Politics, Source, Women's History

Suffragettes and Tea Rooms

Since writing briefly in The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide on some London cafés associated with the suffrage movement, I had been curious to know more of their reality. It was only when invited to take part – with Dr Alison Ronan – in a short item for the BBC Women’s Hour on ‘Suffragettes and Tea Rooms’, that I felt justified in spending time on research. What follows is a taster of the results, which give a clearer idea of the places in which militant activity was discussed – and practised – a hundred years ago. I have issued the research, informally, in ‘Suffragettes and Tea Rooms’ posts my website – womanandhersphere.com.

There may be those who scoff at the idea of investigating ‘Suffragettes and Tea Rooms’, but political movements need sheltering spaces in which views can be exchanged. During the 19th century women attended hundreds of suffrage meetings in Britain’s town halls and assembly halls – and, if suitably couth, in the drawing-rooms of the better-off, but there were few places outside the home in which they could congregate informally. It was only towards the end of the century that middle-class women were able to move, without any vestige of social censure, out of the home and around the streets.  Lining the road to freedom was a new type of business – the café, tea room or restaurant designed with women in mind. These were places women could visit – either alone or in company – where their presence was not seen as an invitation to molestation and where they could eat and drink without breaching propriety.


Kate Frye – suffrage organizer and frequenter of restaurants and tea rooms

Even as late as 1911 a woman’s presence still caused consternation in some places of public refreshment. Kate Frye, staying in a hotel in a small Norfolk market town while organizing suffrage meetings, notes in her diary:

22 March 1911 ‘Had my lunch [in the hotel dining room] in company with four motorists. It is funny the way men come in here and, seeing me, shoot out again and I hear whispered conversations outside on the landing with the waitress. Then they come in very subdued and make conversation one to another and try not to look at me. Awfully funny – they might never have seen a woman before – but I suppose it does seem a strange place to find one.’

When not in the provinces, Kate lived inLondon, where she never felt out of place when paying daily visits to cafés, restaurants and tea rooms. Some were part of chains, such as ABC and Lyons, where women could sit, in sheltered anonymity at separate tables – served by waitresses. For instance, it was in a Lyons tea room near Parliament Square that Kate spent the evening of 21 November 1911 with a group of suffragettes poised to smash the windows of government offices.

Lyons’ premises were much photographed and documented (see J.Lyons & Co) so that it is not too difficult to imagine that Westminster tea shop.  But how possible is it to recreate the more ephemeral businesses, now a century old, which advertised in the suffrage press? Rate books (in local archives) and the files of dissolved companies (The National Archives) have proved invaluable, providing evidence of owners, share holders, exact location and, on occasion, even lists of a restaurant’s furnishings. Other details, gleaned from memoirs or magazines, decorate these essential facts.

One of the businesses mentioned in the Reference Guide was ‘Alan’s Tea Rooms’, 263 Oxford Street, popular with both suffragettes and suffragists. I suggested that the owner, ‘Mr Alan Liddle’, while not charging the rent of the room hired for suffrage meetings, doubtless made his profit from the sale of the accompanying tea and buns, conjuring up the image of a suave male entrepreneur cashing in on the need of campaigners for a safe haven in Central London. A minute with the relevant rate book in Westminster Archives revealed that the owner was not ‘Mr Alan Liddle’, but ‘Miss Marguerite Alan Liddle’. A subsequent investigation of the census records showed that she was the sister of Helen Gordon Liddle, an active member of the WSPU, who, in The Prisoner, describes the month in 1909 during which she endured forcible feeding in Strangeways prison. Thus, while the news pages of Votes for Women were reporting her sister’s hunger strike, the back pages carried advertisements for Alan’s ‘dainty luncheons’.

Over and above this direct connection with the suffrage movement, the rate book demonstrated that Alan Liddle may have had good cause to advertise to suffragettes as assiduously as she did. For it became evident that ‘Alan’s Tea Rooms’ was on the first-floor of the Oxford Street building and, in order to reach their lunch, customers had to enter by a door at the side of the shopfront and climb a flight of stairs. With so much competition from neighbouring establishments  – a Liptons, a Lyons and an ABC were all close by – one can see that the proprietor may well have thought it necessary to carve out a niche market.

As to the ‘look’ of Alan’s Tea Rooms – a photograph (London Metropolitan Archives) showed that the now-demolished building had at its first floor a semi-circular arcaded window, rather in the Venetian style. One might imagine that a table in the window, looking down onto Oxford Street, would have been rather popular.


A corner of Alan’ s Tea Rooms, The Idler, 1910

Fortunately the discovery of a line drawing of a ‘corner of Alan’s Tea Rooms’ in a 1910 issue of The Idler, a magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome, made it unnecessary to rely wholly on conjecture  – with the bonus that the artist included a sample menu. Thus it has been possible, from a variety of sources, to recreate something of the reality of this business, which, from 1907 until 1916, provided a space in which ‘Votes for Women’ could be freely discussed.

On womanandhersphere.com you will find the results of my research – not only into the suffrage connections with Alan’s Tea Rooms and a similar business, the Tea Cup Inn on Kingsway, but with two vegetarian restaurants – the Gardenia and the Eustace Miles –with the Criterion Restaurant  – into the propaganda use to which the suffrage societies put tea and tea making – and, finally, how in 1914 tea rooms themselves became the sites of dramatic protest.


Elizabeth Crawford has loved the idea of tea rooms since a child when tea with her mother at the Cadena was the acme of pleasure. Tea rooms may now not always provide the same thrill, but books do, explaining a life spent as reader, editor, bookseller and author (The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide, Routledge, 1999; Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their Circle, 2002; The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a regional survey, Routledge, 2005. Campaigning for the Vote: the suffrage diary of Kate Parry Frye will be published in autumn 2012).


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