Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Clubs - London's Clubs for Women






Not very many years ago ladies' clubs were comparatively unknown; now-a-days, almost every up-to-date London woman belongs to one, butterfly of fashion and working bee alike. Dive into the back streets, or journey eastwards, and you find that the same holds good of the toiling home-worker, the dress-maker, and the factory girl. But what, it may be asked, do the members do at their clubs? What goes on behind the portals of the magnificent Empress, the exclusive Green Park, as well as the humbler doors of a Working Girls' Institute? This is what we are about to investigate; we shall, in fact, follow some of the titled dames, the lecturers and journalists, the tailoresses, and chorus-girls into their citadels, and see what use they make of them.
    A coroneted carriage turns into Dover Street, centre of feminine Club-land. Lady A. is going to her club; will it be the Empress, Sandringham, Sesame, Pioneer, or Green Park? They all lie within a stone's throw. The carriage stops at the Empress; Lady A. passes through the heavy swing doors, and is in the most luxurious ladies club in London. In the hall she finds as visitor waiting for her, non-members being allowed no farther than this without their hostesses. Together they [-115-] pass on to the Lounge; the band is playing, and "five-o-clocker," as the French drolly style tea, going forward. Footmen with tea-trays move swiftly hither and thither; groups of fashionably attired men and women are standing or sitting about, chatting and listening to the music. The Empress is a favourite rendezvous, and on Sunday evening full to overflowing.


    In one of the rooms, which might from its appearance be a salon at Versailles, more groups and more conversation. In another two or three ladies are writing letters, while others turn over papers and glance through magazines. Her visitor having departed, Lady A. joins a couple of acquaintances going upstairs to the corridor for a quiet cigarette. One of them is a country member staying at the club with her maid. This morning she interviewed a cook here; at one she had a small luncheon party. and to-night two relatives dine with her, and all go on to a ball afterwards. Note that the members of these smart West-End clubs belong mostly to that class of Society which is always going on somewhere else.
    Lady A. and the second of her two companions met the previous afternoon at a Green Park concert, held in the French drawing-room. It was a "smart function," as the Society journals have it, for no lady can be a member of the Green Part of the Alexandra - where a man is never admitted - who may not make her curtsey to Royalty. There is a musical or dramatic entertainment at the Green Park every other Friday, during certain portions of the year.
    Lady A. leaves the Empress before the evening toilettes begin to arrive, making the beautiful rooms look still more beautiful. There is a constant ebb and flow of colour which goes on for hours, since the club does not close until midnight. On her way home, Lady A. bethinks herself of an old school-fellow of hers, who promised to give her a lesson in "Bridge." She therefore calls at the Grosvenor Crescent Club and is promptly taken off to the games room by her friend. "I suppose you know we have a billiard room, too," says the latter, "and a band plays twice a week in the dining room."
    Back to Grafton Street once more. A lady, stylishly dressed, and with a certain business-like air about her, is entering a house. Mrs. B. is a member of the Pioneer Club, and has come to attend a committee meeting. It is early yet, so she takes the letters waiting for her in the pigeon-hole [-116-] bearing her number - every Pioneer has a number - and goes into the library. Two ladies are reading books from the library to which the club subscribes. A serious-looking girl in a pince-nez is consulting an encyclopedia; a frivolous-looking one borrowing a novel to take home with her, and putting twopence into a cash-box placed handy. Nobody speaks, for this is the "silence" room. If you want to talk you can go downstairs to the smoking room, or upstairs to the drawing room, where there are plenty of papers, magazines, and comfortable arm-chairs.


    It is the first Tuesday in the month, and Mrs. B. has invited two friends to the musical "At Home," preceded by tea in the dining-room. When there is a good Thursday evening debate, she never fails to be present. The Pioneers are earnest, and have the courage of their convictions, so that subjects get well thrashed out. Mrs. B. and her antagonist will dine amicably together at the club dinner before the debate. Embryo orators exercise their powers of speech at the "practice" debates; there is also a "Parliament." At distant intervals the Pioneers give an evening party; occasionally, a fancy-dress one. Mrs. B., an eminently clubable woman, belongs likewise to the Sesame, of which her husband is a member. The Sesame, Bath, and Albemarle open their doors alike to men and women.
    Doctors, lecturers, teachers, women with diplomas and degrees, congregate at the University Club, while the journalist has her club - the Writers' - close to the Strand. Here she can drop in at any hour of the day, write up her "copy" in a quiet room, meet her friends, take a meal, or rest and read the papers. The members sometimes give an evening party, while every Friday afternoon they are "At Home" to their friends. These Friday teas are very popular, and when a well-known authoress presides a large attendance may be expected. For the rest, the Writers' us a useful, sociable little club, enabling birds of a feather to flock together at least once a week.
    To turn to another view of the picture; what do the working women and factory girls do at their clubs? Apparently many things, both useful and agreeable; for most of the clubs endeavour to combine instruction with amusement. We say most, because the chief aim of the Rehearsal Club in Leicester Square is to provide weary "theatrical" girls with rooms to rest in and inexpensive meals.
    [-117-] A DANCE AT THE HONOR CLUB, FITZROY SQUAREBut as to the others. Take a Jewish girl, for example. "Esther" is a tailoress by trade, and helps her father to make dress coats year in, year out. All day she works at the buttonholes and the felling; in the evening she goes to the Jewish Working Girls' Club in Soho. Perhaps she attends the drill in the big room on the ground floor; on Wednesday she learns lace-making or takes cooking lessons. In the blue-papered class-room at the top of the house all sorts of classes go on, and there is a pretty library leading out of it. The girls learn dressmaking, millinery, reading, writing, singing, chip-carving, basket-making; there is even a class for Hebrew. Once in a way they hold a little exhibition, and sell their own productions.
    In the matter of amusements, "Esther" does not fare badly. Friday evening is, of course, a sacred one with her people; the club festivities take place on Saturdays and Sundays. The girls dance, or perhaps there is a debate; sometimes a lady makes herself responsible for a concert, and brings her friends to help. Occasionally "Esther" and her mates get up a variety entertainment among themselves, and sing and recite in a most spirited manner. At Christmas they have a party for their little brothers and sisters. Our typical maiden is English-born, but among her companions you will find Germans, French, Poles, Russians and Hungarians.
    IN THE ST. MARY'S WORKING GIRLS' CLUB, STEPNEYThe club just described is for girls over twelve, and girls only; at Bethnal Green there is one mainly composed of women members, most of them married. This sometimes necessitates Herr Baby accompanying his mother to her club, but as a rule the babies sleep through everything, even the club song chanted with enthusiasm.
    Every other Wednesday Mrs. Smith - a good wide-spreading title - puts on her bonnet and steps down to the Board School, the largest room of which building is converted for the nonce into her club premises. Already a few early arrivals are playing dominoes at the centre [-118-] table. But we should mention that this is the Cadogan Club - so named from Lady Cadogan, its patroness. Sometimes her ladyship gives the members a tea, and yonder hangs her portrait on the wall. Mrs. Smith and her companions are mostly home-workers - tailoresses, boot machinists, umbrella coverers, box, shirt, slipper and brush makers. One even, we are told, makes harness. "Saddles, isn't it, Lizzie?" "No, miss, horse collars." For sixteen years has this patient Lizzie done the two rows of stitching round these said collars! No wonder that she and her fellow Cadoganites need a little amusement once a fortnight!
    A lady visitor plays a valse, and the livelier members are soon whirling round the spacious room. Or a circle is formed, and songs and recitations are the order of the day. On some nights they debate, and Mrs. Smith and her fellow workers are quite au fait with all the questions affecting their special industries. They pass resolutions and more than once have sent deputations to the Home Secretary.
    The pretty Honor Club in Fitzroy Square gathers to itself the better-class working girls of the West-End. They  dance, they sing, they have a lady doctor to attend them, a gymnasium, a refreshment-bar which they manage themselves, and a circulating library! The whole house is theirs, and a fresh lady visitor comes every night to superintend. Here is a new member, fourteen, and rather shy; she pays sixpence a month, and her sister, over seventeen, eightpence. Notice the tall girl wearing the Honor brooch, a sign that she has been in the club over three years. It is Monday night, which means that members pay their subscriptions, consult the doctor if necessary, take books out of the library, and dance. On Wednesday, they play games, on Saturday they sing; Tuesday is "gym." night and Thursday, oh wonderful Thursday is devoted to embroidery, poetry and the mandoline!
    In the East, at Stepney, the St. Mary's Working Girl's Club is for girls employed in rope-work, tent-making, bottle-washing, etc., and with but little joy in their toilsome, stunted lives. But at their club they dance, and play games, besides learning sewing, an unknown art to many of them. Such clubs have a wonderfully humanising effect upon the East-End lasses.
    How far feminine Club-land will spread in the vast future who shall say? For women, rich and poor, high and low, have learned what men found out long ages ago, namely, that union means not only power but economy, and that co-operation is a giant that can work wonders.

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George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902