Whether we’re marvelling at the latest architectural addition to the City’s skyline, mourning the closure of a treasured tapas joint, or steeling ourselves for whatever unbearably quirky pop up may be next on the horizon, change is part and parcel of urban living. But within many of the grand Georgian buildings that flank St James’s Square and line Pall Mall and Piccadilly, time seems to stand still.
Welcome to clubland. Here you’ll find the centuries-old playgrounds of royals, politicians, and all manner of newly-minted entrepreneurs. Inside, it’s all gilt-framed oil paintings, stuffy smoking rooms, and bottles of champagne resting in silver buckets. In short, the upper crust of the 18th century would probably feel right at home.
The first gentlemen’s clubs were established in the 1700s as places for the blue-blooded to let off some steam, away from the city’s increasingly filthy and overcrowded streets and outside the ostensibly more feminine domain of the home. But these were always more than places to tell dirty jokes in frock coats while knocking back a brandy or two: membership was a way to exert one's ample social and economic capital.
While a few of the surviving clubs have relaxed their terms of membership, allowing women and well-heeled commoners to join their enclaves of old world glamour, they nevertheless maintain a mahogany veneer of exclusivity. As well as stumping up often eye-watering membership fees, hopefuls must satisfy all sorts of requirements — including simply waiting until a hefty number of existing members have kicked the bucket — before they can enter the fold. Assuming you’ve got the patience, inclination, and requisite anatomy to apply, here’s a handful of the most esteemed and intriguing for your consideration.
White’s: The club that’s fit for a prince
Who would have thought that a hot chocolate emporium founded by an Italian immigrant in 1693 would eventually become the drinking den of choice for two future kings? White’s, London’s oldest club, today counts both Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge as members (the heir apparent even had his stag do here). Good luck getting behind its Grade I listed doors, though — you must win the support of 36 members in order to be granted membership, and the waiting list is supposedly years long. Women are permitted as guests only, a policy that led former Prime Minister David Cameron to tear up his membership back in 2005.
Garrick Club: The artist’s Eden
Located on the outskirts of clubland in the West End, Garrick Club is one for the thespians. Founded as a place for the aristocracy to mingle with actors, the Garrick has since attracted all sorts of artsy folk: its past members list reads as a who’s-who of London literati throughout the ages. When Charles Dickens published remarks made by William Makepeace Thackeray there — a cardinal sin in clubland, apparently — a bitter feud that became known as the Garrick Affair ensued between these two distinguished members. Since then, the likes of T.S. Eliot, Laurence Olivier and Rex Harrison have walked its jewel-toned halls.
Reform Club: One for the radicals (sort of)
After the enactment of The Reform Act 1832, the Whigs — the political party that spearheaded this package of electoral reforms — wanted a new hub for discussing radical ideas. And boy, did architect Charles Barry deliver. The result is an Italian palazzo-style clubhouse complete with Corinthian columns, flamboyant decor, and a glass ceiling, which was proverbially smashed in 1981 when The Reform became one of the first clubs of its kind to admit women. The club has long ceased to have any political function, and nowadays claims to attract members from all sorts of backgrounds. That said, its members list includes a fair few baronesses and knights, and Sir David Attenborough.
Athenaeum Club: Olympius-level opulence
What better mascot for a club that London’s intelligentsia flocks to than Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom? Her gold statue looms over the portico of the ridiculously palatial Athenaeum clubhouse on Pall Mall. When John Wilson Croker proposed a club “for Literary and Scientific men and followers of the Fine Arts” in 1823, he certainly wasn’t messing around: to date, 52 members have bagged themselves a Nobel Prize. If you fancy following in these boffins’ footsteps, the club is an excellent place to start swotting up. Some 80,000 works are housed floor-to-ceiling across three spectacular libraries. Once you’ve found your tome of choice, head to the smoking room, curl up in an armchair by the fire and have the barkeep fix you a whisky. No cigars though — it’s a fume-free zone.
The Beefsteak Club: The club for carnivores
Unless you’re vegetarian, you’re probably partial to a nice, juicy steak. But do you like it enough to join a club dedicated solely to a shared love of beef? There have been many beefsteak clubs since the 1700s but the best-known is the Sublime Society of the Beefsteaks. These guys got so into things that they created badges emblazoned with a gridiron and the motto ‘Beef and liberty’. Because nothing says freedom like chowing down on a prime cut of dead cow, apparently. The original Society folded in 1867, but a successor, called simply The Beefsteak Club popped up the same year. It was at this resurrected club that Dracula author Bram Stoker purportedly first heard the tale of Vlad the Impaler... possibly while sinking his teeth into something medium rare.
The changing face of clubland
The anachronistic quirks that characterise today's surviving gentleman's clubs are, it seems, integral to their enduring appeal. But in recent decades a new breed of private member's clubs that cater to more contemporary values have cropped up. Take the Soho House clubs for instance, where suits are banned and so-called 'creative souls' — of any gender — are favoured over 'wealth and status'. And 2018 notably saw the launch of The Allbright, a women-only member's club, hailed as a hub for empowerment for female entrepreneurs that sticks two fingers up at the old boy's network. But while The Allbright's membership is not dependent on who you know, with a waiting list running into the thousands and a joining fee of £300, it can hardly be considered truly egalitarian.
Perhaps that's asking too much, though. Exclusivity is what defines a member's club, after all. The boundaries of clubland may have become blurry, but for better or worse, its core function — to communicate wealth and prestige — remains firmly intact.
A version of this article appears in Londonist Drinks, our book about pubs, bars and the history of drinking in the capital. (buying via this link will help support our site with a small commission)