Following the launch of the first Soroptimist club in Oakland, California on 03 October 1921, the movement quickly spread to Europe. The first Soroptimist club in England, the Greater London club, was formed in 1924. This was followed by Manchester in 1926 and Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1927. Representatives from these five clubs formed the first British Council of Soroptimists and in 1929, after much discussion, Soroptimism amalgamated with the Venture clubs, another women’s service movement which had been founded in 1920. In 1934, the Federation of Great Britain and Ireland was established.
The first club to open in the north of England was Newcastle in 1937 and was part of what was then the North East Divisional Union of clubs. SI Tynemouth was the fourth club to be formed in the region.
Foundations: Tynemouth, Whitley Bay & District club is formed
On 28 October 1946, Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District held its first business meeting to elect officers. The new Soroptimists were supported and guided at the meeting by Mrs Evelyn Lambert, president of the Newcastle club, the new club’s sponsor, and Miss A.E. Curry, the Extension Officer. This first meeting was then addressed by Dr. Dorothea W. Sinton whose talk was entitled ‘Soliloquies of a Soroptimist’. Dr Sinton urged members to speak out on necessary reforms, our club’s first call to be active lobbyists.
The club’s charter, number 127, was presented at a dinner at the Grand Hotel on 14 January 1947. The dinner was attended by 87 people and Miss C.H. Andrews of Harrogate presented the charter to the founder president, Mrs Ella Thompson. Guests included the Mayor and Mayoress of Tynemouth, the chairman of Whitley Bay Urban District Council and his wife, the Presidents and Secretaries of Newcastle and Sunderland clubs and the President of Tynemouth Inner Wheel.
Launch of the first Charity Fund
The new club had 30 founder members who were quick to put into practice the objects of Soroptimism. The Charity Fund was launched two months after the club’s first meeting at a bring and buy sale held at the home of a member Mrs K. Freeth. The sale was opened by the Mayoress of Tynemouth and raised £50.
This first event also seems to have introduced a tradition which still forms part of many of our meetings and events today – good food! We don’t know exactly what was on offer, but members overcame the difficulties of providing catering during a time when food was still rationed by contributing some of their bread units. Perhaps this is the first known example in our club of the spirit of ingenuity, initiative and solidarity which characterizes the Soroptimists’ response to a challenge.
The founding President of SI Tynemouth was Mrs Ella Thompson. When the club celebrated its 21st birthday in 1967, Mrs Thompson cut the club’s cake. On 17th September 1971, a twenty fifth birthday dinner was held at the Grand Hotel; there was, of course, a cake and Mrs Thompson was called upon again to cut the first slice. Shortly after this, members joined Soroptimists from all over the country in London to mark the Golden Jubilee of Soroptimism on 30th October 1971. On the same day, members of Tynemouth club who had not made the trip to London attended evensong in Durham Cathedral with 150 members of the Northern Divisional Union. The Dean of Durham spoke about the high aims and responsibilities of the Soroptimist movement.
The club separates
The Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District club thrived to such an extent that in February 1953, Molly Wright proposed at a meeting of the Boundaries Committee that the club might split. Early suggestions were for a ‘Tynemouth and Wallsend’ club and a ‘Whitley Bay and Blyth club. By May 1953, twelve members were willing to transfer to a new Whitley Bay club and seven prospective members had been identified.
On 26 June 1953, a meeting was held at the Harlow Hotel in Whitley Bay, ‘for the purpose of forming the Soroptimist Club of Whitley Bay’. We have the minutes of this first meeting in the club archives. The meeting was chaired by the Northern Divisional Union Extension Officer, Miss L. Smith. The Tynemouth club president, Miss E. Townsley and the Tynemouth secretary, Miss N. Hall, were named as sponsors. A petition was signed by 19 people who wished to become members of the new club. The chairman and sponsors then withdrew from the meeting while officers and an executive committee were elected; Molly Wright became the founding President. It was agreed to hold club meetings on the first Tuesday and third Monday of each month, except August (still a club tradition). Meetings would take place at the Harlow Hotel, with the date of the first meeting set for Tuesday 7th July.
At a meeting of the Executive Committee on 03 July 1953 Molly Wright announced that she would present the petition in person to the Federation President, Dr. Griffiths.
The petition was duly presented on 4th July 1953 and the the new Whitley Bay club held its charter dinner on 30th September at the Rex Hotel, attended by Dr Griffiths. In the club meeting on 06 October 1953, President Molly asked that her thanks ‘to all members of the club for their help and support on the occasion of the Charter Dinner should be recorded in the minutes’.
More about Molly Wright
Molly Wright came to Whitley Bay in 1939 to undertake the task of setting up a public library (above the United Bus Station), the kind of job more usually carried out by a man. As Whitley Bay’s first senior librarian, she led the transfer of the library from its original premises to a specially designed building in Whitley Bay Park, before retiring in 1970.
As well as being founder president of SI Whitley Bay, Molly was also Regional President and Northern representative and chair of the Benevolent Fund. In 1953, she was elected as a Labour councillor for Hadrian Ward and was Mayoress of Wallsend in 1958. In 1994, Molly won the first Women in the Community Award organized by Tynemouth and Whitley Bay Soroptimists and and in the same year, her life story was accepted by the British Library as part of the British Library National Life Story Awards. Molly Wright died in 1995.
Two become one again
On 11 June 2003, a newspaper article with the headline ‘Women Unite’ explained to readers that SI Tynemouth and SI Whitley Bay ‘side by side and in friendship and friendly rivalry have taken part in local, regional, national and international projects’ but ‘in changing times’ had now reunited as one club, ‘pooling their resources in order to continue and improve their good work’.
Why did the union of clubs take place?
The insights into the merger provided by members at the time suggest that it took place when the numbers of people in a club was a concern. Clubs whose membership fell below 15 were informed that they were at risk of being closed. This led to some controversy, as it was argued that a club with a smaller number of very active members was as viable as a club with a larger membership on paper, not all of whom were very active. SI Tynemouth had certainly been taking an active stance in regard to membership, canvassing in the local press.
An executive committee minute book for SI Tynemouth gives us an insight into events. In a meeting on 01 October 2001, a member of the executive committee suggested discussion with Whitley Bay should be started shortly. Was this the first indication that a merger of the clubs might be under consideration? The possibility of a merger was specifically mentioned at a meeting on 04 February 2002 and all those present agreed that it was worthwhile thinking of joining with Whitley Bay. On 4th March 2002, the future of the club was discussed again. The executive committee felt that a useful way forward might be to have shared speakers, presumably with Whitley Bay, to ensure a larger audience. It was also noted that ‘we should invite at least 2 of their [Whitley Bay] executive to come to our executive meetings and vice versa’.
The Joint Working Party
By the summer of 2002, a Joint Working Party had been established by SI Tynemouth and SI Whitley Bay to discuss issues relating to a merger. The minutes of the group’s second meeting held on 10 July 2002 are in the club’s archives. These record that SI Tynemouth had held an Extraordinary General Meeting on 08 July 2002 in which the decision was made to proceed with the merging on the clubs. The meeting was informed that members of SI Whitley Bay were unanimously in favour of a merger. The meeting went on to discuss issues relating to club finances and potential meeting places for the united club and listed the regalia.
It was also agreed that the merger should take place before the summer of 2003. By 02 September 2002, a letter ‘re merger’ had been agreed and the evidence from the archives suggests it was sent to the Federation Extension Chairman, Sue Sharkey. She replied to the presidents of the two clubs on 10 October 2002. In the letter, Sue Sharkey thanks the president for the letter and says that ‘as you know, this was not unexpected to me’. The request for a merger was to be discussed by the Federation Extension Committee. Its recommendations would then put to the Federation Executive Council at its next meeting later in the month. Sue Sharkey had high praise for the clubs, noting:
‘I must congratulate both clubs on the way the members have conducted the process so far, it must not have been an easy decision, but I am sure it is the best way forward’.
An undated letter from Sue Sharkey, probably from late October or early November 2002, records that the Extension Committee had recommended the merger of the two clubs to the Federation Executive Council. The Council accepted the recommendation and noted that the certificate of amalgamation would be sent in time for the club’s first meeting.
The title of the club turned out to be one of the challenges of the merger. In 1947, the name of the ‘original’ club was Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District. This was the preferred name for the merged club as it reflected the origins of Soroptimism in the communities. Apparently the ‘and District’ element was problematic for SIGBI. However, members held out for this name and were successful in achieving their goal. This may have been the ‘good news’ that was reported SI Tynemouth’s executive committee meeting on 04 November 2002.
A fourth meeting of the Joint Working Party was held on 25 November 2002. Possible nominations for the merged club’s officers were discussed, drawn from both Tynemouth and Whitley Bay. It was agreed that the inaugural meeting of the Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District club would take place on 12 May 2003. It would initially be co-chaired by the Presidents of Tynemouth and Whitley Bay and following her election, the new President for 2004-2004 would assume the chair. SI Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District would be the first club to receive an Amalgamation Certificate so it was agreed that Sue Sharkey, the Chair of the Federation Extension and Membership Committee should be invited to the club meeting.
The clubs reunited
The inaugural meeting did indeed take place on 12 May 2003, at 7.30 at the Grand Hotel, Tynemouth. The agenda was mainly taken up with the election of club officers. A club document records that ‘three dozen’ Soroptimists attended to formally rejoin. Forty six members were listed in the club directory, eight of whom are still members in 2021.
The newly merged club took ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ as its theme for 2003-2004 and the main charity would be maternal and neo-natal tetanus. Members were asked to collect sugar, used stamps, unwanted spectacles and spent ink cartridges. The club also decided to support the People’s Kitchen, Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, DEWODE (a charity supporting women in Uganda and the Regional Project) and a children’s charity.
Officers of the newly inaugurated SI Tynemouth, Whitley Bay and District
President: Sam Taylor
President Elect: Margaret Beech
Vice President: Dee Davison
Hon. Secretary: Jan Robinson
Hon. Treasurer: Denise Elliott
Programmer Action officer: Margaret Alderson
Regional Representatives: Barbara Aryan and Sheila Best