most interesting gatherings of literary London. Some leading light in the women’s world fills the place of hostess, and many of the most distinguished personalities of the day are to be met. A well-known ornament of these gatherings, the author of Joanna Traill [Annie E. Holdsworth], and some other powerful and intensely modern books, has introuduced a description of them into her latest work.’ Philip Gibbs in his novel Intellectual Mansions, 1910, also gives a vibrant description of the Literary Ladies’ Club (which he based in ‘Arundel Street’, clearly a nod to Norfolk Street), clearly based on his experience of the Writers’ Club house teas.
However the food provided by the Writers’ Club was indifferent, the surroundings rather shabby and in 1904 a group with higher aspirations broke away to form the Lyceum Club. This was the first woman’s club to brave the male club land of Piccadilly, initially taking over premises that had formerly housed the Imperial Services Club. Its founder, Constance Smedley, recorded that the Lyceum was intended for ladies engaged with literature, journalism, art, science and medicine, who required ‘a substantial and dignified milieu where [they] could meet editors and other employers and discuss matters as men did in professional clubs: above all in surroundings that did not suggest poverty’. The Lyceum had a library, an art gallery in which the work of members was displayed, 35 bedrooms and employed hairdressers and sewing maids. The club had international aspirations and branches were soon formed in Berlin, Paris, Rome and Florence – and is still in existence – the International Association of Lyceum Clubs.
These were all clubs that aspired to cater for the professional working woman or the woman interested in social and political affairs. However, once the tacit barrier against women forming clubs was broken, another style of club, more akin to that of the men, made its appearance. I shall discuss these in a future post.