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‘Afternoon Tea and politics’
Wendy Beaney

Afternoon tea has made a big come back and most if not all love to indulge with the tiers of perfectly formed sandwiches, scones with the inevitable cream and preserve followed by the decadent cakes all taken with the hot beverage and the table adorned with the most beautiful fine china. We enjoy the company of our friends and enjoy no doubt the catch up chat or perhaps a bit of gossip and often put the world to rights.

Where did this tradition start? We could go back to the origins of drinking tea which dates back to the third millennium BC in China but was then popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza, it was not however, until the mid-19th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared. Being introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her. Of course sometime earlier the Earl of Sandwich had come up with the idea of putting some sort of filling between two slices of bread.

So It began that it was fashionable to invite ones friends and no doubt acquaintances of substance, to attend for afternoon tea. Fine dresses, gloves and hats were worn for this occasion which would be held in the drawing room.

Of course eating out and frequenting coffee houses, bars and the like was the privilege of the man whilst the women weren’t afforded the luxury of expressing many views especially concerning politics. It was thanks to these in house gatherings that they could start their plans for exerting the rights of women. Sometimes attended meetings about suffrage alongside men at town halls, for example, but smaller gatherings outside the home were impossible Then 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.

The illustrations above are Harrods Ladies Club Knightsbridge and Lyons Tea room Oxford Street.

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.

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.

A cheaper and more down market option were the establishments run by the Aerated Bread Company, ABC, and were described by the suffragist and Liberal politician Margaret Corbett Ashby, as “an enormous move to freedom”.

As the suffrage movement gained momentum, some tearooms played a central part, particularly those whose owners were sympathetic to the “Cause”. These establishments included the vegetarian café Gardenia at 6 Catherine Street, Covent Garden, where women gathered on 2 April 2011 to evade the census enumerator. 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.

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.

Kate Fry wrote in her Diary:

“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.”

Katharine “Kate” Parry Frye born Katherine Parry Collins was a British actress, a lifelong diarist and suffragist. Born 9th January 1878 to Frederick and Jane Frye.

Who would have thought that the simple pleasure that we enjoy today would have had a helping hand in the rights that women now enjoy.

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Page last updated: 10 Nov 2021
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