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Soroptimists on tour: a Roman adventure

The beginning

The minutes of our clubs show that members regularly attended Northern Divisional Union meetings and conferences and national conferences. However, often little is recorded other than brief reports about resolutions and brief references to transport and we learn nothing about the experience of being at an event. There is one exception to this: the Soroptimist International Convention held in Rome in 1971.

On 17 November 1970 a circular was distributed in the Whitley Bay club meeting by Mrs Renee Brown regarding travel arrangements to Rome for the Convention and asking for information from people who hoped to attend. On 06 September 1971, those who had been to Rome reported on business meetings they had attended and confirmed the theme for work in the next four years would be “Progress by Action”. Some slides were also shown relating to the social side of the Convention. As is often the case, little is recorded in the minutes. However, we have been left a vivid picture of the trip to Rome by three Soroptimists who kept a detailed diary of events. This gives us a remarkable insight into an important event and the experiences of visitors to Rome in the early 1970s.


Saturday 03 July-Sunday 04 July

Six members of Whitley Bay club attended the Soroptimist International Convention from 03-10 July 1971, but three, Renee Brown (wife of travel agent Cuthbert Brown), “K” and Molly – probably Molly Wright –  kept a diary of the week,  each taking turns at writing up their experiences in a note book.

The first entry notes that Renee “took care of us” at Heathrow on the day of departure, Saturday 03 July 1971; as the wife of a travel agent, she may have been a more experienced traveller. The group’s hotel was on the Via Flavia, near to the central railway station and they spent the first evening in a trattoria, enjoying “spaghetti and acqua minerale followed by enormous peaches”.

On Sunday 04 July, the group registered for the Convention than took the bus to the Villa d’Este at Tivoli for the afternoon. They enjoyed another meal at a trattoria that evening, finishing with coffee with chocolate sprinkled on top – a cappuccino?


Monday 05 July

The group arrive at the Palazzo dei Congressi in the business district of the Esposizione Unviversale Roma for the opening ceremony. This was supposed to start at 10.00 but was delayed by 20 minutes. There was a fanfare of trumpets, specially composed for Soroptimism, to accompany the entry of 50 flags then official welcomes and greetings. Unfortunately, there were a lot of people wandering in and out at the sides of the hall, it was noisy and the seats were not very comfortable, so the morning “was less than inspiring”.

The group took the afternoon off and visited St John Lateran, the Colosseum and the Forum. That evening, they attended the civic reception at the Campidoglio, during which they were able to tour the building and enjoy refreshments on the terrace overlooking the city.


Tuesday 06 July

The main session of the Convention in the morning was “50 years of Soroptimism”. Violet Richardson Ward who became a Soroptimist in October 1921 was on the platform; as today’s writer noted. “she is more or less the founder of the movement”.

The second session was on Soroptimist organisation. The afternoon was taken up with sightseeing again: this time the group visited the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona where they had “expensive ices” and viewed the work of “so-called artists” who were displaying their paintings which were “pretty awful”. Visitor to Rome today might sympathise with this.

In the evening, the group went to the Palazzo Colonna for one of the “most exciting experiences” of the week.  They toured the gardens, led by “Count somebody” and then had dinner. There “were long tables laid with white cloths and groaning with food the like of which I have never seen before. There were cold meats, patés and moulds wonderfully decorated. There were many kinds of pasta, luscious open tarts of banana, peach and strawberry etc. Fresh strawberries in large bowls and piles of peaches and apricots made a colourful sight”. The Palazzo was judged to be more impressive than Versailles.


Wednesday 07 July

Despite not returning to the hotel till about midnight the previous evening, the group were up early ready for the opening session of the day’s proceedings. The morning speakers were from a range of countries and lunch was “hostessed by “us”, presumably the Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.  It was noted that the first bit of formality was introduced by having the top table party announced and by proposing a toast, implying that lunches on the previous days had been more informal.

The afternoon was taken up by a trip to Trastevere and then it was off to the church of Santa Maria all’Aracoeli for a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle. By the time the group left the church it was 11.30 and no bus or taxi could be found. By midnight, they started the long walk back to the hotel but managed to hail a taxi after a while.


Thursday 08 July

After so late a night, the group decided to give the morning session of the Convention a miss and after a later start, they did some more sightseeing. They went first to Santa Maria degli Angeli followed by coffee at a pavement café, during which a small child attempted to steal one of the group’s handbag.

They arrived at the Convention for lunch then attended the closing session and summary of recommendations and resolutions. This was followed by the installation of the new President, Ethel Lord, an American Soroptimist. She was “a very forceful speaker”. The Convention was closed with another specially written fanfare of trumpets from the Police band “which nearly took the roof off” and the retirement of the flags.

That evening, the group attended the Jubilee Banquet at the Castello Ursini-Odeschali Bracciano, about 30 km from Rome. Unfortunately, the bus carrying the Whitley Bay group broke down and they had to be picked up by the other buses. This did not dampen their spirits and they enjoyed a Japanese Tea Ceremony and then a meal which included pizza and roast sucking pig (although it was difficult to get something to eat from the cold buffet such was the crowd).


Friday 09 July

Friday was very hot so the group did a little shopping then rested in their rooms until 5.00 when they joined a sightseeing tour of the city which took in St Peter’s and the Olympic stadium. This was followed by another party in an unnamed villa with a beautiful view of the city. They enjoyed folk dancing and a buffet before returning to the hotel.


Saturday 10 July

Renee, K and Molly prepared to leave this morning but the other three Whitley Bay members were off to Sorrento for a week.  It was noted that when they boarded the plane, no one even looked at their passports. The flight was delayed by 30 minutes due to “the French who were on strike and were holding up aircraft flying over their territory”.

The delay meant that the party missed their 6.15 train home from King’s Cross. At the station, “Renee got put out by one of the porters so she marched to the Station Manager’s Office and we got preferential treatment for the next train which left at 7.55”.  They arrived home “safe and sound at 1.25 am”.