No sign on the door, at most perhaps a fleeting appearance of a livered attendant in his vestibule by the entrance in Pall Mall or St. James’s Street, here you’ll find the very hard of London club life. The absence of a sign indicates its exclusivity for members are able to find ‘their club’. without help.
It was Groucho Marks who famously said “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members”.
For Londoner’s of a certain social status their club has remained their refuge for generations. The halcyon days of the club were in the 19th century where once admitted into its inner sanctum, members could eat together in the dinner room; talk or play cards in the smoking room; read in the library all with their every need attended to by devoted servants. In Victorian times the true gentleman pursued his social life in the club, going home only to sleep, so that the responsibilities of marriage under such circumstances became something of a burden, he had everything he wanted at his club.
The club offered another invaluable advantage: not just anybody could join, the fundamental aim and raison d’être of a club was to be exclusively different from the others.
The oldest White’s started in 1693 under the name White’s Chocolate House and became one of the most expensive coffee and chocolate houses under its manager John Arthur – offering customers ‘gallantry, pleasure and entertainment’ which translated into gambling for high stakes. In 1750 Lord Arlington was reported to have placed a £3,000 wager on which of two raindrops would be the first to run down to the bottom of a window pane.
White’s then formed an ‘inner club’ upstairs becoming the oldest and most exclusive of all the London clubs numbering among its members: George IV, William IV, Edward VII, The Duke of Wellington, William Pitt and Elder and the doyen of dandies Beau Brummell.
Other clubs soon followed, Marlborough Club (1869) formed from White’s Club members who objected at not being allowed to smoke, as White’s only at the time permitted the taking of snuff, much to the annoyance of the Prince of Wales. The United Services Club (1868) and the Army and Navy Club (1837) for military personnel. Racing enthusiasts formed the Turf Club (1861).
Credited with being the first to introduce into British political life the name ‘Conservatives’ John Wilson Croker established the Athenaeum Club (1824) and after the political defeat in the 1832 elections the Conservatives formed the Carlton Club (1832). An all male institution which found its rules compromised as Tory prime ministers automatically were admitted, when Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.
The Whigs formed the Reform Club (1836) gaining literary fame, for it was here that Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg wagered that he could travel around the world in 80 days.
Other clubs to be found in or near Pall Mall include: Boodle’s (1762); Brook’s (1764); Devonshire Sports and Public Schools Club (1849); Institute of Directors (1903); Naval and Military Club (1862) universally known as ‘The In and Out’ Club from the markings on the gateposts at the entrance to its former premises in Piccadilly; Pratt’s (1841); Royal Automobile Club (1897); Savage (1857) and Traveller’s (1819).
Their influence cannot be too highly regarded, to be a member of the right club can be almost a sine qua non for the furtherance of one’s career. They may not now possess among their members the eccentrics of the past, but they still form the backbone of London’s prosperity.