Safe spaces for working women: Mortimer Street in the late Victorian and Edwardian era

Enamelled street sign on brick building indicating Mortimer Street, W1, City of Westminster.
At the beginning of the 20th century, we might have seen more women than men on Mortimer Street. Photo: Fitzrovia News.

If there is one artery in Fitzrovia that invites you to celebrate women’s history, it is rue Mortimer. It may seem trite today, but in the early years of the 20th century we could have seen far more women than men on its sidewalks. For this we can thank a social transformation that began more than 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 women were finding employment outside the home. Although domestic service remained an important source of income for many working-class women, they now also held jobs in shops, mills, and factories. Towards the end of the 19th century, the invention of the typewriter and the telephone led to a steady growth in office work, and as a result, more young middle-class women also joined the labor force.

These developments have had a noticeable impact on Fitzrovia. Here, the expansion of Middlesex Hospital, the arrival of the clothing trade, and the proximity of West End shops and businesses would have brought working women from a wide variety of backgrounds to the area. As in other downtown areas, this has created a pressing need for adequate housing. Shelters and shelters specially designed for women have been one of the answers to this problem.

Houses for women

Some of these new homes were created by private companies, others by charities 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 activists, the moral well-being of young female workers was a primary concern, while others focused more on their safety. One should probably hesitate before condemning the efforts of some of these Victorian benefactors to keep working women away from “temptation”. Their approach can easily be dismissed today as controlling and puritanical, but it has also had the effect of helping to protect women from violence and sexual exploitation by men.

On Mortimer Street some of the first women-only accommodation 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, an All Saints devotee, 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 had trained as nurses and dedicated their lives “to Christ and to 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 to 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 the aim of rescuing women from the “mixed society” permitted in other hostels. After occupying additional space at number 36, Saint-Gabriel was able to offer 21 beds with screens, a living room and a private prayer room.

The former YWCA hostel on the corner of Mortimer Street and Great Titchfield Street. Photo: Fitzrovia News.

YWCA activities in Fitzrovia date back to 1857, when a women’s hostel was opened on Upper Charlotte Street. In 1884 the Welbeck Home was established at 101 Mortimer Street, with beds for 60 young women and an adjoining restaurant. Demand for this accommodation was high, and in 1903–04 the YWCA embarked on its first major building project in London, a purpose-built hostel at 42-44 Mortimer Street. Now a listed building and converted into private apartments, Ames House still stands on the northwest corner with Great Titchfield Street – a handsome brick structure with subtle detailing and elegant chimneys above the gables. It was designed by versatile architect Beresford Pite and made possible by a donation from Alfred Ames, a member of a Unitarian family who had once been among Bristol’s ‘merchant princes’. At the end of the day, sad to say, the inn was paid for partly out of a fortune that originated in the slave trade in the 18th century.

The new inn housed 97 women in small rooms and cabins, each with its own window and electric light. Its facilities were a model of comfort in their time and included a toilet, dining room, library lounge, and work room with heated irons. The 1911 census reveals that its inhabitants had an average age of 25 and were quite varied in their occupations: among them were waitresses, typists, teachers, an assistant draper at Bourne and Hollingsworth and an assistant sewing at Peter Robinson. Some were 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 places. On the ground floor of the building were four shops and a restaurant, the Welbeck, which helped finance the operation of the inn.

Where to eat

Unlike the dining room at Ames House, the Welbeck Restaurant was open to non-resident women, serving them “good inexpensive food” in a safe environment. A former women-only eating establishment had opened in 1888 at 81 Mortimer Street. It was the first of several Dorothy restaurants, for “those who hate having men on the premises”. They were run by the Ladies’ Restaurant Association, founded by Isabel Cooper-Oakley, a Cambridge-educated feminist and Theosophist who also owned a millinery business on Wigmore Street.

Site of the first Dorothy restaurant at 81 Mortimer Street. Photo: Fitzrovia News.

Between noon and 3 p.m., the Dorothys served dinners “consisting of a choice of two joints, bread and two vegetables”, all for a fixed price of eightpence. The place had cream colored walls with “aesthetic crimson dados” and was “made cheerful with Japanese fans and umbrellas”. A few months later, an even more splendidly decorated Dorothy opened its doors at 448 Oxford Street, a stone’s throw from 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 out 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 considered the first true women’s club. In 1883 he moved to Oxford Street. While women with fairly modest incomes could have afforded a meal at the Dorothy, the Club could have addressed a more bourgeois clientele.

women in business

Women seamstresses and milliners had been running businesses on Mortimer Street since at least the 1840s. Other businesses were to follow. Notable among them is a cookery school opened in 1883 by Agnes Marshall and her husband, who took over a building at number 30 that once housed the National Cook Training School. The Marshall School of Cookery was immensely successful and is said to have trained 10,000 cooks a year. After expanding to Number 32, the couple opened a domestic employment agency and a shop selling household utensils and supplies – such as flavorings, spices and syrups – under the Marshall label.

Agnes Marshall herself was a famous cook who published several cookbooks and traveled the country giving demonstrations. His specialty was frozen desserts, and he is credited with inventing the edible ice cream cone. On peddler carts, cones eventually replaced glass dishes (“penny licks”) that had been soaked in water between customers and then reused. The pastry cone was obviously a more hygienic alternative.

27 Mortimer Street was the location of Hamilton & Co. Photo: Google Street View.

Another firm of note was Hamilton & Co, a co-operative manufacturer of women’s shirts and dresses based since the early 1880s at 27 Mortimer Street. Her exhibits included costumes promoted by the Rational Dress Society, an organization that campaigned against heavy, restrictive clothing then considered essential for women. Among the garments he endorsed were split skirts, which made it easier for women to cycle, and a lightweight corset designed by female students at Girton and Newnham colleges. In 1888 Hamilton also had a depot at number 23, from which he launched The Rational Dress Society’s Gazette.

Through the exclusive spaces created for them during this period, women were encouraged to enter a public domain hitherto 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 until 1977. Like many others, I have seen facilities such as these disappear as part of the progress towards gender equality. Now, of course, I support calls for their reinstatement. Until women can access public spaces without fear of harassment and violence from men, I will have to settle for a vision of Mortimer Street in a bygone era. Its sidewalks are filled with women on their way to work or heading out for a nutritious eightpence dinner. Their life is certainly not perfect, but here, at least, they can relax for a while. There is barely a man in sight. It’s a different world.

(I am grateful to Emilie Gee of Historic England for her pioneering work on women’s housing. See: “Where will she live?” : Housing the New Working Woman in Late Victorian and Edwardian London, in Life, 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

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