For International Women’s Day, my second post on the radical history of Southwark is on the United Suffragists’ Women’s Club during the First World War.
The United Suffragists were formed in early 1914 by those disenchanted with the direction of the Women’s Social and Political Union. It admitted men as well as women, and unlike the WSPU continued to campaign for universal suffrage during the first world war. The club was opened in November 1914, at 92 Borough Road (see it on Google Maps), with the firm intention of not being a philanthropic institution bestowed by middle class women on working class women:
It is not a “charity,” in the ordinarily accepted sense of that misused word. It is not a club run for one class of women by another class of women. There are no artificial distinctions of that kind at 92, Borough Road. Women of all classes and kinds meet there for recreation and rest, for mutual sympathy and help, for conversations and refreshment, and all the usual things for which one meets in clubs everywhere. Naturally, the Club members, who are women of the workers’ class, predominate; and although what they contribute to the funds is as much as they can afford, and therefore equal to what the wealthier women helpers and friends of the club contribute – for they also give as much as they can afford – the sum total is not sufficient to meet all the expenses of rent, heating, lighting, and general upkeep.
These tensions, of the U.S. being outsiders, from across the Thames, across class boundaries, are apparent in the account of the opening day:
We hoped above everything that the Club looked like a club, and not like a philanthropic institution, and that our guests would see us as friends, and not as interlopers.
But the women of Southwark put their minds at ease, and proved the need for it:
“The neighbourhood is in raptures about it,” said one of the early arrivals, when we flung open the doors of the U.S. Women’s Club for the first time last Saturday afternoon.
“What I like about it”, said one of our guests – we opened with a tea party – “is that it’s just like a West End gentlemen’s club.”
There was a great crowd of women there, but scarcely one of them who had not a relative at the front or in the camps here. In many cases they had not heard a word from their man since he left home in August. A very human touch was contributed by a poor, sad mother of eight children, who was brough by a friend to be cheered up, because her husband had just enlisted in Ireland.
“I didn’t mind so much at first,” she told me, “but when all his clothes came home to me to-day, it fairly got me! There they all were, looking so like him – his coat and his weskit [waistcoat] and his blue tie – it made me cry, it did. It’s worse than a death, that’s what I say, because you never know in this war what’s happening to ’em.”
This article was signed “E.S.”, probably the club secretary Evelyn Sharp, author, window-smasher and, during the war, tax resister. A year later she reviewed the progress of the club, and the puncturing of some presumptions about what the local women wanted:
A SUFFRAGE CLUB.
Shortly we shall be celebrating the birthday of our Women’s Club in Southwark. Just a year ago, as our readers will recall the United Suffragists took a house at 92, Borough Road, Southwark, painted and papered it as brightly as they could, furnished it, with the help of many kind friends, to look as unlike an institution as possible, and threw it open, hopefully, to the women of South London at a membership fee of 1d a month. Throughout the year we have had an average membership of eighty or so, and this number does not include the many friends who are brought in to enjoy the hospitality of the club for an afternoon or evening, but who do not become regular members, or numbers of others who join for a time and then drop off. Of course, we made some mistakes at first. We thought, for instance, that the one thing needed by these tired and overworked members of the community would be quiet. So we tactfully arranged a quiet room on the first floor, where members could use the writing tables to correspond with their friends at the front, and sit in the comfortable armchairs by the fire and doze, or read the paper or an amusing book from the shelf on the wall. But our quiet room was a complete failure. What our members really like to do is to congregate in the ground floor room adjoining the restaurant, set the gramophone going, and under cover of its cheery optimism discuss everything under the sun, from the war to the Lord Mayor’s Show, and from Mrs Hampshire’s new hat to Mrs Lloyd’s new baby. And I don’t blame them! In these dark days I know nothing that cheers me up quite so much as to join that group of mothers and daughters and sisters and wives, who meet at our club of an evening and manage to keep their spirits up in the face of rising food prices and continued anxiety about their menfolk who are away, and all kinds of daily worries and hardships. As for our quiet room, we have found a much better use for it in the meetings and concerts that are held up there every week. I think that was our only real mistake, and it was a fairly excusable one. The restaurant has been a definite success from the very first. We supply simple food at the following tariff (cost price):
Cup of tea and two slices of bread and butter, or jam ½d
Cup of coffee or cocoa and one slice of
bread and butter, or jam ½d
Slice of cake, or one little cake ½d
The food, thanks to generous gifts from country friends and others, is of excellent quality, and is enormously appreciated in consequence. We find that this kind of substantial tea is what is preferred, both afternoon and evening, and have therefore given up another early idea of ours in connection with sandwiches and soup. We do not set out to be instructive in our club, the object of which is primarily to be recreative; but having found that certain ways of passing the evening were popular, we have arrived at the following weekly programme:
Monday.—Afternoon: Mothers’ working party, and children’s creche. Evening: Dancing.
Wednesday.—Rehearsal of play for younger members- Reading aloud to older members.
Thursday.—Concert and entertainment.
Friday.—Sewing and knitting taught by an expert.
Saturday.—Rehearsal of play.
The Monday afternoon programme is an innovation, and promises to be very successful. The idea is to keep the babies and children amused in one room (milk and sponge cake are supplied for ¼d per head), while the mothers are helped over their sewing and are read to, in another room.
Aside from accounts in the United Suffragists’ newspaper Votes For Women, and a couple of anecdotes in Sharp’s autobiography, I have found out very little about this club. I don’t know a simple detail like when it closed, never mind who the local women who frequented it were. Which is one more example of why we need International Women’s Day.