Today (March 1) in London History – the Reform Club

The Today in London hors d’oeuvre is a theatre recommendation. The Today in London History main entry is the opening – on March 1, 1841 – of the Reform Club’s new clubhouse.


First, your Today in London hors d’oeuvre. It’s a ten out of ten theatre recommendation. A couple of nights ago I went to the second preview of Small Island at the National Theatre. It’s a must-not-be-missed show. Tickets are going to be as rare as hen’s teeth when the word gets out, so if I were you I’d move fast. Small Island’s about the birth pangs of this country becoming multi-racial. About the Windrush generation and their forerunners in World War II. It’s powerful, moving theatre. As the standing ovation at the end attested to. Plus it’s got a London Walks guide – Andy Frame – in the company. So that’s a further guarantee of a fine night’s theatre. 

Ok, on we go to Today in London History. 

A lot of jollier than yesterday’s, that’s for sure. 

The event is the opening of the Reform Club’s new Clubhouse in Pall Mall. Want to check it out yourself, the address is 104-105 Pall Mall. Want a fit with a walk? One of our very best – I’d put it squarely in the top five of the 58 London Walks I can personally guide, which has to be some sort of recommendation – anyway, yes, one of the very best London Walks is the one we call The Old Palace Quarter. And amongst other things it explores Clubland! Runs every Friday afternoon.

Anyway, today’s the day the new Reform Club makes its grand entrance. It opens its doors on March 1, 1841.

A bit of background and a couple of nice-to-know nuggets about it. 

  1. The Reform Club came about because of the great Reform Act of 1832. The Reform Act widened the franchise. And did away with some of its major abuses. Got rid of what were known as rotten or pocket boroughs. They were constituencies with almost no electorate. So they were in the pocket of the local oligarch. If you were a rural Georgian Bill Gates it was like having your own MP. That was some kind of one man one vote. The other end of that spectrum was many men no vote. A lot of urban areas had no parliamentary representation. The Great Reform Act of 1832 took a bold step toward putting that right. And, yes, it extended the franchise: to small landowners, and shopkeepers, and the upper middling sort of householders – men who a paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. 
  2. I suppose it seemed daring – radical if you will – at the time. But the hard figures make it look prettyu cautious really. Pre Reform 1 percent of the population could vote. The Reform Act widened the franchise out to all of about 7 per cent of the population. All male of course
  3. Anyway, this isn’t Poli Sci 101. It’s about the handsome London building that was the clubhouse for those political reformers.
  4. The architect was Charles Barry. Yes, that Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster, parliament in other words. 

Busy boy he was. Because construction of the Palace of Westminster began in 1837 and in 1840 Mrs Barry had laid the foundation stone.

Now to get that timeline into perspective for you. The Reform Club had been founded in 1836. It was founded for those dangerous Radicals who thought just over seven per cent of the population should have the vote. Love it. Those dangerous radicals decided they were going to put their clubhouse right in the heart of the most deeply conservative acreage in the whole of the country. Anyway, the next year – 1837 – pretty much all the leading architects of the day competed to design the Clubhouse.

And Charles Barry – as if he didn’t have enough on his plate with that little project just over the way at Westminster, the new Houses of Parliament – anyway, yes, Charles Barry won the competition. Come to think of it he was pretty good at winning competitions. 97 designs were submitted in the competition for the new Palace of Westminster and Barry’s entry was the one that made the running. 

Just as his design made the running for the Reform Club’s new clubhouse.

What also made the running for the new clubhouse was the readies. How much it cost and the cost overruns. It was twice as the Athenaeium Club, built just a decade earlier. Equally eye-watering were the cost overruns. They were double the original estimate.

But, hey, they were pulling out all the stops for the new Clubhouse. 

Not least in the culinary department. The way to a radical’s heart is through his stomach. Via his tastebuds.The Reform Club’s chef was Alexis Soyer, the most famous cook in Victorian England. 

And, yes, of course, he was French. 

Anyway, sensible thing to do: Charles Barry and Alexis Soyer banged heads and together designed the Clubhouse’s kitchens. They were state of the art. Their innovations included cooking with gas, refrigerators cooled by cold water, and ovens with adjustable temperatures.

So famous were they that they were opened for conducted tours. Had London Walks been doing the old palace quarter walk 180 years ago it would have included a tour of the Reform Club’s kitchens! How’s that sound for a bit of all right. And what feats wasn’t Alexis Soyer going to be equal to in that kitchen! A culinary statistic I’m very partial to – I never say it but I always think it when I hear someone say, “Whoa, that one nearly did for me – I cooked Christmas dinner for 24 people” – my mental return of serve is, “ok, but let’s get things into perspective, on the day Queen Victoria was crowned Alexis Soyer prepared breakfast for 2,000 people at the Reform Club. And the maestro did that in the old kitchen in the old clubhouse.

You get the distinct impression that London’s 19th century Clubland was all about not just keeping up with the Jones but getting ahead of the Joneses.

The Conservative Club got in on the new clubhouse act just four years later – 1845 – and it’s patently clear they were hellbent on dethroning that amazing Reform Club kitchen. A breathless-with-excitement contemporary newspaper account of the Conservative Club’s efforts in the kitchen sweepstakes said, “the kitchen is far more spacious than that of the Reform Club, and so astonishingly light, with the sky seen overhead in some parts of it, that it might be supposed to be at the very top of the house, instead of the bottom.” 

Tsk, tsk. I tsk’d tsk’d because for the centrepiece of the Reform Club, Barry wanted an open courtyard – wanted to give it a kind of Spanish feel. The which would, presumably, have made it possible to get lots of natural light into the kitchen. Dear me. Those short-sighted Reform Club members wanted no part of an open courtyard in the middle of their building. They insisted it be covered in. And they got their way. Which in turn cleared the way for the Conservative Club to out-kitchen them just four years later.

Whether they ever out-taste-budded the Reform Club is another matter entirely. The RC – the Reform Club – had the man, had Alexis Soyer. They must have thought “you can have your sunbeams, we’ve got Alexis.” 

For me, though, the takeaway nugget is that it was in the Smoking Room of the Reform Club that Jules Verne’s great character, Phineas Fogg, made the wager. The wager being that he couldn’t go round the world in 80 days. Round the World in 80 days Phineas did go. He showed ‘em. 20,000 quid he bet – and won. It was a bold bet – £20,000 was half of his worldly fortune. 

And today? Well, the political days of the Reform Club are now a thing of the past. Social rather than politcal, that’s how you’d characterise its membership today.

And, yes, today it has what it most certainly did not have in 1841: female members. The Reform Club reformed its ways on that count in 1981. 

And on that note, good night from London. 

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