Sunday, October 7, 2012

Alan's Tea Rooms

Alan's Tea Rooms (1910)
Alan's Tea Rooms

Location: 263 Oxford Street, London, England, United Kingdom

Opened: 1907

Closed: 1916

Time and time again, we've made the argument here at Lost Womyn's Space that having real physical public space where women can safely meet and congregate is crucial to the survival and the future of the feminist movement. (Bonus points if the space is actually owned, managed, and controlled by women for women.) We've also mentioned that this was also true for the women of the first wave of the feminist movement, who often met at tea shops and used them as "sheltering space" for public meetings and organizing. (Check out the tea room tabs below for earlier posts.)

There seems to be a lot of new and fascinating research on these issues, which is really important to share. This recent piece from the Women's History Network on "Suffragettes and Tea Rooms" discusses one of these places, which was called Alan's Tea Rooms. [Note: the "reference guide" mentioned below is shorthand for Elizabeth Crawford's The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide (1999)]:

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.

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.

Read the rest here

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