Soroptimists’ anniversary highlights 90 years of service

One of the borough’s longest established social organisations has been celebrating its 90th anniversary. CLARE WALKER outlines the varied activities of Croydon Soroptimists

When a group of women met for lunch in the tea lounge at Grant’s, the well-known Croydon family department store, in 1927, the lunch – with drinks – cost three shillings – 15p in new money.

They could have had no idea that 90 years later the club they established at that meeting would still be thriving, albeit under a different name.

When the Croydon Venture Club was set up, it was only the fifth of its kind in Great Britain. Just three years later, the Association of Venture Clubs amalgamated with Soroptimist International – founded in the United States in 1921 – and this makes  Soroptimist International Croydon and District, as it celebrates its 90th anniversary, one of the oldest clubs in a global organisation which boasts more than 75,000 club members in 133 countries and territories.

The inspiration for Soroptimist International was the success of women in positions held during and after World War I, and the realisation that they had an expanding and influential role to play in the progress of human society. In three separate areas of the world – the Americas, Great Britain and Europe – almost simultaneously, an idea was germinating for executive, business and professional women to associate together to render service.

Croydon Soroptimists on last weekend’s celebratory visit to the Bluebell Railway

The Croydon club’s celebrations culminated in events last weekend, a more lavish celebration than the club’s 21st birthday when members managed to bake a cake with fruit saved from American food parcels which were still being sent to help the British after World War II.

The weekend’s events included a “Hats and Gloves” themed trip on the Bluebell Railway and a Gala Dinner attended by Toni Letts, the Mayor of Croydon, and Soroptimist International Federation president Anne Hodgson.

Grace Onions, the Croydon club’s president, said that they had entertained more than 100 guests during the celebratory weekend. “There was a great atmosphere throughout the weekend and plaudits have been coming in from many attendees,” she said.

One of the founder members and its first chairman was Bessie Roberts, who in 1935 was the first woman to be elected an Alderman of Croydon Borough Council. Roberts was a Croydon councillor from 1919 until 1943. She served as the club’s president four times – 1927, 1928, 1934 and 1935 and, to this day, the link between the club and the borough has remained strong, with the Mayor – often accompanied by other councilors – attending the club’s annual functions.

Happy birthday: the Soroptimists have been around in Croydon since 1927

During its 90 years’ existence, the club has raised tens of thousands of pounds to support causes in and around Croydon as well as worldwide initiatives to help empower, educate and enable women.

And it isn’t just women who benefit from the club’s fund-raising activities.

During this historic year, Onions’ chosen project is Croydon Churches’ Floating Shelters, a charity which brings together churches in Croydon to provide a bed and hot meal for homeless people – male and female – in the borough.

Although raising funds for good causes – whether local, national or international – is an important aspect of club membership, it is the friendship of members that binds them together. “That’s top of my list,” says 94-year old Dorothy Buck, a retired teacher and librarian who still helps in the library at Elmwood Junior School. She joined the Croydon club more than 50 years ago and was its president in 1976 and 1983.

Friendship is also top of the list for 89-year old Dr Gillian Matthews, the 1996 club president, who, during her professional life, specialised in public heath medicine. “Through the club, I had contacts around the world,” she says. “For example, when I went to Australia, I contacted the clubs there and was able to meet fellow Soroptimists during my trip.

“I also value the fact that, through the club, I have made friends with women from other professions. Too often you associate only with your colleagues – in my case doctors – but I’ve made friends with club members who come from a wide range of jobs and careers,” she said.

Dr Matthews also stresses the importance of the club’s support for women and tackling issues of concern to women. Advocating for human rights and gender equality is at the heart of Soroptimist International’s work across six UN Centres, where the organisation’s UN representatives ensure that the voices of women and girls are heard.

Croydon Soroptimist president Grace Onions with Croydon Mayor, Toni Letts, at an anniversary event

Another long-time member of the Croydon club, retired banker Jean Turner, feels a strong sense of duty to support the club by making sure she attends as many events and meetings as possible, as well as hosting fund-raising activities such as a coffee morning this August in aid of this year’s club nominated charity. The club has already raised £475 for the Floating Shelters at its recent Quiz and Curry night.

The oldest member of the club is 104-year-old Connie Filce, who appeared in a recent story in the Mail on Sunday in which she confessed that she misses going out for a walk and regrets not having learned to play golf. Although widowed 37 years ago, she cites volunteering as an important part of her life. “Socialising definitely keeps you young,” she said.

The club has also maintained its support for young carers in Croydon with club member Hazel Foulger organising two summer fun days, with bouncy castles, crafts, face-painting and a very popular ice cream van. She also organises a bowling and a burger lunch each year, once again with Young Carers.

Onions believes that friendship and the club’s Friendship Links with other clubs abroad offer a real benefit to younger members who are keen to see as much of the world as possible while young. “As Soroptimists, they have a ready-made network of women around the world who will provide hospitality, show them around and introduce them to people who can help them. It’s a huge advantage for our younger members,” she said.

The club’s friendship links was one of the main reasons its newest and youngest member joined in June. Emma Patel, aged 21 from South Croydon, is following in the footsteps of her mother Sheila, who joined the club in 2015.

“I joined the Soroptimists because I saw the work that they do for the community and I wanted to be a part of that,” Patel said. “The women who make up the club are so supportive of one another and when you join you have made friends for life. I knew that I could learn so much from these women, their life experience and expertise have helped to inspire me in decisions about my own life and I hope that by being part of this club I will be able to contribute the same for them.”

  • The Soroptimists meet on the second and fourth Thursday of every month at the Shirley Park Golf Club, Addiscombe Road at 7pm. If you are interested in joining, please email

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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