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Reference group
Pioneer Club (act. 1892–1939) was established in May 1892 as a place where women gathered ‘to meet each other, to help each other and to discuss the leading questions and principal progressive work of the day’ (Shafts, 3 Nov 1892, 14). Its name was a conscious reference to Walt Whitman, the relevant quotation being on a glass screen in the hall:
We the route for travel clearing
Pioneers, O Pioneers!
All the hands of comrades clasping
Pioneers, O Pioneers!
Other quotations from Whitman were displayed elsewhere on the premises, and in 1897 a Frederic Remington sculpture, Pioneer Woman.

The club's founder was the leading social worker and proponent of temperance Emily Massingberd. She drew up the rules, was referred to in club reports as ‘the President’, and heavily subsidized the club until her untimely death in 1897. The club was open to women of all classes who were united in the common cause of doing good works. It was strongly associated with ‘the higher thought’ and such associated issues of the ‘new morality’ of the late nineteenth century as women's suffrage, theosophy, anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination, and above all feminism. Activities (which were suspended during August and September) included talks and debates on topical issues. Its Thursday evening debates especially attracted many distinguished speakers, including Bernard Shaw, Millicent Fawcett, Mrs Pearsall Smith, Lady Henry Somerset, and Frances Willard. Lecture and discussion topics were extremely varied, and in the 1890s included codes of honour, the ethics of imprisonment, the financing of voluntary schools, Ibsen's Master Builder, clairvoyance, the position of women in the new Japan, the effect on the brain of street noises, the nature of sanity, the conflict between marriage and career, an apology for tramps, and a lecture by the headmaster of Harrow School. There were also dramatic readings, recitals, recitations, and concerts.

Members of the Pioneer Club had the reputation of being ‘of all the new women and shrieking sisters the newest and the loudest; man-hating, but mannish in their dress; and woman's-righters, without a single right notion in their heads’ (Friederichs, 302). This was of course a gross misrepresentation, but it had a slight basis in fact; it almost seemed that in order to be considered a ‘new woman’ it was necessary to be a Pioneer. This high-mindedness meant that it had more in common with some progressive women's clubs of the United States than with other British women's clubs, and it was the only British club to be affiliated to the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Despite the club's radical feminist reputation, men were welcomed as invited guests, and as speakers at the many debates and lectures. These activities were reported in various places, but most consistently in the progressive feminist periodical Shafts, whose editor, Margaret Shurmer Sibthorp, was a prominent member. Other notable members included Leonora Philipps, who was involved from the outset, Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Harriot Stanton Blatch (1856–1940), Jane Brownlow, Mona Caird, Sarah Grand [see McFall, Frances Elizabeth Bellenden], Olive Malvery, Elizabeth Meade, Dora Montefiore, Henrietta Müller, and Margaret Pilkington; the total membership in 1893 was 320, but by 1899 had risen to over 600. The first secretary was a Miss Paterson.

Membership initially was 2 guineas per annum, with an entrance fee of 1 guinea; by 1895 these rates had risen to 3 guineas with a 3 guinea entrance fee for town members, 2 guineas per annum membership and a 2 guinea entrance fee for country members. Each member wore a small axe, the club's badge, and was known by a number rather than by name, as a symbol of perfect equality. It was the only temperance club in London, though it did notoriously provide a smoking room. It was claimed that evening attire for members consisted of a black satin jacket and white collar and tie rather than more conventional dresses, but judging from contemporary photographs, this may have reflected more the habitual dress of a minority of the members (including the president); most Pioneers seem to have dressed fairly conventionally.

Emily Massingberd was particularly concerned with premises:
It was her dream to ensure that the woman who perhaps could only afford to rent a bedroom should yet have at her command something of the rest and comfort of spacious rooms, pictures, flowers, bright social intercourse and everything that pertains to a well-ordered life. (Jones, 411)
The club was first located at 180 Regent Street, London, over a perfumier's shop, where it had a drawing room and visitors' room (separated by doors that could be folded back to make one room for debates and discussions), a tea room doubling as dining room, a dressing room, and a reading room. Luncheon was served from 1 p.m. to 2.30 p.m., dinner could be served at short notice, and tea, coffee, and light refreshments could be served on demand. There was also an unspecified number of bedrooms for members' use, initially at 5s., 4s., or 3s. a night.

Mottoes were displayed prominently: ‘Silence is golden’ (in the reading room), ‘In great things unity, in small things liberty, in all things charity’, ‘They say—what say they?—let them say’, and most prominently, ‘Love thyself last’. An allegorical painting of a female figure entitled The Birth of a Planet by a Mr Maskell (a gift to the club from Emily Massingberd) hung above the mantelpiece. However, Pioneers tended to stress less the club's earnestness than its function as a refuge: a place where
refreshments can be ordered at any time; or a lady may while away an hour, or an afternoon, of waiting in town in interesting conversation, with a friend whom she may have appointed to meet; or in perusing some of the books, magazines or daily papers which are supplied without stint. (Shafts, 3 Nov 1892, 14)
The Pioneer Club soon outgrew the modest accommodation in Regent Street and moved, first to 22 Cork Street, then to 22 Bruton Street. In 1897 it was due to move again to new premises at 15 Grosvenor Crescent, Hyde Park Corner, but before the move took place Emily Massingberd died. This seems to have brought to a head internal dissatisfaction with the move, and a substantial proportion of the membership insisted on remaining at the original address and retaining the name of the Pioneer Club. Lady Elizabeth Cust (1830–1914), who shared Emily Massingberd's interests in social work, succeeded her as chairman and treasurer. Those who moved, under the leadership of Leonora Philipps, took the name of the Grosvenor Crescent Club. The Pioneer Club itself moved shortly afterwards to 5 Grafton Street, Piccadilly, then to 9 Park Place, and then to 12 Cavendish Place. In 1921 a company styled the Pioneer Club (London) Ltd, with a business address at 36 John Street, Bedford Row, was registered to run the club, which until then had been unincorporated. The club continued a modest existence throughout the inter-war years; activities in 1938 included Tuesday evening and Thursday lunchtime lectures, outings and lectures organized by the club's field and archaeological circle, and meetings of the bridge circle and drama circle. However, in November 1939 it was resolved that since the club could no longer meet its liabilities, it should be wound up, which marked its effective end (although for various reasons the company was not officially dissolved until 1961).

After the death of Emily Massingberd and the split with the Grosvenor Crescent Club, the Pioneer Club never quite regained its former prominence, and indeed was plagued by financial troubles, but throughout the 1890s and into the early years of the twentieth century it was a significant feature of progressive women's culture.

David Doughan

Sources  

D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006) · Shafts (1892–9) · H. Friedrichs, ‘A peep at the pioneer club’, Young Woman, 4 (1896), 302–6 · D. M. Jones, ‘The women's clubs of London’, Young Woman, 7 (1899), 409–13 · B. S. Knollys, ‘Ladies clubs in London’, Englishwoman (April 1895), 120–25 · Englishwoman's Year Book and Directory (1910), 225 · Englishwoman's Year Book and Directory (1912), 209

Archives  

TNA: PRO, incorporation, BT 58/68/cos/301 · TNA: PRO, winding up, BT 31/38526/302572