Carnegie Club Blog

A History of Private Member Clubs

Posted: 15 July 2021

Clubs have existed, in one form or another, throughout history, with people drawn to those with whom they share a background, interest or situation. While clubs are universal, the Club-with-a-capital-C is a very specific kind of institution. It evolved out of the social spaces of Restoration England to become a quintessential part of British life. A home-from-home for London's most affluent, the Club was a place where they and their contemporaries could privately meet, converse and imbibe. Despite the political, economic and ideological changes that the passing centuries have wrought, the Club has endured and is today enjoying a resurgence of popularity as a new generation discovers the allure of Club life.

London's first clubs congregated in the city's coffee houses and taverns. There – fuelled by excessive amounts of caffeine and rather less salubrious libations – men met to discuss news from Parliament and engage in philosophical debate. These early clubs were numerous and niche. From the serious to the sublime, there were clubs for political factions, shopkeepers, dandies, beggars, mollies and more. What distinguished them from Clubs was their lack of independent premises. That would soon change.

Mrs White's Chocolate Shop had been founded in 1693, but in 1736 its enterprising proprietor – in an early example of disruptive thinking – upended a hitherto successful business model by realising it would be more lucrative to close his doors to the public and instead cater exclusively to a select group of affluent patrons. The gamble paid off. The Club at White's prospered, and the successful model was eagerly copied. Gentlemen who had formerly been happy to meet in the public space of the coffee houses now desired the same privacy – and implied status – afforded to members of White's. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a member of a Club.

Illustration of White's Club

White’s Club, from John Timbs Clubs and Club Life in London (London: John Camden Hotten, 1872)

Just as London society was highly segmented by class, politics and gender, so too were its Clubs. White's, Boodle's and the Cocoa Tree Club were for Tories, while Whigs joined Brooks's or the Beefsteak Club. The Oxford and Cambridge Club only admitted members of those universities, while a prerequisite for joining the Travellers Club was that a prospective member had to have travelled at least 500 miles from London. None of the aforementioned clubs admitted women, but from 1886 females could join the University Club for Ladies.

Each Club was different, but members were usually admitted by nomination and a democratic vote. Successful applicants were then liable for the (inevitably sizeable) annual dues. Clubs were typically housed in a building in a fashionable part of London that was immaculately furnished, and attended to by a coterie of servants including butlers, maids and cooks (or, in the case of the best Clubs, chefs). At one Club all servants were referred to as "George", and at another as "Charles". Rule books were extensive, and expanded regularly – often in direct response to an indiscretion committed on the premises.

Despite their individual idiosyncrasies, Clubs functioned as a home-from-home for their members – so much so, in fact, that there existed a fear that these exclusively male spaces posed a threat to wedded bliss. In 1833, Lady Sydney Morgan wrote: 'I had a peep at club life – the Travellers. It is the perfection of domestic life! Every comfort at once suggested and supplied; good reasons for not marrying!' She warned: 'Women must get up to this point, or they will only be considered as burthens. Some of the young husbands of the handsomest wives live at their clubs.'

When Samuel Johnson published his famous dictionary in 1755, he described a Club as 'an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions'. Later, in 1764, he co-founded The Club, an elite group that met weekly for dinner and discussion. While the standing of Johnson's Club was of the highest order, not all could boast an immaculate reputation. Behind closed doors, members could enjoy the sort of illicit activities that might otherwise attract the attention of the constabulary, such as illegal gaming and even – it was whispered – entertaining individuals whose companionship could be purchased by the hour.

Painting of men playing cards.

Gambling was a popular activity at some Clubs. The Card Players (Les Joueurs de cartes) by Paul Cézanne.

Several Clubs were renowned for excessive gambling. The White's betting book reveals that the Club's members were willing to bet large sums on everything from when a child would be born to which member would die first. At Crockford's, Lord Rivers notoriously lost £23,000 in a single sitting of cards. Perhaps the most infamous bet in London Club history was placed at Brooks's in 1784 at the height of the hot air balloon craze, when it was agreed that if Lord Cholmondeley ever became intimate with a woman in a balloon "one thousand yards from the Earth", he would be paid 500 guineas by Lord Derby. Alas, the record does not reveal the outcome of this particular wager.

The changing social mores of the Victorian era certainly subdued some of the extreme earlier excesses of the Clubs – publicly, at least. Despite what may have gone on behind closed doors, most Clubs exuded an outward air of dignified respectability, with membership bestowing a certain status on an individual, confirming (in varying measure) their elevated social standing, economic privilege and good character.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Club was firmly ingrained as part of London life and so it is unsurprising it found itself immortalised in works of literature: it is at the Reform Club that Phileas Fogg accepts the bet to traverse the globe in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Perhaps to avoid offending members and provoking a scandal, though, many of the Clubs that appeared in print were fictional: in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Mycroft was a founding member of the Diogenes Club; in Ian Fleming's Bond novels, 'M' is a member of Blades (modelled in part, it is said, on Fleming's own club, Boodles); and in PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories, Old Etonian Bertie Wooster belonged to the Drones Club, while his valet Jeeves was a member of the Junior Ganymede – the club for "gentlemen's personal gentlemen".

London skyline

The 21st century has brought many changes to London and to its Clubs.

Despite their pedigree, as the 21st century approached, some began to think of the Club as a relic of a bygone era. But London's Clubs have always been willing and able to adapt to changes in society, and over the past few decades the London Club scene has undergone a seismic shift in response. Hereditary Clubs are being supplanted by a more egalitarian system of membership. 

While traditional Clubs, in gathering together individuals of the same class and political persuasion, curated largely homogenous groups of individuals, modern Clubs tend to have a much more diverse membership profile. Many of the Clubs to open in London in recent years are targeted at people who traditionally were excluded from Club life: for example, Soho House, Annabel's and Quo Vadis encourage younger members with tiered fees based on age; AllBright is women-only; and The Conduit actively works to promote economic diversity among the membership with discounted fees for those working in the not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors.

Skibo Castle

Skibo Castle is home to The Carnegie Club

The Carnegie Club is a relatively new Club in terms of its age – it celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020. Being residential, it harks back to those early Clubs that offered members a home-from-home experience. Despite the historic surroundings, though, the Club prides itself on its modern attitude. The key factor for admittance is not who your grandfather was, the school you went to or the line of work that you are in: rather, it is about your character, conviviality and ability to make interesting conversation over dinner.

Clubs are something of a dichotomy. By definition, they are exclusive: they exclude. For those inside, however, they foster an intense sense of inclusivity, community and pride – members don't say 'the Club I belong to,' they say, 'my Club'. It is this sense of ownership – and affection – that has made the Club an integral part of British culture for centuries, and will undoubtedly continue to be so for many years to come.

A version of this post originally appeared as the article 'In the Club' by Peter Crome and Victoria Connor in the 2019 edition of Skibo magazine.

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