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Personal Freedom and Public Space

In the late 19th century, middle and upper class women were moving out of the home into public space. Shopping in the new department stores (see The Fashion for Shopping) also promoted independence.

New public transport carried women into the heart of London, escaping the restrictions of home. But where did 'respectable' women see to personal needs and eat? In a society where any reference to women's bodies was thought to be improper, providing public 'conveniences' was regarded as an outrage.  However, the Ladies' Lavatory Company opened its first, near Oxford Circus, in 1884.

When William Whitely applied for a licence to open a restaurant in his Bayswater store in the late 1870s the local magistrate refused on the grounds of its potential for immoral 'assignations'.

Ladies Public Lavatory, 1890s, West End Lane, Camden
Ladies’ Public Lavatory, 1890s, West End Lane, London. One of a number of Grade-II listed public lavatories nationally, it survives with tiled cubicles with ornate metal grilles, a wash room and handsome railings at ground level. © David March (2004) Source Historic England Archive

Gradually conventions loosened and by 1893 Derry and Toms, Kensington High Street, London W8 provided a lavish tearoom, echoing the comfort of home, to keep women in the store to spend more money.

Harrods provided the early 1900s Ladies' Club decorated with silk, marble, stained glass, and Indian carpets. From 1921, a fully staffed nursery would care for customers' children.

Derry and Toms oriental style teashop in 1893
Derry and Toms oriental style teashop in 1893 © Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive

At a more modest level, suffragist (see Suffrage) Margery Corbett Ashby (1882-1981) maintained that the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) Teashops in London were 'an enormous move to freedom', providing cheap meals with female staff enabling 'respectable' women to use them.

The first Teashop opened in 1884 and there were over 50 shops by 1890. These were followed by the Lyons restaurants from 1894.

Harrods Ladies’ Club opened in the early 1900s for its customers’ comfort
Harrods Ladies’ Club opened in the early 1900s for its customers’ comfort © Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive

Women only

Why did women need these places when they all had comfortable homes, demanded the newspapers? The changing lifestyle of working women, now living in single rooms rather than family homes, meant that they required public facilities especially designed for women (see Housing). 

Barred from men's clubs, women's societies started their own network. The University Women's Club, 2 Audley Square, London W1, was founded in 1883 by a Girton student and is still in existence (see University). Originally on the second and third floors of 31 New Bond Street, London W1 it provided a dining room, dressing room, drawing room, and library.

From 1898 for shop and office workers on Sundays there was the Camelot Club at 29 Queen Square, London WC1. By the 1920s there were clubs all over the country to suit every need, such as the 1914 Howard Street Club, Sheffield for the relaxation of women workers in the silver and cutlery trades.

A former Lyons Corner House restaurant, Oxford Street, London built between 1926-1927
A former Lyons Corner House restaurant, Oxford Street, London built between 1926-1927 to the designs of Frederick Wills. Listed Grade II. © Delcia Keate (2009) Source Historic England Archive

As the New Woman's (see Backlash) needs grew, women's businesses flourished. Concentrated in Mortimer Street in London's West End in the 1880s were Hamilton & Co. (No. 27), the first supplier of the Rational Dress Society's divided skirt costume whilst Miss Franks (No.23) sold the 'Girton' stays, designed by Girton and Newnham students. There were also clubs, including the Somerville Club (No.21), and restaurants.

The Welbeck Restaurant (No.44) provided 'good, cheap food' for working class girls (see Buildings that Celebrate Working Women), while one of the chain of Dorothy Restaurants (No.81) run by women for women, opened until 10pm with good food in secure surroundings.

Howard Street Club, Sheffield converted from a former chapel
Howard Street Club, Sheffield converted from a former chapel opened in 1914 providing leisure facilities for women industrial workers. © Reproduced by permission of Historic England Archive
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Visible in Stone - Personal Freedom

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Hamilton and Co., 27 Mortimer Street, London where from 1881 you could buy the 'dual garment' divided skirt for skating, tricycling, or mountaineering. © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR.
  • In 1890 the Dorothy Restaurant was available for sole women diners at number 81 Mortimer Street, London. © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR.
  • Ames House, Mortimer Street, Westminster, a YWCA hostel for working women built in 1904 to the designs of Beresford Pite, offered accommodation and a cheap public restaurant separate from the dining hall. Listed Grade II. 
© Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR.
  • From 1929 the Women's Service restaurant at Millicent Fawcett Hall offered its members a range of simple refreshments. © Cheryl Law (2010). Source Historic England.NMR.
  • The delicacy about women’s public lavatories had long disappeared when the 1938 Blackpool Woolworth’s ‘Ladies’ Public Toilet’ incorporated a kiosk selling among other female essentials, sanitary towels. © (Taken mid-20th century) Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR
  • (1870-1900) People turned out in Hyde Park to examine 'the terror of cycling women' and 'the manly woman', terms used by newspapers of women who were now independently mobile. © Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR.
  • The Miss Bromleys, Byfield, Northamptonshire in 1904, the leading woman wearing a shortened skirt for cycling. © Reproduced by permission of Historic England.NMR.

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