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The 1918 Club
LEW Baxter Liverpool Daily Post   10 January 2008

LEW Baxter finds that the women's suffragette movement still has its champions in Liverpool

IT WAS set up by the social reformer Eleanor Rathbone in the year that marked the start of female suffrage in Britain, and this trailblazing campaigner would surely be astonished that almost 90 years later The 1918 Club - an exclusive women's only discussion forum - is still meeting every month, only a short hop from its original base in the legendary Reece's dining rooms, on Liverpool's Bold Street.

Today the club is perhaps less attuned to the ranting of the rostrum, but it continues to pay tribute to the memory of the remarkable feminist who fought for equality of the sexes - including voting rights for women - and was the driving force behind the introduction of family allowances.

Eleanor was, of course, part of the famous philanthropic Rathbone family whose father was described by the Liverpool Post in 1902 as "one of the grandest old men whom Liverpool has ever claimed as a son".

Eleanor succeeded Millicent Fawcett as president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1919, although it took until 1928 for women to gain full voting rights.

According to one of the present-day club's longest serving members Betty Rushworth- Smith - whose own family have a long tradition in Liverpool - times may have changed, but the club still celebrates the work of its founder, who helped change the status of women.

"Originally the club was a meeting forum for ladies involved in voluntary work, and for many decades an essential element of membership from those applying was evidence of the type of activities they were involved with," explained Betty, who has been the club's programme secretary for 10 years, ensuring that the twice-monthly roster of celebrity speakers is met.

"Of course today we don't insist on those conditions, and a lot of the work once done by voluntary groups is now undertaken by social services," added Betty. "Our members are largely retired and come from such disciplines as teaching, medicine and commerce."

The club meets twice a month at the Adelphi Hotel and, as age takes its toll, Betty admits that the current membership of just under 30 could do with an injection of younger women who might want to also pay tribute to Eleanor Rathbone's visionary role in their lives.

"In my heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the club boasted over 100 members, with a waiting list. It was a very hectic and busy period, and although the club itself doesn't actually engage in fund-raising events or campaigns, it was and remains a sounding board for people to discuss issues of the day," explains Betty.

"We don't have the resources to do charity work ourselves, but over the years our membership has included many distinguished women who have made their mark on society," she adds.

Each lunchtime gathering welcomes a special guest who is invited to speak on particular topics of interest, and the roll-call has included people from public services, the arts and business as well as individuals who have made an impact in other ways, such as explorers or those in fascinating occupations like the principal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute College in Poole, Miss Sue Hennessey, or the career butler David Lodge, who talked about a life of service and was actually trained at the Adelphi.

"We met for many years at the YMCA in Brownlow Hill and moved to the Adelphi Hotel about a year ago," explains Betty, who insists that the much-maligned hotel has been very kind and that the club has been treated regally by the staff.

"These kind of forums were very popular for many years, and were a talking point but sadly I fear they are in decline these days which is a great pity," remarks Betty, who considers The 1918 Club in many ways similar to the English Speaking Union.

She admits it can be a tough call drawing up the list but says that the club has never been turned down, even though they rarely pay for such services - particularly as membership subscription if only £6 a year.

Betty quips that during the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002 the club would have liked to invite Her Majesty but "she was a bit busy".

"So I reckoned her representative in the area could do the job just as well, and we were really pleased when the Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside Alan Waterworth JP - who stands down this year after more than 12 years in the role - accepted our invitation. We dressed the tables for lunch in gold and silver as a mark of respect, and he was a marvellous speaker.

"Then, two years ago, we had Ken Dodd. At first a few people were unsure, suggesting that even if we got him he would charge a fortune. How wrong they were," reveals Betty.

"I rang him in the morning and left a message on his answerphone, and I must admit that I didn't hold out much hope. I was delighted when he rang back that afternoon and asked what he could do for me. As soon as I mentioned Eleanor Rathbone, he waxed lyrical and said: 'Ah, wonderful woman.'

"I merely said that, as he had been officially recognised by Liverpool as a Freeman of the City, and that we appreciated his loyalty by continuing to live in it while other celebrities left, we wondered if he might join us for lunch," recalls Betty.

"He replied that he would be most honoured, and there was no question of a fee. Later he even asked me what I wanted him to do. I replied, 'Nothing, you are just our guest'. Of course he did speak and later finished by singing, rather quietly, his well-known song, Happiness. He was a thorough gentleman."

Yet, even though the club has invited politicians like Mike Storey, the former leader of Liverpool City Council, Lord David Alton and religious luminaries including Sarah Jones, the wife of the Bishop of Liverpool, paradoxically - considering its provenance - subjects like politics and religion are taboo.

"These days we try to avoid conflict, and when Mike Storey was our guest he talked about Liverpool's Capital of Culture success and its World Heritage status. He was a fascinating speaker."

Even when outspoken Birkenhead MP Frank Field was a guest, he focused his attentions on the work of Eleanor Rathbone as he was trying to get a plaque erected in her memory.

The club is run by a committee of seven that includes president Jean Tickle; secretary Joan Jones; treasurer Beryl Clarke, a former teacher; Peggy Wright, who has worked tirelessly for the RNLI for years; Muriel Jones, who is very active as a guide in the Anglican Cathedral; and relatively new member Barbara Berry, who is taking on secretarial work.

Betty Rushworth- Smith laughs that she wouldn't like to speculate on the average age of the "ladies" on the committee, but agrees that they are all venerable and distinguished. She has been a member herself for close on 50 years, and confirms that it is the oldest existing women's club in Liverpool, and arguably even the UK, perhaps only predated by The Berners Club, in London.

Betty usually draws up the speakers list months in advance and already lined up are Mr MJ Hatton, chief executive of the Wirral Autistic Society, a deep sea diver, and Professor Janet Hemmingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. "That will take us through to Christmas, and I am now working on next year's list," says Betty, who believes that the club still has a place.

"I suppose we are on a par with the once men-only Athenaeum Club in Liverpool, although it now also has women members," comments Betty, whose daughter Lesley Reith, a magazine publisher, is actually one of the youngest and newest members of the 1918 Club.

"I've been going to the special lunches for about five years and decided to become a member a year ago," explains Lesley, who points out that women's lives have changed dramatically since the club was formed.

"Obviously Eleanor Rathbone was one of the major catalysts for some of these changes. I would say that, over the years since my mother joined, the dynamic of the club has changed as more women have full-time careers. One member is a consultant paediatrician and tries to get along when she can.

"I feel we should be looking to attract the younger breed of women, and on one occasion I took along my friend Anne Ardern, who is commodore of the West Cheshire Sailing Club. She might join but does have work commitments like us all," adds Lesley, who does try to attend most of the twice monthly lunches.

"The existing members of the club have experiences of Liverpool when it was hugely respected, but then the city went through the doldrums in the late 1970 and 1980s. Now it is pulling itself up again, and I hope younger women will want to take up the baton.

"Although a fair few of the members are retired, they were once movers and shakers in their own right and others were married to well-known men. But the club isn't just for 'ladies who lunch'. 

"It has a resonance for this day and age, and I hope the new generation can find time in their diaries to attend functions so that it can carry on for another 50 years or so, particularly as women have more impact on society these days," adds Lesley.

* ANYONE interested in joining The 1918 Club can write to The Secretary, c/o The Adelphi Hotel, Lime Street, Liverpool.




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