I bought this old postcard of London’s Regent Street for no better reason than I liked it. Nicely composed and radiating late Edwardian elegance.
Unused and without a postmark, I wanted to get a more exact date for the image, so I followed the only obvious clue – the banner on the right. It was a long shot but, to my amazement, a search for the Matinee Tea Rooms returned this –
” An enterprising young lady from New Zealand, Miss Barr, of Dunedin, has opened in Regent street, London ……’The Matinee Tea Rooms.’
They are very tastefully and attractively appointed and decorated, and Miss Barr is sure to be loyally supported by visiting New Zealanders as well as by colonists living in London.
She is associated in the venture with an English lady friend. The ladies deserve every success. Miss Barr is the daughter of the late Mr Alexander W. Barr, solicitor, of Dunedin, who came to England a good many years ago, and niece of Mrs W. Stringer, of Christchurch.
For two years she was with Miss Mellish at that Christchurch lady’s successful institution in London, the Cottage Tea Rooms, of which there are two branches in existence, while a third is shortly to be opened in the city”.
Otago Daily Times, [Dunedin, N.Z.] 21 June 1909.
From there I followed a newspaper trail that led to a story of colonial female enterprise in London society at a time when women were fighting for their right to vote.
Miss Barr has been reluctant to reveal herself, or even her first name. Her Christchurch aunt is no help and we shouldn’t assume her father’s name is a printing error for the ‘notorious’ John Alexander Barr without further investigation. Her former employer, however, is more co-operative.
Kate Mellish was the daughter of George Mellish (1835 – 1881), the resident magistrate at Christchurch, New Zealand. She may have moved to London in the 1890s and been quick to take advantage of the new fashion for ladies tea rooms because she opened her second branch at 215, Piccadilly, in 1902. Her first, at 408, the Strand, was “next to” the Adelphi Theatre. The Dunedin Star reported “an attractive establishment decorated to resemble an old English half-timbered country cottage with diamond-paned windows and quaint ornaments and attractive cottage maidens in violet muslin to dispense hospitality at Piccadilly prices. No doubt New Zealanders needing refreshment during the Coronation festivities [Edward VII, 9 Aug 1902] will foregather at this latest example of New Zealand enterprise”. Both branches advertised “Dainty Lunches, Teas, etc., from 12 to 8.30”.
Miss Mellish might have had a preference for New Zealand employees because Auckland’s Observer noted that “Mrs J. Iredale – who, when Miss Churton, so successfully conducted Iredale’s tea rooms in Queen Street, and made them quite a fashionable resort – is now assisting in the management of cottage tea rooms in Piccadilly, which are well patronized by the fashionable world of London”.
Edith Churton had managed tea rooms for John Iredale – located on the second floor of his drapery store (“take the elevator”) – from January 1899 and married her employer the following November. Unfortunately she was widowed almost exactly a year later even though her husband was still in his early 30s. The Iredales are worth following for their own story but that tangent would take us too far away from the elusive Miss Barr and Regent Street.
Ladies tea rooms in England became convenient gathering places for suffragettes and their supporters in the years before World War I. No documented connection between the movement and the Cottage or Matinee tea rooms has been found so far but, since New Zealand women were given the vote in 1893, it is reasonable to assume these three independent, successful businesswomen were sympathetic to the cause.