In 1898, 25 American women met for tea at the London home of Carrie Louise Griffin, to discuss their interest in forming a group that “would lead to useful service, a center of our own, in the land of our sojourn.”
Most were what we call in the club “Long Term London Ladies”, married to business leaders, government officials, and often British citizens. Distinguished members included Lady Randolph Churchill (Jennie Jerome), mother of Winston; Lady Astor, the Duchess of Marlborough; Mrs. Selfridge; and Mrs. Herbert Hoover.
Meetings took place at members’ homes and a monthly luncheon was held at a hotel. Then, in 1916, the club’s president procured a £25,000 loan from Barclay’s Bank to purchase a full-fledge clubhouse in the form of a 30-bedroom mansion on Grosvenor Street with an Italian-style garden, a fountain from Florence, a ballroom with a built-in pipe organ, and a library, and staffed with housekeeping servants, and to pay off the loan, she sold debentures paying 5% to the members. The house became a gathering point for European and American artists, attracted many famous visitors and became a centre for the club’s community efforts.
The club provided help, advice and cooperation for other organizations, individuals, movements, charities, schools and churches. It was consulted on educational, social, philanthropic, economic, artistic and literary subjects.
Highly active in the social and cultural life of the city, by the early 1920’s the membership reached nearly 1,500 with a long waiting list. As Mrs. Brown stated, “We had become a body of women given almost entirely to active, constructive pursuits within the community in which we lived.”
The club’s first activity was to outfit a hospital ship, the HMS Maine, which brought home British soldiers who survived the Boar Wars and then later entered international waters in China during the Boxer Rebellion.
After the outbreak of World War I, AWC women served in the Red Cross, created an Infant Welfare Committee, and operated a knitting factory that employed 45 women and turned out socks, mittens and sweaters. They established a “Lost Nationality Committee” for those displaced by the war, set up a Convalescent Ward at the North Islington Maternity Center, and created a Relief Committee for American Women Resident in England.
In 1931 Club President Mrs. Curtis Brown helped form the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas – FAWCO – an NGO with the United Nations. She believed that expatriate American women could be effective in demonstrating tolerance, good will and generosity while living abroad. This club is still a proud and active member of FAWCO and contributes greatly to its efforts here and abroad, forming links with other American women worldwide.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, many Americans returned to the US. Most of the furniture, records and other effects from the house on Grosvenor Street were put into storage, and AWC women worked in the basement assembling relief items while the ballroom was used by the US Embassy to assist Americans. Eventually, the cost of running the house was too much and it was sold in 1945 for £45,000.
The club moved to a new location at Upper Brook Street in 1946 and then to a less expensive flat at Queens Gate, near Hyde Park, where they once hosted a party for Eleanor Roosevelt, and welcomed visitors such as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the Duchess of Kent and Princess Alexandra.
Membership started to rebuild and by 1951 there were 250 members.
I won’t go into the club’s long and rich history over the years since that time, nor the different places where the club has met…you can read about it in the booklet compiled by Marcia Balisciano, which is available at the office.
But I will tell you some of the other notable entities they supported throughout the years:
They organized a popular annual jumble sale, whose beneficiaries included the Kingsdown Home for Old Ladies in Barnet, and Beuchamp Lodge Settlement House in Paddington.
Funds were also raised for the purchase of a van for the Meals-on-Wheels program of the Women’s Voluntary Service.
The Golden Eagle Ball was introduced in 1963 as an annual event to raise money, and the proceeds from the first “Tombola” were donated to White Fleet, a ship that travelled to Southeast Asia to provide medical care and educational services to the poor. This event also provided support for the research wing of the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables, a CAT Scanner for the Royal Marsden Hospital, assistance to the Prince’s Trust – Youth Business Initiative, funding for both the Special Baby Care Unit at Westminster Hospital and the British Association of Cancer United Patients, and places for children at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Refuge, and Habitat for Humanity, not to mention Ronald McDonald House which we still support currently.
The AWC continues to contribute to local charities; gives support to new members who have just moved to London through our Area Friends; organizes trips to museums, historical sites and cultural centres; supports new and expecting mothers; raises awareness of topics of interest and importance such as health and history; and provides friendship, entertainment and hospitality through our different social activities.
The AWC has moved into the 21st century with a lively, interested and involved membership. We are still vibrant and alive and fully aware of the need to participate in community service.