Today (February 16) in London’s History – Gentlemen’s Clubs

The Athenaeum, the distinguished old gentlemen’s club in St. James’s, is 198 today. This podcast marks the occasion.


Here we go. Clubland. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Today it has. February 16 is, this year, 2022, the 198th birthday of the Athenaeum Club.
And you know something, I’m unashamedly proud that we’ve got some connections there. London Walks is not entirely on the outside looking out. And not just “connections”, members. London Walks guide Ian – the solicitor and senior partner in a leading international City of London legal firm – is a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, which is just round the corner from the Athenaeum. And Nick Day the distinguished National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company actor – and London Walks guide when he’s “resting” – is a member of, you can guess, the Garrick Club. And I like to joke that I’m a member of a Club: the London Library. The way I put it is, “the London Library is as close as the likes of me is ever going to get to an English gentleman’s club. But, hey, it’s in the neighbourhood – beautiful spot there in St. James’s Square – it’s expensive – it’s a private members subscription library – it’s time-honoured – full of famous literary and scholarly faces – it’s got big overstuffed leather-covered armchairs, a fireplace, the most magnificent reading room looking out over the square, and if you doze off they’ll let you snooze away, providing you’re snoring and disturbing your fellow Reading Room members. And it’s got the world’s best collection of books about London. The London Library has nourished and fuelled my career as a guide – and indeed, this podcast series would not have been possible without “my club”, the London Library. What’s not to like?
But anyway, yes, the Athenaeum. It got started on February 16th,1824. A prominent Irish-born intellectual – a member of the so-called Protestant Ascendancy – named John Wilson Croker attended a meeting in the rooms of Royal Society at Somerset House and over the course of the meeting he proposed that a club for scientific and literary men and artists be established.
What a meeting that must have been. Sir Humphrey Davy was in the chair. Michel Faraday was temporary secretary. The club, it was declared, should be “for the association of individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in any class of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science or literature or the arts.” And to this day the Athenaeum has pretty much adhered to that standard. Though it has added an impressive collection of bishops and archbishops to the mix. And talk about distinguished. There were seven future prime ministers among the founders. The Duke of Wellington wasn’t a founder but he joined. As did Dickens and Thackeray. Richard Burton translated the Arabian Nights at the Athenaeum Club – it’s a beautiful building located in Waterloo Place, at the bottom of Regent Street from Piccadilly Circus. Its membership is a roll call of the famous. Lord Macauley and Matthew Arnold wrote at the Athenaeum. As did Charles Darwin. Darwin wrote, “I go and dine at the Athenaeum like a gentleman, or rather like a lord, for I am sure that the first evening I sat in that great drawing-room on the sofa by myself, I felt just like a duke. I am full of admiration for the Athenaeum, one meets so many people there that one likes to see … Your helping me into the Athenaeum has not been thrown away, and I enjoy it the more because I fully expected to detest it.”
One or two other takeaways about John Wilson Croker. He once said he preferred “an ounce of fact to a ton of imagination.”
He was hugely opinionated. Used to getting his way. When you’re outside the front of the Athenaeum don’t miss the frieze running round the top of the first story. It’s there because John Wilson Croker thought it a better use of £1290 that the members had voted to be put toward an ice house.
That contretemps evoked the following bit of doggerel from a member:
I’m John Wilson Croker
I do as I please
Instead of an ice house
I give you a frieze.
Finally, Wilson Croker is credited with coming up with the political description of the word “conservatism.” He meant the word to mean the preservation of the monarchy, the landed interest, and the not church, NOT the narrow parliamentary party. Truth be told, he’d be spinning in his grave if he knew about the coup in our days that’s rendered Wilson Croker’s conservative party unrecognisable.
Now, one or two telling details about the hoary old Athenaeum. And then a couple of closing remarks about London’s clubland generally.
The average age of Athenaeum members is 176.
Perhaps a more important anniversary is this year’s twentieth anniversary. It was twenty years ago that the Athenaeum finally opened its doors to women members.
It was a long march, that. In the 19th century a member gave vent – in the club’s little booklet – to the following gem: “I never felt a more melancholy pang than when for the first time I beheld a party of Amazons, with bare necks and yellow gowns, sweep across the chambers.”
In response to the earth-shattering news that that engine of dangerous reformist zeal, the Athenaeum, had done the unthinkable in bufferland, had broken down and admitted women, a female columnist drew a bead on the hold-outs, the handful of remaining single-sex clubs the Garrick, White’s and the Carlton. The Carlton in particular drew her fire. She said, “Quite why a woman would enjoy the Carlton is odd. It is full of bores with bad complexions in cheap blazers. She could find a better catch on Waterloo Bridge.”
And to close this out a word about the clubbability of London generally.
The roots of London’s clubs go down to the 17th century. To coffee houses and pubs. Which provided venues – usually in a back room – for dozens of clubs that sprang up all over London in that era. One of the defining characteristics of 17th and 18th century London was its love of association. Clubs provided a place where people of all kinds could come together and drink heavily and socialise. In many cases, people with interests or characteristics or behaviour in common.
So there was the Farting Club. There was the Ugly Club. For men under five feet there was The Little Club. For six-footers, there was the Tall Club. There was the Fighting Club. The Fat Men’s Club. The One-eyed Men Club. There were clubs for people with long noses. There were clubs for people with frenzied hormones. Apprentices and young women, for example, they met at Cock and Hen clubs.
That’s our London. Well, London of old.
We live in fallen times.
Anyway, on that note from this most clubbable of cities – on the birthday of the Athenaeum, that haunt for thirsty bishops and tweedy Oxford dons – good night and see you tomorrow.

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