The History of London Clubs
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th February, 2012
For many people today, the idea of belonging to a Club (previously known as a Gentleman’s Club) is a mirth-inducing anachronism, but as someone who belongs to two — one political, one thespian — I know that they can play an important role in one’s social life, as well as being oases of calm in the maelstrom of London. It’s true that I myself took a while to seize the point of Clubs; when Philip Ziegler invited me to join the Chelsea Arts Club when I was the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Chelsea, 30 years ago, the idea seemed preposterous. I maintained my membership of the local gym instead. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Yet there are some Clubs, such as the Savile, that have been rejuvenated in recent years by a sudden influx of younger members. Certainly, a century ago, any young man in London with an eye to political or professional advancement would have sought to be admitted into membership of one of them. And as about 80 of us were informed at an entertaining and informative talk on The History of London Clubs, given at the National Liberal Club this evening, by PhD student Seth Thévoz, in their heyday, there were over 400 Clubs in London, including several dozen for women. MPs in the late 19th century might be a member of as many as three. This was partly to escape their wives in many cases, but also because it was in Clubs like the NLC, the Reform, the Carlton and the Constitutional that alliances were made and policy discussed, more so than is the case today. St James’s was the heartland of traditional Clubland, though these days some of the action has moved further east, to venues such as Soho House, Groucho’s and even Shoreditch House. Seth’s doctoral thesis covers a period in the middle of the 19th century, whereas my own related researches for books has tended to be covering a period 50 years later. But for those who would like to get to know more about the subject while on a walking tour, Seth has joined up with colleagues to form Lost London Tours. Predictably, he leads the one on historic London Clubs — so if you see him loitering on the pavement outside White’s, you’ll understand why.