In 2006 the BBC Antiques Road Show was filmed at the University of Sydney. One of the items their experts valued was a suffragette tea set manufactured in Staffordshire by Williamsons of Longton. It comprised six art deco cups, saucers and plates, a cake plate, tea pot, milk jug and sugar bowl decorated in the colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The set was decorated with the iconic design of the angel of freedom blowing a trumpet and carrying a banner with the word “Freedom” on it.
The tea service was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst for the WSPU’s 1909 exhibition at the Prince’s Skating Rink in London. A Scottish version for use at a WSPU exhibition in Glasgow was produced in 1910. The angel design was also used on the cover of bound copies of the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women.
As soon as I saw
the Sydney tea set I wanted one! Alas, these are very rare items and consequently very
expensive. Complete sets are rarer still, and it’s more usual to see pieces
sold separately or in small groups, such as a collection of four pieces which the
Shropshire Star reported was due to be sold in May 2019.
Star described the event at Prince’s Skating Rink as a “now-forgotten
exhibition”. This must have come as something of a surprise to the many
historians, researchers and biographers who have written books, articles and
blogs about the suffrage movement. I suppose it’s easier to conclude that if
you don’t know something yourself, no one else does either. A lot easier than,
say, looking out the many sources that are available.
The WSPU exhibition at the Prince’s Skating Rink took place from 13 to 26 May 1913. Sylvia Pankhurst designed and executed the twenty feet high decorations for the hall, helped by three women with whom she had studied at the Royal College of Art, and four men who had also studied there. The exhibition included a mock up of a prison cell, a polling booth, an exhibition about the history of the suffrage movement, “Anti-Suffrage Waxworks”, plays, and ju jitsu lessons (useful in tussles with the police).
It also included a refreshment room where you could have tea and cake using china from Sylvia Pankhurst’s tea service. After the exhibition, the tea service was sold in sets. I don’t know how one of those sets made it all the way to Sydney, but I remember thinking it was a miracle it had survived the journey. And, of course, much as I coveted some of the tea set for myself, I didn’t think I’d ever own any of it.
But this year Suffrage Santa had other ideas! In the run up to Christmas, I eyed with some curiosity a large, mysterious parcel that appeared under the tree. Luckily, I refrained from shaking, rattling and tapping it in an effort to guess what was inside.
So now I am the joyful owner of a suffragette tea cup, saucer and plate! All I need is a packet of “Votes for Women” tea and maybe a few “Votes for Women” biscuits (both as sold in WSPU shops) to dunk in it…
You can find out more about suffragette china and tea rooms in a series of blogs by Elizabeth Crawford at https://womanandhersphere.com/tag/suffragette-tea/.
The WSPU Drum and Fife Band advertising the 1909 WSPU Exhibition, The Women's Library at LSE, No Known Copyright Restrictions