The author has shared the following passage from pages 36, 38-39 of her London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain (2011) with the permission of her publishers, Palgrave Macmillan.
deal club members were sociable, of good character and background, and their political, artistic, or other special interests matched those of the club. Of these qualifications, elite status was the most amorphous and unpredictable. The social elites in Britain were the men and women who made up “Society.” The term emerged in 1823 as a word to describe the fashionable leaders of London and their social calendar (Morgan, Manners, 29). While the concept of “Society” gained in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, it was not easily defined by either aristocratic titles or bank balances (Beckett, Aristocracy, 23). In its most basic sense, by the end of the nineteenth century the social elites were a mix of titled and landed families and rising figures of the business, imperial, and political communities (Scott, Upper Classes, 78). While the royal family was the pinnacle of Society, the lower edge of the upper classes was both vague and porous.
London Society is best understood as a system of mutual consent; you were a member if the upper echelons embraced you as one of their own (Scott, 3). Europeans especially noted that the British upper class was not easily marked by title, but rather by association. One “Foreign Resident” noted that London Society
may be compared to a family party. Its members have been brought up with the same traditions and in the same curriculum. They are bound together by that identity of sentiment or pursuit which comes from the associations of school, college, or regiment, politics or clubs, official, diplomatic, or military life . . . .[S]ociety resents peremptorily and punishes pitilessly any act of intrusion or presumption on the part of those who have not made their social footing good or who are not furnished with the due credentials (Society in London, 97).
Society thus did not require bloodlines, but one did have to attain the accessories afforded by the upper-class lifestyle. Because there was no easy definition for the elites even among contemporaries at the time, historians are left to search out institutions, rituals, and habits that seem to define the upper classes. A club membership was one such marker, to get it you had to already belong to the elite social world to some degree.
Not only did clubs reaffirm the position of their elite members, they helped confirm or bestow status on newcomers. Membership granted social cachet, as membership at one of the most elite clubs, like White’s, Brooks’s, or the Travellers’ meant that you belonged not only to that club, but belonged in the company of the cream of society. Club membership was one of the visible markers of social identity for men. In scanning the pages of Who’s Who, men listed their clubs among the other descriptions of their pedigree and achievements as a way to describe who they were and to what group they belonged. An American author, while perhaps overstating, captures the importance of clubland in England at the turn of the century:
[T]he membership of a club determines more than anything else the social classification and degree of fashion of the average Englishman, and hence Britons are wont to display more ambition and to devote more time and trouble to get into a first rate club than they do to secure honors of nobility or political preferments (Ex-Attaché, “London’s Leading Club,” 10).
The realities of the late nineteenth century meant that many titles were recent and positions could be bought; thus neither guaranteed social acceptance alone. Thus, membership in the right club could be an important reflection of one’s rightful position as a gentleman.
- Exclusion in Action: Club Elections
- Gentlemen Behaving Badly: Gambling
- Epilogue: Clubland after 1918
- A Clubland Bibliography
Milne-Smith, Amy. London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Last modified 25 September 2013