Taking Tea and Talking Politics: The Role of Tearooms

In the early 20th century women were moving around cities more freely but still lacked a space where they could retire from the bustle of the streets to take refreshment. In filling that gap, and providing a sheltering space for suffragettes, the sedate Edwardian tearoom facilitated women's bold fight for freedom.

Roger Fulford wrote in 'Votes for Women: the story of a struggle' (1957): "The spread of independence was helped by the growth of the tea-shop. A few expensive restaurants existed but apart from these there were no places for a quick meal other than … at home or the brisk clatter of the bar parlour. The teashop gave the young … an ideal meeting place, it was an integral part of the women’s liberation movement."

A genteel tradition

In the late 19th century women attended meetings about suffrage alongside men at town halls, for example, but smaller gatherings outside the home were impossible as respectable women couldn't visit the bars or chop houses frequented by men. Tearooms began springing up after groups like the Harrods Ladies' Club (1890) provided public spaces that were women-only. Finally, the tearooms were a meeting place designed with women in mind. A few buildings still have connections to the food and drink industry.

Elaborately decorated room with sofas, armchairs, and table
Harrods’ Ladies Club, 1919 © Historic England BL24775

The first Lyons tearoom opened in 1894 and soon the white and gold fronted cafes were a common sight on high streets in London and suburban towns. In early 20th century Britain, tearooms were a magnet for women seeking emancipation and tea was a class leveller, uniting women from right across the social spectrum.

Large room set with small tables and chairs
Lyons Tearoom, Oxford Street, London © Historic England BL23646

Tearooms on the map

In Newcastle, activists Dr Ethel Bentham and Lisbeth Simm led political meetings at Fenwick's Café. In Nottingham, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) held meetings at Morley's Café, founded as a teetotal alternative to the pub. In Edinburgh, the Café Vegetaria hosted the Women's Freedom Society, and in Manchester, Parker's Café was a popular venue for suffragettes.

Meanwhile, in the West End of London tearooms that were meeting points included the Tea Cup Inn on Portugal Street off Kingsway. Located near the WSPU offices at Clement's Inn, the Tea Cup advertised in 'Votes for Women'.

"Dainty luncheons and afternoon teas at moderate charges. Home cookery. Vegetarian dishes and sandwiches; entirely staffed by women."

Cheaper and considered more downmarket than the Lyons tearooms were those run by the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) whose establishments were ubiquitous in early 20th century London and were described by the suffragist and Liberal politician Margaret Corbett Ashby, as "an enormous move to freedom".

Another popular place was the elegant Criterion in Piccadilly, where the Actresses' Franchise League (AFL) had begun holding meetings in 1909. Molinari's Restaurant at 25 Frith Street, Soho advertised in 'The Suffragette', offering to donate 5% of takings to the cause for suffragettes who wore badges.

The Grand Hall at the Criterion Restaurant laid out as a ballroom
The Grand Hall at the Criterion Restaurant laid out as a ballroom - Piccadilly, London, 1913 © Historic England BL22341

Pilgrimage

As the suffrage movement gained momentum, some tearooms played a central part, particularly those whose owners were sympathetic to the "Cause". These establishments include the vegetarian café Gardenia at 6 Catherine Street, Covent Garden, where women gathered on 2 April 2011 to evade the census enumerator. Today, the building houses the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).

Another well-known venue was Alan's tearoom at 263 Oxford Street whose owner Margaret Alan Liddle was the sister of Helen Gordon Liddle, a WSPU member who had endured forcible feeding at Strangeways prison in Manchester. The tearoom, open from 1907 until 1916 and accessed via some stairs from the street, advertised the free use of a function room for the WSPU, and was popular with both wings of the suffrage movement. On 26 July 2013 it was where a large group of marchers reportedly headed straight for refreshment after the NUWSS suffrage pilgrimage to London.

One incident puts a Lyons tearoom on the edge of Parliament Square right at the centre of the action. On the evening of 21 November 2011, Kate Frye was among suffragettes meeting before going to smash windows around Westminster.

I went to Lyons and had a coffee and a sandwich. Whom should I happen to sit next to but Miss Ada Moore [an actress and active member of the WSPU] and two ladies ready for the fray. I wonder I wasn't arrested as one - for soon I realised that I was dressed for the part to the life. A long Ulster coat, light hat and veil were the correct costume - no bag, purse, umbrella or any extra. I only had enough money to get home with in my coat pocket - the rest I had put in my suitcase. The latchkey was slung around my neck. It was awfully exciting - one felt like a red revolutionist.

Kate Frye wrote in her diary 'Campaigning for the Vote'
NUWSS poster - "The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies PROTESTS AGAINST VIOLENCE. It did so in 1908, 1909 & 1911 & does so NOW. Our Union is far the largest, the oldest and has always worked for WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE by NON-PARTY & LAW-ABIDING METHODS"
NUWSS poster © Source LSE Library, no known copyright restrictions
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