President Judith Goodall welcomed Anne Featherstone, a retired university lecturer, to the May meeting of the Retford Ladies Probus Club. Anne, who enjoys research, has unearthed a little-known story from 1908, which she refers to as ‘A Storm in a Teashop’. Only documented in newspapers such as The Daily Mirror, a popular publication due to its pictorial contents, the tale begins at 1.30pm on Saturday 4th April 1908.
The Cabin Restaurant in Piccadilly was crowded with people anticipating the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. The attractive waitresses were going about their work in black dresses and yellow pinafores when suddenly there was a clatter. One of the waitresses had dropped her metal tray on the marble floor creating a cacophony of sound as all the others followed suit. With a silent command all staff gathered at the bottom of the mezzanine to the consternation of the diners.
Mr Toller, the manager, soon wades in on the scene and there is a brief but animated discussion after which everyone returns to work. It appears that one of them has been unfairly dismissed and rather than face a strike Toller has backed down and reinstated her.
Over the weekend they have a meeting and engage the help of Gertude Tuckwell, President of Women’s Trade Union League. She draws up a letter of demands, one of them being the dismissal of Toller, who they say is tyrannical, bullying and hands out on-the-spot dismissals. When they get no reply a waitress known as Emily ‘Ken’ Ware stands on a table and addresses the customers, stating their grievances. These include pay of six shillings and nine pence with no gratuities, out of which they have to provide own uniforms, plus a standard deduction for breakages. It did not add up to a living wage.
Although non-political, the Cabinettes, as they were called, drew sympathy from Charlotte Despard, a leading light in suffrage, who speaks up for them. Enter Edith Holland, who offers them her premises rent-free to start up their own café. They accept and open on Monday 13th April as Ken’s Kabin, very quickly amassing £500. Later, however, Mrs Holland says they have become dictatorial and she and the cook want more shares in what the Cabinettes thought was a cooperative, so they move to premises in Leicester Square.
But Mrs Holland is turning out to be worse than Toller and has registered Ken’s Kabin to herself, so they change the name to Ken’s Cabin next to the Alhambra Theatre which is duly opened by Charlotte Despard. It was also known as the Cooperative Kabin and Ken’s Kafe.
The women achieved this in the space of a few weeks. A piece of unique social history.
The group’s next meeting takes place on Wednesday 8th June, starting at 10.30am. This will be a Platinum Jubilee Celebration at The Grove Methodist Church, Grove Street.