Isabel Cooper-Oakley (1854-1914)

Born: Harriett Isabella Cooper

Sector: Travel & Leisure

Isabel Cooper-Oakley was an entrepreneur, setting up and running three different businesses in London during the 1880s. Now she is defined by her involvement with Theosophy and her business ventures have been largely forgotten but at the time, they received a lot of attention: she was regularly featured in newspaper articles with particular interest triggered by the fact that she had studied at Cambridge and going into trade was not quite what was expected from a ‘Girton Girl’.

Isabel was born in India on 31st January 1854, the daughter of Mary and Frederick, a high-ranking member of the Indian Civil Service. A sister, Laura, followed eighteen months later. Frederick died when Isabel was 15 but he had been an advocate of girls’ education and Isabel went on to spend a year studying at Girton between 1882 and 1883.

Isabel Cooper-Oakley (1854-1914), writer, theosophist, restaurant owner and fashion retailer.
Isabel Cooper-Oakley, n.d.

After an accident in 1877, Isabel had been unable to walk for two years and during this time she read widely, including Isis Unveiled in which Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), who in 1875 had co-founded the Theosophical Society, laid out her Theosophical world view. In Cambridge in the early 1880s, Isabel found a small community was forming, which would go on to champion Theosophism in the UK. Its members included George RS Mead, who became Helena Blavatsky’s private secretary in 1889 and eventually Isabel’s brother-in-law, marrying Laura Cooper in 1899; and Archibald Keightley, who was the General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in England from 1888 to 1890.

Isabel also met her husband, Alfred, in Cambridge. Born in 1855, Alfred was the eldest child of John Jeffryes Oakley, a long-standing partner in Fortnum, Mason & Co, who had grown up at 183 Piccadilly, in family apartments over the shop. In 1880 he was accepted as a student at Pembroke College. Isabel drew Alfred into this movement. They married in January 1884 and both Alfred and Isabel adopted the surname Cooper-Oakley, Alfred changing his name by deed poll. Later that year they travelled to India, via Egypt, together with Madame Blavatksy and by January were in Madras. While Isabel returned to London in late 1885, Alfred stayed in India and there is no indication they ever lived together again. Alfred’s involvement with theosophism seems to have ended a few years later after a falling out with Madame Blavatsky but he remained in India until his death in 1899, becoming Registrar at Madras University.

Alfred and Isabel’s separation is probably what one newspaper was referring to when it revealed in October 1885 that Isabel was opening a millinery shop, ‘Madame Isabel’, on Wigmore Street: ‘Circumstances, into which it is unnecessary to enter, obliged this lady to adopt a calling’. Entering ‘trade’ was seen as an unusual choice for a ‘toney’ lady but it was one applauded by her peers who were keen to see her make a success of her enterprise and she became known as the Girton girl who “went into bonnets”. Later she moved her shop to 90, New Bond Street. In 1886, she joined with a Newnham mathematics tutor, Sarah Shaw (née Harland) and several other women to found the Association of Lady Dressmakers, which aimed to provide training for women wishing to enter the dressmaking profession, but there is no evidence that their plans materialised. However, Isabel’s business expanded to include a full range of dresses for all occasions.

In 1888, she and Laura got together with Eliza and James Hope to set up the ‘Dorothy’ , a ladies-only restaurant in Mortimer Street. With cream walls, crimson dados and decorated with Japanese umbrella and fans, it was open until 11am until 10pm, serving a la carte meals in the evening. But the customer Isabel was keenest to attract was the working woman who ‘when she enters an eating-house in the middle of the day she too often finds every table filled up with men, many of whom look at her as if she were an intruder.’ From 12-3pm, a very affordable set meal was on offer, with meat and two veg for the equivalent of £4.40 and pudding for another 50p. Isabel deserved ‘the thanks of the whole community of working women for her solution of the problem “Where can a wholesome well-served meal be had cheaply in London?”

The first Dorothy restaurant, which opened on Mortimer Street in 1888.
The first Dorothy restaurant: from Pall Mall Gazette 10/12/1888
© The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

The Dorothy was described as ‘one of the successes of the lady traders’ movement’ and was reported as paying out a return of 20%. Isabel considered expanding into the takeaway market to offer ‘hot dinners in a little box with a charcoal fire inside to keep it warm – an idea she got from the restaurants of Rome.’ It is unclear whether this service materialised but a second Dorothy restaurant soon followed at 448, Oxford Street, right opposite the William Morris shop. It also ran courses on Indian cookery, surely a result of the regular visits of Isabel and other members of the Theosophist community to India. Unsurprisingly, the restaurants quickly became favoured venues for groups of women to meet, whether members of the Somerville Club discussing issues relating to women’s rights or Cambridge alumnae celebrating their academic achievements.

In 1889, Isabel also took on the management of some ‘Exchange and Sales Rooms’ on Brook Street, turning an activity previously confined to newspaper columns into a real life activity, making it possible for women to inspect goods before purchasing them. Her business track record meant that ‘her name is of favourable augury’.

Her partner in this venture was Henrietta Müller. The two women had known each other since at least 1887: Isabel was a guest of Henrietta’s at a meeting of the Men’s and Women’s Club on 13th June 1887 and Henrietta’s paper, the Women’s Penny Paper, carried advertisements for Isabel’s restaurant. It was possibly through Isabel that Henrietta came to be interested in Theosophism in the early 1890s. Another guest at the Men’s and Women’s Club, Annie Besant, also became a fervent supporter of Theosophism.

Unsurprisingly, Isabel was also involved in the suffrage movement during the 1880s. In April 1884 she shared the stage with Florence Fenwick Miller at Bermondsey Town Hall to agitate for women householders to be included in the upcoming Franchise Bill and in 1889 she was on a platform with Emmeline Pankhurst.

But Theosophism was Isabel’s real and lasting passion and in the end, both her commercial and suffrage activities fell by the wayside as she pursued her interest here. In late 1890, Isabel moved into a community with other Theosophical Society members, including Annie Besant, at 19 Avenue Road, St John’s Wood.

Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), co-founder of the Theosophists
Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)
Image c. 1877

Annie Besant (1847-1933), feminist, activist and later Theosophist
Annie Besant (née Wood) by Herbert Rose Barraud, published by Eglington & Co
carbon print, published 1891
NPG Ax5543 © National Portrait Gallery, London

While the Dorothy restaurants changed their strategy, shifting their focus away from low-margin meals for shopgirls and instead targeting ‘ladies out shopping’, taking out a licence to serve alcohol, Isabel started to write and publish pamphlets and books on topic related to Theosophism. She moved to Italy in the early 1900s to set up a branch (known as a Lodge) there. In 1905, she moved to Hungary to set up that country’s first Lodge and it was there that she died on 3rd March 1914.


Thanks to Hannah Westall, archivist at Girton College, for her help with details of Isabel’s life. More information about Alfred’s life and family can be found here.


Sources include:

South London Chronicle 19/4/1884; Belfast Newsletter 28/10/1885; The Norfolk News 17/11/1888; Pall Mall Gazette 10/12/1888; Evening Telegraph and Star 14/12/1888; The York Herald 21/12/1888; Eastern Daily Press 18/5/1889; Irish Society Dublin 1/6/1889; Blackburn Standard 20/7/1889; Tablet 19/10/1889; Midland Counties Advertiser 5/12/1889; Queen 10/5/1890; Glasgow Herald 1/9/1890; Shoreditch Observer 27/9/1890; London Evening Standard 5/5/1892; Globe 13/9/1892

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