If there is one thoroughfare in Fitzrovia which invites us to celebrate women’s history, then it must surely be Mortimer Street. It may seem unremarkable today, but in the early years of the twentieth century we might have seen far more women than men on its pavements. For this we can thank a social transformation which began over two hundred years ago.
Women have always worked, of course. But in Victorian and Edwardian Britain the emergence of new technologies and the rise of consumerism meant that more and more women were finding employment outside the home. Though domestic service remained an important source of income for many working-class women, they were now taking jobs in shops, mills and factories as well. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the invention of the typewriter and the telephone led to a steady growth in office work, and as a result more young women from the middle classes were also joining the workforce.
These developments had a noticeable impact in Fitzrovia. Here, the expansion of the Middlesex Hospital, the arrival of the clothing trade, and the proximity of West End shops and businesses would have brought women workers from a wide range of backgrounds into the area. As in other inner-city locations, this produced a pressing need for adequate housing. Hostels and lodging-houses designed specifically for women were one of the responses to this problem.
Homes for Women
Some of these new homes were created by private companies, others by charitable organisations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Girls’ Friendly Society. Bodily comfort was by no means the only consideration. For many campaigners the moral welfare of young women workers was a primary concern, while others focused more on their safety. We should probably hesitate before condemning the efforts of some of these Victorian do-gooders to steer working girls away from “temptation”. Their approach can easily be dismissed today as controlling and puritanical, but it also had the effect of helping to protect women from violence and sexual exploitation by men.
On Mortimer Street some of the earliest women-only housing was provided by the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, an Anglican order of nuns attached to the church in Margaret Street. The Sisterhood had been founded in 1851 when Harriet Byron, a worshipper at All Saints, rented a house at 59 Mortimer Street and opened a home for widows and orphans. She was joined by a handful of other women who trained as nurses and dedicated their lives “to Christ and the service of the poor”. In 1856 the nuns moved with the widows and orphans to Margaret Street, and 59 Mortimer Street became St. Elizabeth’s Home, devoted to the care of incurable women rejected by London hospitals. By 1895 this had expanded into numbers 57 and 61, and had been rebuilt. Meanwhile in the 1880s the Sisters had established St. Gabriel’s Home for Anglican Shopgirls at 34 Mortimer Street, with a view to rescuing women from the “mixed company” permitted in other hostels. After taking over additional space in number 36, St. Gabriel’s was able to offer 21 beds with screens, a sitting-room, and a room for private prayer.
The YWCA’s activities in Fitzrovia can be traced back to 1857, when a women’s hostel was opened on Upper Charlotte Street. In 1884 the Welbeck Home was created at 101 Mortimer Street, with beds for 60 young women and a restaurant attached. Demand for this accommodation was high, and in 1903-4 the YWCA embarked on its first major construction project in London, a purpose-built hostel at 42-44 Mortimer Street. Now a listed building and converted into private flats, Ames House still stands on the north-west corner with Great Titchfield Street — a handsome brick structure with subtle detailing and elegant chimneys above the gables. It was designed by the versatile architect Beresford Pite, and made possible by a donation from Alfred Ames, a member of a Unitarian family which had once been among the “merchant princes” of Bristol. At the end of the day, sad to say, the hostel was paid for in part out of a fortune which had originated in the eighteenth century slave-trade.
The new hostel housed 97 women in small bedrooms and cubicles, each with its own window and electric light. Its facilities were a model of comfort in their day, and included washrooms, a dining-room, a parlour-cum-library, and a workroom with heated irons. The 1911 census reveals that its residents had an average age of 25, and were quite diverse in their occupations: among them there were waitresses, typists, teachers, an assistant draper at Bourne and Hollingsworth, and a dressmaking assistant at Peter Robinson. Some had been born in London, but the majority came from outside the city — from Aberdeen, Newcastle, Halifax, Manchester, Wolverhampton, North Wales, Southampton, Devon and Cornwall, and many other locations. On the building’s ground floor there were four shops and a restaurant, the Welbeck, which helped to finance the running of the hostel.
Where to Eat
Unlike the dining-room at Ames House, the Welbeck Restaurant was open to non-resident women, serving them “good cheap food” in safe surroundings. An earlier women-only eating establishment had opened in 1888 at 81 Mortimer Street. This was the first of several Dorothy Restaurants, for “those who detest to have men about the place”. They were run by the Ladies’ Restaurant Association, founded by Isabel Cooper-Oakley, a Cambridge-educated feminist and theosophist who was also the proprietor of a millinery business on Wigmore Street.
Between 12 and 3pm the Dorothy served dinners “consisting of a choice of two joints, bread, and two vegetables”, all for a fixed price of eight pence. The place had cream-coloured walls with “aesthetic crimson dados” and was “made gay with Japanese fans and umbrellas”. A few months later a Dorothy with even more splendid decor opened at 448 Oxford Street, close to Orchard Street. In 1890 the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage held one of its meetings in the Mortimer Street branch.
Another venue where women were able to speak their minds was the Somerville Club at 21 Mortimer Street. This had been established in 1881 to provide a meeting place for women interested in social and political issues, and is regarded as the first proper women’s club. In 1883 it moved to Oxford Street. While women on quite modest incomes could have afforded a meal at the Dorothy, the Club would have catered for a more middle class clientele.
Women in Business
Women dressmakers and milliners had been running businesses on Mortimer Street since at least the 1840s. More enterprises were to follow. Notable among them was a cookery school opened in 1883 by Agnes Marshall and her husband, who took over a building at number 30 that had once housed The National Training School for cooks. The Marshall School of Cookery was immensely successful, and is said to have trained 10,000 cooks a year. After expanding into number 32, the couple opened a domestic employment agency and a shop selling household utensils and supplies — such as flavourings, spices, and syrups — under the Marshall label.
Agnes Marshall herself was a celebrity cook who published several recipe books and travelled the country giving demonstrations. Her speciality was the frozen dessert, and she is credited with the invention of the edible ice-cream cornet. On street-vendors’ carts cornets eventually replaced glass dishes (“penny licks”) which had been dipped in water between customers and then reused. The pastry cone was obviously a more hygienic alternative.
Another business of note was Hamilton & Co, a women’s shirt- and dress-making co-operative based since the early 1880s at 27 Mortimer Street. Its displays included costumes promoted by the Rational Dress Society, an organisation which campaigned against the heavy and restrictive clothing then viewed as essential for women. Among the garments it endorsed were divided skirts, which made it easier for women to ride bicycles, and a light corset designed by female students at Girton and Newnham colleges. By 1888 Hamilton’s also had a depot at number 23, from which it launched The Rational Dress Society’s Gazette.
Through the exclusive spaces created for them during this period women were encouraged to enter a public realm which till then had been dominated by men. When I was growing up in the 1950s some of these spaces still existed. Trains, for example, had “Ladies Only” compartments, available on one line as late as 1977. Along with many others, I saw the disappearance of facilities like these as part of the progress towards gender equality. Now of course I support the calls for their reinstatement. Until women can access public spaces without fear of harassment and violence from men, I shall have to content myself with a vision of Mortimer Street in a bygone age. Its pavements are thronged with women on their way to work, or heading out for a nutritious eightpence dinner. Their lives are certainly not perfect, but here at least they can relax for a while. There is scarcely a man in sight. It’s a different world.
(I’m grateful to Emily Gee of Historic England for her ground-breaking work on women’s housing. See: “Where shall she live?”: Housing the New Working Woman in Late Victorian and Edwardian London, in Living, Leisure and Law: Eight Building Types in England, 1800-1941, ed. Geoff Brandwood, Spire Books, 2010.)
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com