28 Jun 2022

A history of private members' clubs

Image: the lobby of the Cavalry & Guards Club in Piccadilly

Seventeenth-century London coffee houses were the ancestors of the private members’ clubs that evolved in the 18th century, reaching their peak in the Victorian period when there were over 400 in London (today there are less than 40).

Coffee houses were male retreats, where gentlemen could meet up, eat, drink, socialise, read newspapers and debate contemporary issues, and many of these essential traits persisted. Private members’ club were initially for men only; they provided a space outside the domestic, female-dominated sphere, where gentlemen could consolidate friendships, make professional contacts, or simply seek sanctuary away from everyday concerns and problems. A typical gentleman’s club provided a formal dining room, a bar, a library, a billiards room, and a suite of parlours for gambling or socialising. They were frequently located in grandiose, lavish buildings, providing luxurious and comfortable surroundings, which created a sense of the club being a “home from home”.

London’s clubs were concentrated in the affluent district around the St James area, in what became known as ‘Clubland’. While clubs were originally aristocratic, by the early 19th century they were bastions of the contemporary class system, wielding extremely strict controls over the background and calibre of potential members. Clubs tended to reflect common interests – political, professional or cultural – reinforced in the choice of members, which ensured that they would provide a coming-together of like-minded people.

Clubs were seen as social retreats, where it was bad form to talk about business. However, by fostering friendships and cementing social networks, they did in fact play an important role in building strategic business networks and enabling their members to advance professionally. Clubs were excellent proving grounds for young gentlemen, who were able to build up their own network of respectable contacts, whilst polishing their social skills and gentlemanly attributes. By demanding scrupulous acquiescence with a strict set of rules and rituals, these institutions promoted moderation and social cohesion – social transgressions could potentially be sanctioned by a humiliating exclusion.

The oldest clubs, such as White’s, Brook’s and Boodle’s, all provided an environment for gambling, which was illegal outside of members-only establishments. White’s was for Tories, Brook’s was for the Whigs, and Boodle’s was for the country set. Founded slightly later, the Carlton Club was for Conservatives and the Reform Club was for Liberals. The Travellers Club was for globe-trotting gentlemen, while the Athenaeum focused on men of science, literature and art. Housed in beautiful Palladian mansions with grandiose entrances, these clubs were at the heart of a part of London that catered for gentlemen – from the barbers of Jermyn Street to the tailors of Savile Row.

Given the benefits that accrued from club membership, it is scarcely surprising that the rituals of joining these establishments were very exacting. When a club accepted a member, it was known as an ‘election’.  The membership voted for the election of new candidates, who were proposed and seconded by existing club members. Typically, voters chose from a large supply of black and white balls, and secretly cast a single ball into a ballot box (voting was strictly anonymous). When the voting was complete, the box was opened and the balls were counted. Black balls indicated a rejection of the proposed member; the number of black balls needed for disqualification varied from club to club – in some very exclusive establishments, a single black ball would be enough to deny membership – hence the phrase “to be blackballed”.

Clubs operated a gentleman’s code for taking payment. Members signed a chit for drinks and meals consumed, and in some cases did not even have to do this, as staff kept records. Regular accounts were sent to members at the end of the month, and the expectation was that they would be paid promptly, or incur a ten per cent surcharge. In some clubs if an account that was outstanding after ninety days the non-payer’s name went up on a board – a severe humiliation. In general, these establishments were run on an honour system, and if there was any shortcomings in a members’ behaviour, the club authorities would hold his proposer and seconder to account.

This exclusively gentlemanly world was inevitably challenged. Women’s clubs, intended to rival their male counterparts, began to be founded in the three decades before World War I. Some of these clubs aped the grandiosity and pomp of their male predecessors, others’ raison d’etre was to advance women socially and educationally.  Ladies’ clubs were grouped to the north of Piccadilly, close to the shopping areas of Bond Street, Regent Street and Oxford Street. Famous ladies’ clubs included the Alexandra (1884), Pioneer (1892), Bath Club (1894), and the Empress (1897). These clubs provided strong-minded, independent women with comfortable facilities, well-appointed accommodation for visitors from out of town, and in some cases, programmes of improving lectures, as well as smoking rooms for the more raffish members.

Inevitably, as traditional gentlemen’s clubs have been forced to evolve and adapt in the changing social climate of the post-war years, one major concession for many has been the decision to admit women as guests and members. There are, however, some very notable, and traditionalist, exceptions, which retain their men-only status (although some allow female visitors), including: Brook’s, Boodle’s, the Garrick Club, Pratt’s, the Travellers Club and White’s. The University Women’s Club, founded in 1921, has no male members (in 2018 another all-female club, the AllBright, was added to the list).

The Evolution of Private Members’ Clubs

While some bastions of tradition continue to exist, many clubs found themselves marooned in a fading historical anomaly. From the mid-1990s many members’ clubs have moved with the times, offering a much more nuanced and all-embracing experience of the luxury retreat. Many clubs that have been founded since the turn of the 21st century are now the preserve of millionaires and newly-affluent millennials, who seek an exclusive, and unique, experience.

While many contemporary clubs still nod towards the wood-panelled, book-lined, thickly-carpeted opulence of the Victorian era, the actual experiences on offer are infinitely more varied and attuned to 21st-century zeitgeist. Clubs now provide gyms, pools, saunas, hammams and fitness and wellbeing centres that offer everything from boxing to hot yoga. Gastronomic meals, cooked by top chefs, are a must.

No longer homes from homes where work is a secondary priority, many clubs today are used as places where members can work and engage in professional networking. As the divide between pleasure time and the world of work becomes more ill-defined, clubs provide excellent dedicated workspaces for laptop-wielding digital nomads, who are able to benefit from all the social contact that clubs provide.

Many also offer contemporary guest rooms for overnight stays, as well as laying on full programmes of exhibitions, lectures and concerts. Dress codes are notably relaxed (smart jeans and trainers are often tolerated), creating a less conventional ambience.

Traditional Dress Codes

The more traditional clubs still adhere to relatively strict dress codes, which are perhaps more rigorously enforced than in most present-day communal spaces.

In general a ‘formal’ dress code is recommended for everyday attendance (a suit or tailored jacket and trousers, a collared shirt and tie, or the female equivalent – think smart business attire).

Some clubs relax this code to ‘smart casual’ for Friday evenings and weekends, which effectively means that ties can be discarded and, in some cases, smart pullovers may be worn instead of jackets.

In most clubs, certain items of casual clothing are not considered acceptable. These include: jeans, shorts, t-shirts, tracksuits, trainers, flip-flops, or clothing with brash logos.

Traditional Club Etiquette

While every club has its own particular traditions and practices, there are a certain number of etiquette rules that would typically be found in most establishments in the 19th century, and many persist to this day:

• Aspiring members should write, in the first instance, to the club secretary. It is generally necessary to be introduced and seconded by two existing members.

• If accepted, new club members should pay for their annual subscription by return.

• New members should familiarise themselves with the club rules and should comply with them. They should be very aware of existing hierarchies and privileges – for example they should not hog the latest newspapers or occupy the best chair. They should defer to older members at all times.

• New members should be cautious about butting into conversations between existing members. They should wait until a friendly remark is addressed to them before joining a conversational group.

• Club members are always amiable and courteous, reticent about inflicting their own views on others, and resist gossip about fellow-members at all times.

• Always leave club dressing rooms exactly as you found them as a courtesy to other members.

• If you are playing cards or billiards, you must immediately settle all gambling debts.

• Resist approaches for loans or credit from other members, who may well be persistent and adept at judging likely targets.

• While you must be diligent about upholding the standards of the club and your own behaviour, never be censorious of other members.

• Do not tip club servants. If you want to offer them some reward, there is usually a ‘Holiday Box’, where you can leave a contribution from time to time, which will be divided up between all the servants.


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