The author has shared the following passage from pages 201-202 of her London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain (2011) with the permission of her publishers, Palgrave Macmillan. Thackeray created the decorated initial “B” for Vanity Fair.


decorated initial B

eyond the desertion of the West End clubs by the young men gone to the front it was never expected that any other change would be possible. The old gentlemen, with favourite armchairs, would still enjoy them by prescriptive right, their newspaper would come in as usual, and the well-trained servants acquainted with every member’s peculiarities would minister to comfort hour by hour. Here at least club committees boasted that the eternal servant question, so troublesome at home, would never come up to disturb peace and comfort, for there would always be good club servants though private families went without. But even here came in the war. In the service clubs the reserve men, who made up the bulk of the domestics, went first. One claim after another was made, until all up and down St. James’s and Pall Mall the best of the domestics have been withdrawn. In fact, the better the club the greater proportion of reserve forces were requisitioned (Lady, “Metropolitan Gossip”).

Empty clubs, a dramatic loss of service, and a lack of servants are exactly the kind of consequences one would anticipate from the First World War. Except that this account was written in 1900, not 1914. This supposed transformation of clubland was a result of the (relatively) minor Boer War. The inconvenience of Boer War was but a ripple in comparison to the wave of destruction, social upheaval, and rapid change that the twentieth century would bring. While members liked to imagine their beloved institutions as immune from the ravages of time, the changes going on around them could not be ignored.

Exterior and interior views of the Athenaeum, [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Charles Gavard, the French diplomat, spent most of the 1870s in London. In describing his life, he devotes several pages to the Athenaeum Club, where he spent much of his spare time. He found it a peaceful and calming space where the cream of English society could be found on any given afternoon. Gavard’s picture of the day-to-day life of clubs is cosy, familiar, and friendly. He speaks of quiet days writing letters or reading books. He also writes of great nights of dining and laughing with friends. Even on the greyest and foggiest of London days, Gavard found peace and joy in the comfort of the Athenaeum (Un Diplomate, 83-87). This was the essence of clublife for elite men before the Great War. To be a clubman entailed the luxury of dropping in at any moment to a space where one could meet friends, read, enjoy a meal, play cards, or simply relax in peace and quiet. A sociable Victorian gentleman would have belonged to several clubs as a matter of course, and it would have been a secure pillar of his identity (Forrest, Foursome in St. James’s, 107). And yet even at the moment of their greatest popularity, clubs faced outside threats. The processes underway that threatened clubs’ central role in men’s lives intensified in the twentieth century. Some clubs closed, others amalgamated, while others went on to renewed success. But by 1918, London clubland was no longer the central site where elite men defined their class and gender identities.

Related Material

Bibliography

Milne-Smith, Amy. London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.


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Last modified 25 September 2013