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Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Tea and Shopping

 ‘Is it not possible for ladies to possess a Club which will not afford too striking a contrast with the splendours of St James?’ So wrote Frances Power Cobbe in the early 1870s. She continued,  ‘Are not the female members of the families of those who frequent those palaces never to have a place of resort, where the rooms and appointments shall be at least as airy and handsome as those of their own homes, and where it may be a healthful and pleasant change for them to pass now and then a few hours of leisure?’ She then commented that whenever the idea was mooted ‘the poverty of women, as regards ability to incur any unusual expense, become curiously revealed..’ – that is, women who appeared wealthy, ‘lapped in excessive luxury, provided for them by the affection of husbands and fathers’ actually had no money of their own to expend on such a project and the affectionate husbands and fathers would not, she assumes, be prepared to give their money towards providing a club for their wives and daughters.

We have seen in previous posts how, after 1870, clubs for women had, indeed, been opened. Although many of these, like the Somerville, University or Writers’, were particularly aimed at working middle-class women.  What Frances Power Cobbe was envisaging was the opening of clubs on a par of grandeur with the gentleman’s clubs, such as the Athenaeum or Carlton.  Within 20 years her plea had, to some extent, been answered.  Such clubs did open: their  existence may owe something to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, which gave women greater control over their own funds.

However opulent the late-19th-century ladies’ clubs they never competed for territory with the gentlemen. Ladies’ clubs tended to group to the north of Piccadilly, close to the shopping areas of Oxford, Bond and Regent streets, leaving the southern side to the men.

The first of these ‘ladies’ clubs’ was the Alexandra, which opened in Grosvenor Street in 1884, its membership restricted to those eligible to attend Court, a not so subtle indication that divorcées were unwelcome. Adopting for its name that of the Princess of Wales ensured its eminent respectability; there was no hint of the blue-stocking here. Men were not allowed to enter, even as visitors. a rule that Amy Levy regretted in her article, ‘Women and Club Life’, published in Woman’s World, 1888. The club was large and extremely comfortable, residential for short visits only, but with accommodation for accompanying ladies’ maids.

Dinner at the Empress Club

Dinner at the Empress Club

The Empress Club, founded in Dover Street in 1897, named for the Queen-Empress herself, was even grander than the Alexandra, boasting two drawing room -offering a choice between the Louis Quinze or the Venetian style -, a dining room, a lounge, a smoking gallery and a smoking room, a library, a writing room, a tape machine for news, a telephone, and a staircase decorated with stained glass windows depicting Shakespeare’s heroines.

On the night of the 1901 census Otho Oliver, the owner and club secretary, was living on the premises, together with a female manager and a large domestic staff, comprising around 40 female and 12 male servants (including an engineer). There were around 30 women guests staying at the club, as well as several family groups, including husbands.

Princess Bamba Duleep Singh and her daughters, Sophia and Catherine, were leading members of the Empress Club

Princess Bamba Duleep Singh and her daughters, Sophia and Catherine, were leading members of the Empress Club

At one time the Empress had 70 bedrooms available to its  2700 members. However,  on the night of the 1911 census  the number of live-in staff had shrunk to 25 and only 14 guests – all women – were registered as staying the night.

Otho Oliver (1868-?), the owner of the Empress, was the younger brother of Gilbert Oliver (1867-?) In 1891  Gilbert had been a ‘perfume manufacturer’,  but in 1894 founded the ‘Ladies’ Tea and Shopping Club’,’to provide for ladies of social position the comforts and convenience that men have found in their clubs for years past.’ I am not sure that the Oliver brothers would themselves have been eligible to join a gentleman’s club, but they clearly knew what the ladies wanted. In 1899 the Tea and Shopping Club had transformed itself into the rather more imposingly named ‘New County Club’,  with premises at both 21 Hanover Square – with 30 rooms – and 84 Grosvenor Street.

Ladies' day at the Bath Club, 1920

Ladies’ day at the Bath Club, 1920

Next door to the Empress, at 34 Dover Street, women were able to make use of the facilities of the Bath Club, which had been founded in 1894. However, they were not allowed to use the Dover Street entrance but had to access the club through a ‘ladies’ entrance’ in Berkeley Street. The club’s main emphasis was on sport particularly, as it name suggests, swimming.

Dover Street was favoured for clubs. At no 31 Mrs Jennie Cornwallis-West (aka the mother of Winston Churchill) founded the Ladies’ Athenaeum for ladies interested in politics, arts, literature and music and a little earlier the Ladies’ Imperial – for women members of the Conservative and Unionist parties – had opened at nos 17 and 18.

A little to the north the Alexandra Club (no 12) was later joined on Grosvenor Street by the Ladies’ Empire Club at no 69.  The Ladies’ Automobile Club, which had been founded in 1903 when the Automobile Club (later the RAC) refused to admit women, eventually moved to Brook Street. It drew its members from the class that could not only afford to motor but  were sufficiently daring to do so.

And it is clubs for the more socially and politically daring that the next ‘Rooms of their Own’ post will discuss.

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Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Clubs: A Practical Demand

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.

A debate at the Pioneer Club

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?’.

Had she been attending a debate at the Pioneer?

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.

A Friday ‘At Home’ at the Writers’ 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.

Lyceum Club 1908

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.

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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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