Start of the Modern Era

The 'Twenties', which saw the birth of Soroptimism, marked the start of a new era for women. A national census in 1921 showed that there were then 2 million more women than men in Britain, but the improvement in women's status was not a matter of mere numbers. It was the work of women during the war that turned opinion in their favour and made them politically important. A Bill granting limited franchise to women was passed in 1918. Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman in parliament, took her seat in the House of Commons in 1919 and became well known for her interest in social problems. The Bill which finally gave the vote to women on equal terms with men was passed in 1928.

Britain's first birth control clinic, which opened in London in 1921, was in its way almost as important to women as the vote. This clinic was founded by Dr Marie Stopes (not a physician but a fossil botanist!), whose book "Married Love" caused a sensation when it appeared in 1918. She aimed to give free consultations to poor women overburdened by childbearing. For many years Marie Stopes was considered less than respectable and she faced a lot of opposition from clergymen and doctors.

On the fashion front there was mounting alarm over changes which critics claimed were immodest and immoral. Skirts had been steadily rising since the war and now thousands of women were revealing the calves of their legs! Women wanted styles to reflect their new freedom and, as one commentator put it "Almost everywhere, the corset was in decline"! There was also a rage for women shingling their hair, another sign of liberation, which resulted in an astonishing boom in the number of hairdressers.

In 1925, the "Charleston" arrived and rapidly became all the rage; once the Prince of Wales had done it, everybody was doing it! Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong emerged as great jazz musicians in 1927. In the cinema, Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in 1928 and there was a great fashion for romantic films. Rudolph Valentino as "The Sheikh" made the girls swoon; it was, critics said "a shocker to set flappers blushing', and they showed no reluctance to be shocked.

The era of the 'bright young things' in society was brilliantly chronicled by the young Evelyn Waugh in "Decline and Fall" (1928) and subsequent novels, DH Lawrence's "Women in Love" (1921) was condemned as "a book the police should ban" and Joyce's "Ulysses" was published in Paris (1922) because it was considered too pornographic to be published in London. Hercule Poirot, a less controversial figure, made his first appearance in Agatha Christie's "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" in 1921. Edith Sitwell declaimed "Facade" via a megaphone from behind a curtain in 1923 and GB Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, largely on the merits of " St Joan ".

John Reith, general manager of the BBC claimed in 1925 that wireless broadcasts were reaching 10 million people and John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of a television image in 1926.

World events of the twenties included the end (for the time being) of the Irish "troubles" by the creation of the Free State in 1922: in that year Mussolini marched on Rome and became the first of the infamous dictators of the interwar years. Britain had its first Labour Government in 1924 and its only General Strike in 1926, fortunately settled without violence.

On 24 October 1929, "Black Thursday", Wall Street crashed. There was panic selling. Many small investors lost everything and 11 speculators committed suicide. This event had world-wide repercussions.

More hopeful events occurred in the medical world. Insulin was discovered by Banting and Best in 1921, making it possible for diabetics to lead normal lives instead of facing almost certain death and in 1928 Alexander Fleming found the germ-killing mould, Penicillium - by mistake!

Into this changed and changing world, Soroptimism was born.

The Beginning of Soroptimism

By 1920 many women had entered the professions and were holding key jobs. The stage was set for them to get to know each other on a professional as well as a social basis and to provide help for their sisters throughout the world. This they did by organising clubs exclusively for women. Soroptimist International is now the largest women's service organisation, with over 100,000 members in more than 111 countries.

It started in Oakland, California, where Violet Richardson-Ward, head of a secretarial college, was installed as the Club's First president on 30 October 1921. Violet was by profession a Physical Education teacher who had always held service as her highest ideal. She once said she would never have considered the Soroptimist movement had she not envisaged it as world-wide and dedicated to all matters of justice and quality of life. One of the first major projects of the Oakland Club was to "save the redwoods", the result of which was that most of the redwoods were set aside in a protected reserve which still stands today.

Soroptimist clubs spread rapidly over the United States. The Central London Club was founded by Lady Falmouth in 1924 and clubs were formed in Manchester in 1926, followed by Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh all in 1927.

Glasgow in the Twenties

Glasgow, 'the dear green place', was a very black and dirty place in the 1920s because of the intense concentration of soot produced by domestic coal fires and heavy industry. Noted landmarks were Pinkston power station which generated electricity for the trams, the gas works at Riddrie, the steel works at Blochairn on the Molendinar and Dixon's blazes at Polmadie whose fires, as they burned off the gases and molten metal, could be seen across the city. All of these produced pollution.

The city was noisy with the clanking of trams, the rattling of horse drawn carts on the streets, the cries of coalmen and paper boys and factory hooters which marked the different shifts.

Glasgow had a fine transport system. The excellent underground, or subway with its distinctive smell had been opened in 1896 and sadly was not extended, but the whole area was covered by an extensive tramway network. Folk could clank along from Paisley to Airdrie by tram for a modest fare. Other destinations included Auchenshuggle, Rutherglen, Milngavie, Kelvinside, and University although, as the song has it :

'You can't go to heaven in a no. 3 car
'Cos a no. 3 car don't go that far'.

The trams had spiral staircases and a driver's cabin at each end. At the terminus the driver changed the points, the conductor changed the seats, they changed around and the tram set off in the reverse direction. Notices were spread inside saying 'no spitting allowed'! (It spread TB.)

The outskirts of Glasgow were much greener; Cathcart village and Giffnock, for example, were among green fields and East Kilbride and Cumbernauld were old fashioned little villages nestling amid farmland. Many people moved in from the country to dwell in the city tenements and became adopted Glaswegians.

Tenements were all rented and the procedure for young married couples was to start where they could afford usually in a 'single end', a one apartment flat with an outside communal toilet. The wash house and boiler were shared on a rotational basis and washing was done with a scrubbing board. People then moved up the social ladder to the luxury of four or more rooms and kitchen with an inside toilet. The kitchen had an old fashioned range; 'interior fires' were still to come.

Domestic and street lighting was by gas and 'Leerie' the lamplighter came round at night. Hot peas were sold in the streets, roasted chestnuts in season and the rag and bone man came round with his cart offering balloons for the children. There was much horse transport still; coal lorries and carts with beer barrels trundled around and made the cobbled streets dirty and dusty.

Holidays for most people were confined to the 'Fair' when factories shut down for the second fortnight in July. For some, holidays were spent at home where people could enjoy strolling in the parks, playing with boats in the ponds and feeding the ducks, sitting in the bandstands listening to brass music and enjoying the fun provided by, dare we say it, the 'Nigger Minstrels'. The more affluent enjoyed a holiday down the Clyde travelling on one of the many steamers to one of the numerous holiday resorts where the attractions were legion. Few dreamt of going abroad.

Back in the city, Miss Cranston's tea rooms with their famous Rennie Mackintosh interiors flourished at all seasons of the year. Other famous eating venues were Craigs, Langs for the businessmen and the Oyster bar near Cooper's in Howard Street.

Despite all the dirt and poverty Glasgow was a lively vibrant industrial city making an apparent good recovery from the war.

Early Years of the Glasgow Club

On 18 October 1927, 25 Glasgow business and professional women met for lunch at the Rhul restaurant. Few had met any of the others, but they were drawn together to form a Soroptimist Club. The idea had started in the previous summer when a Miss Key (appropriate name) from California explained about Soroptimism to a group of Glasgow women. After lunch at the Rhul, Miss Carpenter, Founder President of the Liverpool Club addressed the meeting and explained the procedure for forming a Soroptimist Club. In November, the new club received its charter. The President was Miss Helen Catto, the secretary Miss Madge Anderson and the Treasurer, Miss AC Murdoch.

From the very first days of the Club's existence, the members were determined that they should take an active part in social work, in the establishment of peace and in assisting women who wished to train for careers.

In the early days, as the members got to know each other, there were social occasions - outings, picnics, and "At Homes". As one of the members was a delicate-looking lady called Miss Rottenburgh who was surprisingly a farmer and reputed to be the best shot in Britain, one wonders whether the Club had a trip to the farm as well. The Club certainly celebrated its first anniversary with a dinner held in the Ca'doro Restaurant in November 1928. The toast-list included Lady Mason, Mrs Tom Johnston (wife of the future Secretary of State) and Dr Frances Melville, Mistress of Queen Margaret College, part of the University where classes for women only continued to be held until 1935. (The College building was sold to the BBC and remains a prominent West End landmark).

Soroptimism had well and truly arrived in Glasgow and its future was secure. The Glasgow Club was to found daughter clubs as follows :





S.I. Belfast




S.I. Paisley


S.I. Motherwell/Wishaw


S.I. Glasgow South


S.I. Glasgow West