And if you believe these tea rooms appeared long before the women's suffrage movement got going, consider this: In 1866 a group of university women from the Kensington Society organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same political rights as men. The women took their petition to MPs who supported universal suffrage. When the bill was defeated, members of the Kensington Society decided to form the London Society for Women's Suffrage. Similar women's suffrage groups were formed all over Britain and in 1887, seventeen of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.
The most popular tearooms were the ABC [Aerated Bread Company] and its direct competitor, Lyons Corner Houses, both of them opening in the late 1880s and into the 1890s. What I didn’t know was that these rooms could come complete with palm courts and live orchestras. St James' Restaurant, on the fourth floor of Fortnum & Mason, was one of London's most famous spots for Afternoon and High Tea. It too included a regular pianist. Music in tea rooms was added to all of the major hotels where there would have been enough space, but ordinary tea rooms in the high street might have struggled for space.
Ingram St Tearooms, Glasgow
My image of 1890s tea rooms is very much influenced by the Ladies' Luncheon Room in Miss Cranston's Ingram St Tearooms, Glasgow.
I am very interested in the connection with the struggle for women’s suffrage and recommended the book Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End by Erika Rappaport to students. Rappaport drew a lovely link between men-free tea rooms and the early women’s movement. Suffragettes promoted the ABC teashops and Lyons Corner Houses, presumably because the women could enjoy themselves in unchaperoned settings that were suitable and safe for decent women.
But it wasn’t just the tea and scones. Undoubtedly the tea rooms also gave women access into the heart of the city, opening up London's cultural life. By the 1890s, public transport went almost everywhere so it became easy for women to get to the West End on the Underground. They could spend extended periods of time there without having to return home.
The book Women's Suffrage Movement by Elizabeth Crawford suggested an even more radical connection. Alan's Tea Rooms, run by Alan Liddle in Oxford St, near Oxford Circus advertised regularly in the newspaper Votes for Women that they had a large room available for meetings. Mr Liddle’s profit apparently came from selling the tea and buns to the women.
In Sydney, feminist Louisa Lawson was editor of the Republican and founder, publisher and editor of Dawn: A Journal for Australian Women. Soon after establishing the paper, she founded The Dawn Club and held meetings in various places, including Quong Tart's tea rooms in King St and George St. Apparently his tearooms were the site of many of Sydney's suffragette meetings in the 1885-8 era. Quong Tart’s greatest success was the Elite Hall Tea House. Occupying two floors of the Queen Victoria Building, these tearooms were on both the ground level and first floor.