The concrete skies of London hang over some of the most hallowed institutions in the world: private gentlemen’s clubs. These members-only institutions found prominence amongst the British upper class in the 18th century; and although a degree of modernisation has taken place, many still remain exclusively the preserve of men. Gaining entry to these elite establishments is often a nepotistic endeavour, but the history of the United Kingdom enshrined in these anachronistic institutions is fascinating.
Once the languorous resting place of Prime Minister David Cameron, White’s Gentlemen’s Club is one of the oldest and most exclusive of them all, established in 1693. Not to be confused with the lap-dancing club with the same name, this members-only haven of serenity is situated in a grand Portland stone Grade I listed building on St. James’ Street, secreted away in Piccadilly. Cameron famously snubbed the club in protest of its men-only rule in spite of the fact that his own father was once the chairman, making him the only member to have left voluntarily as opposed to death or shameful resignation. The club remains of the male-only persuasion. A plethora of Royals are presently members including the heir to the throne, Prince Charles. Complete with gaming rooms, majestic bar, and a menu replete with British game, White’s is an enclave of tradition nestled in the bosom of modern London.
White’s, 37 St James’s Street, SW1A 1JG, London, UK, +44 20 7493 6671
Another of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs in London is Brook’s, first established in 1762 as a private society. The club is now housed in a grand yellow brick and Portland stone building, which mimics the style of early Dutch country houses. Amongst the blatteration enunciated by its raffish members can be found its famous gaming rooms where fortunes were slung at the feet of Lady Luck. Brook’s offers its members access to an abundant bar, dining room, library and gaming rooms, and some notable alumni include former Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and slave trade abolitionist leader, William Wilberforce. Women are still unable to be full members of Brook’s Club.
Brook’s, St. James’s Street, SW1A 1LN, London, UK, +44 207 493 4411
Founded in 1762 by the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Lord Shelburne (William Petty), Boodle’s gentlemen’s club counts itself amongst one of the most prestigious in London. Boodle’s, which celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2012, got its name from its original headwaiter, the austere Edward Boodle. Like most of the more senescent clubs in London, the club is regarded as being aligned with the Conservative Party of Great Britain, with admittance to the club strictly governed by a system of nomination by individuals who are already members of the club. Club members can recline in this oasis of tranquillity and munch on Orange Fool, its traditional dish.
Boodle’s, 28 St James’s Street, SW1A 1HJ, London, UK, +44 207 930 7166
The Athenaeum Gentlemen’s Club is an aesthetic delight; a building designed by Decimus Burton, built in the neoclassical style with a bas-relief frieze (a low relief decorated with imagery or emblems) copied from that of the Parthenon in Athens. As they enter, club members pass under the watchful gaze of the classical goddess of wisdom, Athena, who stands erect above the doorway. Members can peruse the extensive collection of dusty tomes collected in the club’s library, and potter into the newly restored Smoking Room in which smoking is not permitted. Herbert Spencer, whose philosophy was employed as the inspiration and rationale for Social Darwinism and subsequently eugenics, was once a member.
The Athenaeum, 107 Pall Mall, SW1Y 5ER, London, UK, +44 207 930 4843
Formed following the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars, the original raison d’être of the Travellers Club was to provide a sanctuary of refinement for travelling gentlemen befuddled by the seething masses of London’s inhabitants, who had ‘travelled out of the British Isles to a distance of at least five hundred miles from London in a straight line’. The Florentine-inspired building in which the Travellers Club is housed is the oldest of its kind amongst the contemporary Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, having been established there in 1819. To gain entry today one must first be proposed and seconded by present members, and must have travelled to, and recite the names of, at least four foreign countries they have visited; a tradition in keeping with both the name and historic purpose of this establishment.
The Travellers Club, 106 Pall Mall, SW1Y 5EP, London, UK, +44 207 930 8688
First formed as a meeting place for Radicals and Whigs following the Reform Act of 1832, the Reform Club was inaugurated in a political atmosphere of eponymous reform. The doors of this venerable refuge were flung at 104 Pall Mall open to members in May of 1836 as the architecture Charles Barry won a competition to build a new clubhouse for the society, an architectonic masterwork that is still standing today. In line with its progressive heritage, the club was the first of its kind to admit women in 1981 (though only 200 have joined since) and claims to offer ‘a friendly welcome, irrespective of background or nationality,’ the only characteristics required being, ‘character, talent, and achievement.’ Nevertheless, one must be still be proposed and seconded to be considered for membership. Members enjoy the privilege of chambers for overnight stays, a library, an eatery and extensive wine cellar.
Reform Club, 104 Pall Mall, SW1Y 5EW, London, UK, +44 207 930 9374
The Carlton was founded by Conservative Party peers, MPs and gentlemen in 1832, and as such, is yet another gentlemen’s club with a conservative political alignment. The club was founded in at a time contiguous to the Reform Club, as Conservative Party members felt the need to establish a meeting place to plan their counter attack following the passing of the first Reform Act. The club derives its name from its original premises at Carlton Terrace but was moved, ironically, to be situated next to the Reform Club in Pall Mall after its membership outgrew the building. The Carlton’s venerated membership wasn’t enough to protect it from the Luftwaffe during the Blitz of the Second World War, after which it was moved to its current resting place at 69 St. James’s Street. Until her death, Lady Margaret Thatcher was the only female member of the club with full membership having been made an honorary member in 1975.
Carlton Club, 69 St James’s Street, SW1A 1PJ, London, UK, +44 207 493 1164
The In & Out, Naval and Military Club
As its name suggests, The In & Out, Naval and Military Club was established as a refined resting place for officers and gentlemen of the armed forces, and has more recently began admitting females and those not in the armed forces. The club, located on St. James’s Square, has two entrances: one in the square where a strict formal dress code must be adhered to, and the second, more informal entrance off Jermyn Street from which members can access the club’s luxurious facilities: a business centre, gym, swimming pool and the Goat Bar and Brasserie. The club boasts extensive accommodation consisting of 52 en-suite bedrooms where members might rest their weary eyes. Gaining membership involves the standard procedure of being proposed and seconded by current members.
The Garrick Club
Founded in 1831, The Garrick Club resides in the dramatic environs of Theatreland in London’s West End. Traditionally, the club was meant for men of the Arts, especially theatre, and still today has a substantial theatre library that contains important manuscripts and documents, including the ‘most comprehensive collection of theatrical paintings and drawings in existence.’ Notable members famed for their artistic achievements include the writers Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Kingsley Amis, and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. New members require a proposal from an existing member, and the final decision is made by a secret ballot. Not for individuals of arid and fusty character, the club’s original criterion was that ‘it would be better that ten objectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted.’
The Garrick Club, 15 Garrick Street, WC2E 9AY, London, UK, +44 207 379 6478
East India Club
Members of the East India Company and Commissioned Officers of the Army and Navy of Great Britain founded the East India Club in the 19th century. After merging with the Sports and Public Schools clubs, the East India Club began introducing young public school boys to the world of the gentlemen’s club. For this reason the membership of the club is a melange of individuals of varying age: ‘busy young men and their more seasoned seniors.’ As this excerpt from the club’s mission statement suggests, women are still not admitted to the East India Club. The club offers its members a variety of facilities, including a fully equipped gym, a billiards room, a business room (as no working papers are allowed in the public rooms), and club sports teams to partake in.
East India Club, 16 St. James’s Square, SW1Y 4LH, London, UK, +44 207 930 1000
By James Moore
The London Culture Guide
The London Culture Guide is a new series brought to you by The Culture Trip’s most seasoned writers. The authoritative series, which spans food, design and art, is the perfect chance to get reacquainted with London’s bustling culture scene and explore new, exciting venues in the UK’s capital.
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