Thursday, September 30, 2010

The West End Club

“The Diogenes Club,” if we are to believe Sherlock Holmes, was “the queerest club in London.”  Such a claim was remarkable indeed; for Victorian men of the middle and upper classes were the most “clubbable” the world has ever known.  Although the social club was not a Victorian invention--Samuel Johnson, in 1783, had remarked of his amanuensis, “Boswell is a very clubbable man”-- it reached its apotheosis in the middle years of Victoria’s reign and even at the end of the period it was considered by many to be the most important social phenomenon of the day.

At he beginning of the century there were probably fewer than a dozen clubs of any significance but, in the years immediately following Waterloo, there was to be a period of rapid growth and expansion.  The club, all during the Victorian period, was essentially an urban phenomenon.  Clubs did develop in the counties, but they were, with rare exceptions, never to attain the status of the London clubs.  Even so, such clubs did much to set the social tone and were “the cradle of sound public opinion in matters appertaining to manners, if not to morals.”   In part, at least, the urban nature of the clubs can be attributed to the growth of the professions and the lack of clubs other than those serving the aristocracy, the military or those in politics.
The Reform Club in the 1840s

By the time of Victoria’s ascension to the throne, there were just over two dozen clubs in London and these still excluded all but noblemen, gentlemen, the services and the professional classes.  To be a member of “society” entailed being a member of at least one, and probably more, of the clubs.  No person engaged in trade, from the lowest shopkeeper to the greatest merchant could hope for admission to these bastions of privilege and exclusivicity.  By the time of the old Queen’s death, almost sixty-four years later, there were approximately one hundred and fifty clubs of which only seven had celebrated their centenary.  The wide range of clubs by 1900 included those for both sexes or for women alone and represented a range of common interests from automobiles through mountaineering to travel.
Dining at the Empress, "the most luxurious ladies club in London" 

The impetus for women’s clubs, which developed during and after the ‘80s, appears to have come largely from two sources; shopping and politics.  A woman’s club was frequently seen as a temporary home for the city shopper.  As such, they were usually more “homey” than the men’s clubs.    At a meeting in 1899 of The International Congress of Women, the Social Section discussed the Women’s Club movement at some length.  According to Mrs Wynford Philipps, the proprietor of the Grosvenor Crescent Club and founder of the Women’s Institute (Great Britain),

They fulfilled a modern need in women’s life; some joined them to obtain creature comforts, others for intellectual food; some for aesthetic reasons, to get airy rooms and dainty surroundings, others for ethical, philanthropic and social purpose.

During the more than sixty years of the Victorian Era, much of the exclusiveness of the clubs broke down and this, along with the increase in the number of clubs, made them available for those who, before the ‘50s, would never have even considered membership a possibility.  Yet while the doors opened wider, there was “together with the increase of men eligible for clubs, an ever-increasing desire for separation and exclusion.”   The listing in Clubs of the World suggests that the period of greatest growth was in the 1860s and ‘70s.  It was in these decades that most of the clubs in the counties were established although the Union, in Manchester, dated from 1825 and the exclusive Liverpool club, the Palatine, was founded in 1836.

Theodore Hook once wrote of clubs,

If a man loves comfort and has little cash to buy it, he
Should get into a crowded Club--a most select society. 

The clubs often served different groups or were identified with particular social sets.  For many, the name tells the story; Travellers, United Service, University, Turf and Yacht.  The Garrick was the club for those with theatrical interests and the Athenaeum had associations with the Church and literature.

For country squires the only Club in London now is Boodle’s sirs,
The Crockford Club for playful men, the Alfred Club for noodles, sirs.

Boodle’s, as indicated drew its membership from country gentlemen while Crockford’s was a gambling club.  Known for its excellent cuisine, it did not survive the mid-century.  It was “a place of most unenviable celebrity … whose walls--if walls could speak--would be able to disclose not a few transactions of very nefarious character.”   Stakes were high and it was not uncommon for fortunes to be made, or lost, on the turn of a card.  Both the Duke of Wellington and Talleyrand were members of this prestigious “hell” of the early Victorian years, despite its illegality.  Hazard, a dice-game for high stakes, was the most popular game and Crockford was reported to spend £2,000 a year on dice to see that the game was honest.   The Alfred Club, on the other hand, was noted for its dullness having been described as “the asylum of doting tories and drivelling quidnuncs.”

The Oriental Club, founded in 1824, was composed

of noblemen and gentlemen who have travelled or resided in Asia, at St. Helena, in Egypt, at the Cape of Good Hope, the Mauritius, or at Constantinople; or whose official situations connect them with the administration of our Eastern government abroad or at home.

The club was well known for its excellent “eastern” cuisine and its wines.  Composed, in the main, of retired Indian officers, it was commonly referred to by hackney-coachmen as “the Horizontal Club.”  It was said of the club that the smell of curry powder pervaded the establishment. 

Among the political clubs of the Victorian Age were the Reform, the Conservative and the Carlton.  The Athenaeum, on which Mycroft Holmes’s Diogenes was modelled, was considered the “mental” club.  It was founded because

the fashionable and military Clubs not only absorb a great portion of society, but have spoiled all the Coffee Houses and Taverns so that the artist, or mere literary man neither of whom are members of the established Clubs, are in a much worse situation, both comparatively and positively than they were.

There’s first the Athenaeum Club; so wise, there’s not a man of it
That has not sense enough for six (in fact that is the plan of it);
The very waiters answer you with eloquence Socratical,
And always place the knives and forks in order mathematical.

Although the great majority of clubs, and certainly those having the greatest influence in the latter half of the nineteenth century were for men, by 1899 there were more than three dozen clubs either for women alone or admitting both sexes to membership.   Of those clubs which were strictly for women, some welcomed male visitors while by the last decade of the century some of the men’s clubs even had a few female members including the Cobden, Bachelors, Cavalry, New Vagabonds and even the Savages.


Hermes said...

Really enjoyed reading that. Thanks.

History Man said...

Great piece. Incidentally my wife is treasurer of the University Women;s Club in Mayfair which celebrates its 125th anniversary next year. It remains the only women only club in the West End.

Hels said...

Ohhh my favourite social history :)

I can well imagine that "no person engaged in trade, from the lowest shopkeeper to the greatest merchant could hope for admission to these bastions of privilege and exclusivicity." Trades people and shopkeepers wouldn't have the time or the money to belong to clubs, even if they had the inclination.

So what happened by the end of the Victorian era that changed the situation, for trades people and shopkeepers?