London Corners – Clubland



Are there still such things as clubbable men? Indeed there are. Despite the proliferation of reinvented private clubs that chuck out the chintz in favour of pounding beats, the traditional old clubs of London do still exist.

Yesterday I gave a luncheon talk at the Authors’ Club, now happily returned to the National Liberal Club in Whitehall. Upon my entry the doorman checked my shoes and trousers with only the vaguest hint of disapproval, then admitted me to a sanctum of calm, civilised gentility and very, very high ceilings. This is a gentleman’s club that equally allows women, founded in 1882 by William Gladstone on firm Liberal traditions which are still in place today.

The club enjoyed a reputation for radicalism (its full political history is fascinating). It lost its main staircase in the Blitz and was blown up during the IRA campaign of 1973, but worse was to follow.

During the 1960s and 1970s, all London clubs were in serious decline. The club fell into in a serious state of disrepair, its membership dwindling, its finances losing a thousand pounds a week. In 1976 the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe handed over the club to Canadian businessman George Marks, styling himself His Serene Holiness the Prince de Chabris, who turned out to be a con-man. 

De Chabris claimed to be a multi-millionaire willing to pour cash into the club, and moved his family in rent-free, running several fraudulent businesses from the premises, paying for a sports car and his children’s private school fees from the club’s accounts.

He fled owing the club £60,000, even emptying out the cash till of the day’s takings as he went. He’d also sold the club a fraudulent painting. Even worse, he flogged off the National Liberal Club’s Gladstone Library (which contained the largest library of 17th-to 20th-century political material in the country, including 35,000 books and over 30,000 pamphlets) to the University of Bristol on the pretext that the club could no longer afford to pay the Librarian’s wages. This was the finest club library in London. The collection is still housed at Bristol today. 

Having introduced a con-man into the club, Jeremy Thorpe had troubles of his own, surviving an allegedly establishment-biased court case in which he was accused of hiring a hit man to shoot his male lover, who missed and shot an alsatian called Rinka.

There are many other clubs still with equally colourful histories;

The main ones are Whites (founded 1693, the original gentleman’s club to which only one woman – the Queen – has ever had entrance), Pratt’s (where all the staff are called George), Brooks’s, the thespian Garrick, the Carlton, Boodles, the Reform (where Phileas Fogg began his trip), the Athenaeum, the Beefsteak (where all the staff are called Charles), Bucks, the Oxford and Cambridge (where women are only allowed in certain parts), the Traveller’s (the original qualification being that members must have travelled 500 miles in a straight line from London), the RAC and the Pall Mall.

The difference between these and such modern London clubs like the Soho House chain and The Ivy Club (the only club to which I belong) could not be more pronounced. Mayfair’s venerable Arts Club, with its grand staircase and garden, decided to modernise by bringing in Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ronson to bling the place up and make it a mecca for partying princes. But the rest remain oases of silence and elegance at the heart of London life geographically if not socially, where members can go to drink and think.

How does one join such places? A quick trawl around their websites reveals that you don’t. You have to be asked. The sites are anonymous and filled with sang-froid. Candidates for admission have to be proposed and seconded by current members of the club, having direct personal knowledge of the candidate, and then in some cases you may be considered by the electoral board.  

As I left the National Liberal Club I passed an elderly gentleman bending over the leather-bound volumes in a sadly depleted bookcase, searching for something, and had a momentary image of Arthur Bryant shunning Google to do it the old way, with possibly better results.


10 comments on “London Corners – Clubland”

  1. Tom says:

    Next time you’re in the National Liberal Club, pop your head round the door of The Savage Club in the basement. (

  2. Roger says:

    “His Serene Holiness the Prince de Chabris, who turned out to be a con-man. ”

    Turned out? A name like that would set anyone’s phoniness-detector clanging if they had any sense.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Like your new “entrance” page. It crooks a finger and offers up a number of tempting offerings, even if you’ve read your blog daily… as I’ve heard some people do. Ever thought of having a “true daily double” under one of the photos? Winner with right answer gets copy of next B&M novel without having to slog all about rainy London or even be in Europe. (Yeah, well, it was just a thought, Alan. Sorry Chris.)

  4. Vivienne says:

    I would love to be able to be a member of one of those clubs, who wouldn’t?not quite apartheid but I know I’m just not in the running.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Not human, Vivienne, or not liberal? Oh, right, you have to know a member, too. As a Canadian I can only blush and cringe at what that con artist did, but what on earth possessed Mr Thorpe to trust such an obvious flimflam man? And where was the club’s executive while all this was going on? One comfort is that the library didn’t leave the country and I’m sure Bristol is taking good care of it.

  6. Jo W says:

    Helen, I think Vivienne is not talking about racism but sexism here. It still applies to a lot of these clubs,where it’s not knowing a member but having a member that is the first requirement. Who can be bothered!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, but the Liberal Club has been inclusive from the beginning. Let’s only slag the sexists on that one.

  8. jan says:

    Did u know that the AA club with its v posh swimming pool and lush setting was built on the site of the old war office?

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Grace Belgravia is a women’s only club, there are others but I think this is the only one with premises.

    I was a member of a local Labour Club, with full size snooker tables (A signed photo of Joe Davis.) and a bowling green out back. Sadly it was knocked it down, along with the local youth centre and they built faceless red-brick flats in the modern anonymous-style.


  10. Normandy Helmer says:

    Yes, but what about Rinka? Was there any justice for the innocent Alsatian?

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