Phil Ellaway takes a closer look inside some of the more notable London Clubs.

The ‘London Club’ stereotype in fiction and historical drama is a male only institution with dark interiors, deep leather armchairs, and ancient members, almost as crusted as their after-dinner port.  In this quiet and secretive environment, the people who really run the country meet away from the eyes and ears of the general public.

This image has been both fueled and lampooned in fiction.   Clubs were an important part of the 19th Century landscape of power and featured in the works of authors such as Thackeray and Trollope.   Jules Verne, a Frenchman who’d probably never been inside a club, set the Reform Club (front cover) as the start and end point for the wager in his 1873 novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” because it positioned his adventurer Phileas Fogg as quintessentially English.   And in 1893 Conan Doyle made Sherlock Holmes’ elder brother Mycroft (a sort of human computer for the British Government) a member of the fictional Diogenes Club in which talking is absolutely forbidden except with visitors in the Strangers’  Room.  Conan Doyle was a member of several clubs, including the Athenaeum – the elegant but austere institution for those in the sciences, literature and the arts, which perhaps inspired his creation.

There’s more than a germ of truth behind the image of power being exercised behind closed doors.  The political clubs formed following the Great Reform Act of 1832, in particular the Carlton (Tory) and Reform (Liberal) clubs, did provide working space for MPs and peers whilst the new Palace of Westminster was being built after a fire in 1834.   Their new home itself then took on many of the characteristics of a club.

But the first clubs were far from stuffy.   The trio of White’s (1693), Brooks’s (1764) and Boodles (1762) clustered at the top end of St. James’s Street were in part descendants of the 17th and 18th century chocolate and coffee houses where these new stimulants fueled gossip and politics.  In the aristocratic environment around St. James’s Palace, these clubs with the feel of grand but comfortable country houses in town also provided safe private spaces for gambling and louche behavior, much featured in prints of the time.

By the 19th Century a growing middle and upper middle class also wanted club benefits: like-minded company, and service of the type they might expect at home ‘out of town’, but without the cost of maintaining a London home and staff.   The ‘old’ clubs couldn’t and wouldn’t accommodate them.   But luckily the Prince Regent’s extravagance in kitting out Carlton House, then demolishing it and starting again to make Buckingham House a palace fit for a King meant plenty of free land along Pall Mall, and the need to develop it to recoup some of his debts.  His architect John Nash’s grand processional route from the newly developed Regent’s Park to Carlton House now just leads to a set of steps and the Duke of York’s Column where the house once stood.   But the former gardens gave space for the rapid development of new clubhouses, most of which still survive today, and the L shape that runs West to St. James’s Palace then North up St. James’s Street is still known as ‘Clubland’.

Clubs also spread to the City of London, but the City’s working hours and the evolution of many of the Livery Companies from guilds to quasi-clubs meant there was less of a gap to be filled.  Today a few survive, such as the City University Club (1895), originally for Oxford and Cambridge graduates, the City of London Club (1832) for partners and directors of their firms, and the City Livery Club (1914) for members of the Livery Companies.  All now have broader memberships and function predominantly as lunch or event venues, though the revival of city centre living and the Tate Modern and Shoreditch effects, have also brought a new breed of club to our neighbourhood.  Shoreditch House, part of the Soho House chain, opened in 2007 in a refurbished tea warehouse, and Ned’s Club opened in 2017 as part of The Ned – a five star hotel in the former Midland Bank HQ.

aerial view from Fry’s guide to London 1895: author’s copy

Peaks and troughs

At its peak just before the first world war there were hundreds of clubs in London.  Estimates range from 300–400, with over a hundred thousand members.  Some clubs were purely social, others had their origins in politics, the armed forces, gambling and sporting life.  Many were all male, but some were mixed, and others for women only, with a broad demographic.   The club model had also spread across the globe wherever Brits had taken root, with reciprocal arrangements for traveling members that still exist today.  And in America, new wealth led to well-funded clubhouses as grand as and often better equipped than their English models.

If ‘peak club’ just preceded WWI, the trough followed in the mid-1970s when you’d have been forgiven for thinking that most wouldn’t make it into the second half of the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.  The decline had started after the first war had its horrific impact on a generation, reducing the pool of potential members and leading to a vicious circle of rising membership fees, an aging demographic, and increasingly inflexible dress codes and stuffiness.   Significant social change and the growth of more open alternatives also contributed to multiple closures and mergers.

Size was no guarantee of success.  In 1976 the United Services Club – the largest of the old military clubs, known as ‘the Senior’ – closed and gave up its substantial building at the foot of Waterloo Place to the Institute of Directors – a networking and lobbying organization for business people.  And even the mighty Royal Automobile Club in its ‘Parliament of Motoring’ with room for over 10,000 members had fallen on difficult times.

But 50 or so of the traditional clubs did survive, and the 1980s and ‘90s saw them joined by new clubs, many of them aimed at creative and media types and marketed as antidotes to stuffiness.   The Groucho Club opened in 1985, named for Groucho Marx’s quip that he wouldn’t join any club prepared to have him as a member, followed in 1992 by Blacks Club (the antidote to White’s), and then by Soho House, which has grown from one ‘house’ in 1995 to a chain with 18 clubhouses round the world today.

Continuing appeal

So why have private members’ clubs survived in London ?   Four very different clubs formed over more than a century and a half may help give a sense of the continuing appeal of ‘belonging’ and of having somewhere rather special in which to spend time with friends and guests – the Reform Club, the Royal Automobile Club, the House of St. Barnabas in Soho, and on our doorstep in the City, Ned’s Club.

The Reform Club

Named for the great Reform Act of 1832 which did away with the ‘rotten boroughs’ (some 140 constituencies controlled by very small numbers of electors) the Reform Club was built as a focus for the radical Whigs who eventually became the Liberal Party.

The Tories, in opposition at the time, built their ‘Carlton Club’ in Pall Mall in 1835 to organize voter registration and coordinate their political activity in a club central to what became the Conservative Party.  So the radical Whigs retaliated with the Reform and commissioned Charles Barry to build them a clubhouse right next door.

Barry, now perhaps best known as architect and collaborator with Pugin on the new Palace of Westminster, had already built the Travellers Club.  The Reform followed the same ground plan with its principal rooms arranged around a courtyard.   The courtyard was originally intended to be open air but, wisely given the climate and pollution, the decision was made to cover it over with a crystal glass atrium.

Despite the supposed radicalism of its members, the new clubhouse was built to impress on a far grander scale and a bigger budget than its neighbours.  It shows both in scale and quality of materials.   Outside you see a well proportioned Italianate ‘palazzo’ in plain Portland stone.  Inside you experience a rich multicolored blend of wood, tile, marble and scagliola – imitation stone in a seriously failed attempt at budgetary control.   (Barry broke the budget, coming in at double the original estimates, around £80,000 in 1841 money, and had to threaten to sue the club to get his fee.)

Reform Club ATRIUM  The Reform’s atrium has over 700 individually cut and shaped lozenges of glass crystal, and originally provided light and heat from a ‘Sun Burner’ suspended from its centre.  © Reform Club

The Reform is one of the finest Victorian buildings in the country, but it somehow manages to feel all at once imposing, cosy, comfortable and welcoming – an impression reinforced by the staff’s apparently effortless ability to remember the names of over 2500 members.

As a working club for MPs and peers, the club included its Lower and Upper Parliamentary libraries, organised and filed on the same system used in Westminster – with red benches downstairs for the peers and green benches upstairs for the commons.  But the library soon became a monster and the enormous drawing room that runs the full width of the building had to be refitted with bookcases by Barry’s son.   Down below, Alexis Soyer, the Club’s star French chef of the day, had kitchens purpose built which themselves became a visitor attraction and established a reputation for good food that continues today.

Great Reformers of the 19th Century included Richard Cobden, the calico manufacturer and free trade campaigner, Henry Brougham, educational reformer, free trader and anti-slavery campaigner, and Lord Palmerston, who became first Prime Minister of the newly formed Liberal Party in 1859, dominating British foreign policy (when we had one).   The membership broadened to include people from all walks of life – authors, journalists, civil servants, business people and trade unionists.  Just the literary membership roster includes Thackeray, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Siegfried Sassoon, and E.M. Forster to name a few.

Today the club is predominantly social, but its tradition of discussion and debate continues in the societies that form its beating heart.  Extensive programmes of social events and talks are run by the Reform’s Economics and Current Affairs, Media, Literary, Science and Technology Groups, and the Jazz Group attracts world class talent to perform in the spectacular surroundings of the club’s library.

Given its interiors, the club has also regularly appeared on screen – supporting characters from Paddington bear to 007.    In the Bond film “Quantum of Solace” it doubled as “Blades” – a fencing club, and Madonna watched as Piers Brosnan battled the villain Graves off a fencing salle set in Pinewood designed to look like the Reform, into the club’s main gallery and down the stairs.

The Royal Automobile Club (RAC)

The last and largest of the clubs in Pall Mall was founded in 1897 to advance the cause of motoring.   The Automobile Club of Great Britain was born during a ferment of innovation in automobile design, and rising interest in their ownership first as playthings then as a practical means of transport.

The founder was the engineer, motor industry pioneer and serial inventor Frederick Simms (1863–1944).   Simms was responsible for the magneto in early car ignition systems, the rubber bumper, and innovations in pneumatic tyres.  He put petrol engines into boats, designed the first armored car ever built, and continued designing cars, lorries, motor ploughs, and caterpillar tractors throughout his life.   Simms’ innovations weren’t confined to motoring.  In aeronautics he had patents for joysticks and gyroscopes, but according to the RAC’s club history by Piers Brendon he also came up with designs for railway ticket machines, cable cars, and even invented a ‘jelly’ cocktail, which his family rated ‘disgusting’.

When the club was founded, British Motoring was lagging considerably behind developments on the continent, and the club did much to raise interest and confidence that automobiles might become more than just breakdown-prone toys.

On 14 November 1896, Simms and Daimler took part in The Motor Car Club’s Emancipation Day procession from London to Brighton, celebrating the lifting of the speed limit under the Locomotive Act which had required vehicles to travel no faster than 4 mph.    This Emancipation Day drive is still commemorated by the London to Brighton run, which is organised by the club every November along with the Regent Street Motor Show the day before.

In 1907 motoring enthusiast Edward VII granted the club’s ‘Royal’ title, and by 1909 its growing membership required a purpose built base.  Work started on a large site in Pall Mall occupied by 13 buildings that had been home to the War Office.   The club’s constitution had largely been copied from that of the Automobile Club de France, and with the entente cordiale in full swing, it commissioned the Anglo-French partnership of Mewès and Davis to build the new clubhouse.   Mewès and Davis had already built Cesar Ritz’s new hotel by Green Park, French in style, but one of the first steel framed buildings in London.

The RAC’s long façade (228 feet) carved by French stonemasons also paid homage to the French auto club, echoing the 17th century façade of its home at the Hotel de Crillon by Place de la Concorde in Paris.   In London, nearly 2000 tons of structural steel and a budget of £240,000 in 1909 money allowed for the creation of enormous and imposing rooms, elegantly clothed in stone and plaster in British (Georgian) and French (Louis XIVth) styles, complete with all mod cons: gas-lit fireplaces, air conditioning, and lifts.

Hidden in the basement were a fencing salle, rifle range, a gigantic columned swimming pool like a cross between a Cecile B. Demille epic, and an Alma Tadema classical painting brought to life, plus a marble lined Turkish Bath.   (When the clubhouse opened in 1911 at the height of enthusiasm for this purifying process there were over 600 Turkish Baths in the UK;  today the RAC’s is one of just 12 left.)

RAC POOL Lined with Sicilian marble, the pool is surrounded by ‘Persian’ columns with a fish scale design in mosaic tiles © image Royal Automobile Club

Not everyone in Pall Mall was impressed by the arrival of the wealthy automobilists and their noisy machines, but pool envy set in at the auto club in Paris, and the French club commissioned Gustave Eiffel to shoehorn one into their premises, with his characteristic ironwork looking like spare parts from his Tower.

The RAC’s history is full of the names of motoring greats – from the Rolls in Rolls-Royce to the Bentley Brothers.  Today the club is purely social, having sold its roadside rescue division in 1999, but it continues to be involved in the promotion of motor sports and of motoring events for members and guests.  It awards trophies such as the Segrave to celebrate outstanding skill and courage, whether on land, sea or in the air.  Past Segrave winners include Jackie Stewart, Lewis Hamilton, and the motorcycle rider John McGuinness, also known as the Morecombe Missile.

Many members are motor enthusiasts, competing in events and displaying their vehicles.   Others join to use the sporting facilities both in Pall Mall and at the second clubhouse in Epsom, set in 350 acres of grounds and golf course.   All benefit from two well maintained clubhouses, accommodation, and food and drink to rival that of the best West End hotels, but at sensible club prices.

GUMDROP vintage car on display in PALL MALL  Members proudly display their cars in the rotunda at the centre of the clubhouse.  Gumdrop – a 1928 Austin Clifton 12/4 has also appeared in over 30 children’s stories – image © Phil Ellaway.

With around 17,000 members, a renewal rate of 96% and a six-month waiting list the club is in rude good health and space for new members is really down to the rate at which we all head for the great Autoroute du Soleil in the sky.

The House of St. Barnabas in Soho (HoSB)

Though it occupies the oldest building of those described here, The House of St. Barnabas in Soho is one of the most recent to open a club.   Hidden behind a modest Georgian façade at the S.E. Corner of Soho Square, HoSB is a charity and private members’ club dedicated to helping those who have experienced homelessness.   Look up to first story level and you’ll see in the tilework:  House of Charity.  Other clues include the coin shute set into the street railings for donations, and further South in Manette Street a small but substantial Victorian gothic chapel.  But these don’t prepare you for what lies beyond the obelisks under the main entrance porch at No. 1 Greek Street.

Now Listed Grade I, the House has some of the finest interiors in London, most likely thanks to a previous owner – Robert Beckford.  The Beckfords were extremely wealthy, with extensive plantations in Jamaica.  (Robert’s elder brother William was twice Lord Mayor of London, and is commemorated by a large statue in Guildhall.)  William’s son, also a William, author of the gothic novel Vathek, subsequently spent much of his immense inheritance building a gothic fantasy in stone – ‘Fonthill Abbey’ in Wiltshire.  The abbey eventually fell in under the weight of its poorly built spire, but luckily Robert’s work in Greek Street has survived – elaborate rococo plasterwork on walls and ceilings, and beautifully carved door surrounds.

Today known as The House of St. Barnabas, the House of Charity was founded in 1846 by Dr Henry Munro to provide temporary relief for the destitute.  The charity acquired 1 Greek Street in 1862 and commissioned its gem of a chapel on the side of one of the few private gardens in central London.  Until 2005 it still used its building as a hostel, but the combination of changing regulations and its listed building status meant that Trustees had to consider alternative uses.  Instead of selling up and relocating, they pioneered a new model – a not for profit members’ club designed to fund an Employment Academy on site, focused on practical support to help people who have experienced homelessness get back into employment.

HoSB GARDEN  The House benefits from one of the few private gardens in central London – image © HoSB

Employment Academy Participants come from a wide range of backgrounds and have experienced homelessness for multiple causes – a significant change in their home circumstances, unemployment, illness.  The Academy team helps them prepare to return to the world of work, providing focused training, work experience in the club itself in the kitchens and front and back of house, and also pathways into employment through a growing number of partner firms.

Established as a social enterprise with a strong purpose at its core, the club attracts members who themselves want to contribute to social change, and the membership demographic is young and energetic.  The House operates a rich programme of talks, discussions and events with this as a focus, as well as organising regular music events in the house and chapel and maintaining a rolling display of art on its walls.

The club’s members are also invited to play their part as volunteer mentors – typically working with an individual over the course of a year or more as they make their way back into work.   Volunteer mentors are trained and then matched with Employment Academy Participants and supported during their time as mentors.  Whether they mentor or not, members know that their membership fees and the profits generated by food, drink and events all go back to help the charity deliver on its purpose.

Ned’s Club

Newest of the bunch (2017) and a five minute walk from Barbican, is the members’ club inside The Ned – a 252 bedroom five star hotel with nine restaurants in the restored and refurbished former Midland Bank HQ beside the Bank of England.   Named for the bank’s original architect Edwin ‘Ned’ Lutyens, The Ned was developed by a partnership of Nick Jones’s Soho House & Co. with its experience of opening and running clubs, and the New York based hotel group Sydell.

The redevelopment has successfully preserved and exploited the grade I listed interiors to stunning effect over nearly 30,000 square metres.   The gigantic main banking floor is subdivided into different dining areas by its original counters and 92 green verdite columns.  Hotel bedrooms take their cues from Lutyens’s building, adding the modern twist that the Soho House design team apply to their clubs, from furnishings to fabrics.

The Ned has two gigantic facades, one on Poultry and the other on Princes Street, but not the angled corner site where the two should join;  this wasn’t available so is still occupied by a working branch of Nat West !   Lutyens’s buildings join in the middle so the columns discreetly change direction, but the space is so huge that the turn is the last thing you’ll notice unless you look.   Work started in 1924, with a further extension from 1935–37, Lutyens having been selected after his successful completion of a small brick jewel box of a bank building (now a coffee shop) designed to complement St. James’s Church Piccadilly.

The main restaurant spaces are open to the public, while members and hotel guests have use of a rooftop restaurant and pool, plus the former bank vault.  One of the star attractions after the roof, the vault is now a cocktail lounge lined with the original steel safe deposit boxes – over 3000 of them.   Further below are a spa and pool and a gymnasium.  Given its location, the membership is more City than creative, so this is not an extension of the Soho House chain, despite the application of its design and management capability.  The focus is on providing a relaxed environment in which to work and play in an extraordinary building.  Judging by the buzz and occupancy, it’s hit the spot in a part of the City with little else like it.

To find out more . . .

These are just four examples of clubs that are surviving and thriving in the 21st century.  All four have a clear sense of purpose and place, and provide a continuing reason to belong as well as an interesting environment in which to relax with friends and guests.  Each also provides a warm welcome to new members.

To find out more about any of the clubs in the article, visit the websites below:

Club talk – avoiding confusion

Amongst their other traditions, many clubs have held onto their own terminology:

Coffee room – usually the club’s main dining room – harking back to the days of the Coffee houses

Black balling – from the days when membership ballots were conducted anonymously by placing black (NO) and white (YES) balls

Smoking room – no smoking allowed today

Morning room – probably now a bar . . .

Stranger’s room – at one time the only place in many traditional clubs where non-members could be entertained.

Gentlemen’s club – in the sense now used to mean something rather different, probably now not the sort of place a ‘gentleman’ would wish to be seen in . . .