The author has shared the following passage from pages 44-46, 46-48 of her London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain (2011) with the permission of her publishers, Palgrave Macmillan.
hile London clubland by the late nineteenth century bore little resemblance to its rakish precursors of the previous century, the gambling legacy was perhaps the most difficult to overcome. Gambling was one of the issues the reforming middle classes energetically took up against both the highest and lowest orders. In 1845, the reformers had their first success as Parliament passed an act to amend the laws concerning games and wagers. In effect, it removed gambling from the jurisdiction of the courts. This was an attempt to remove the legal facilities for recovering gambling debts, hoping to dissuade people from an ever more unsure temptation (Clapson, A Bit of a Flutter, 19). Predictably, for the upper classes the law had almost no effect. Bets between gentlemen rested on a code of honor, not the guarantor of law. Yet the fight against gambling intensified throughout the century and in 1890 a coalition of Nonconformist churches formed the National Anti-Gambling League. They launched a campaign aimed at the wealthiest gamblers based on the belief that gambling was an aristocratic vice that had seeped down to the lower social orders, and thus its cure must come in the same fashion (Clapson, 30). Again, the campaign met with little success. Gambling was a part of elite culture, enshrined in tradition, and particularly enjoyed by the leader of fashionable society, the Prince of Wales.
Gambling’s popularity among players, however, did little to lessen the critiques levied against it. And while gambling at the clubs certainly decreased during the nineteenth century, the popular imagination still perceived clubs as a place where a man could run through a fortune. Marie Corelli’s 1895 didactic novel The Sorrows of Satan portrays clubs as the epicenter of the luxury and decadence of the upper class. The protagonist inherits money from a distant relative, then plunges into all of the dissipations associated with aristocratic life including prolific gambling. He witnesses a young peer wandering around outside the Marlborough Club who suddenly jumps into a hansom and shoots himself; the end to the desperate gambler (112). Among the moralists, gambling was one of the surest ways to financial ruin, and one of the plagues of the idle rich. While clubs may have accepted gambling, these were no longer the days of the Regency cardsharps.
Gambling was a recurrent public relations problem for clubs in general, although within the clubs the committees worried less about ruinous losses and more about bad credit, late hours, and negative publicity. The St. James’s Club in particular had a bad reputation for gambling, and here the reputation was closest to fact. From a high point in the 1880s through to the early twentieth century, a consistent record of gambling trouble appears in the Club archives. The case of Sir Maurice Duff-Gordon embodies all of the problems associated with gambling. His first appearance in the minute books came in April 1888 when the bank returned his membership subscription check. The committee expelled him. He was readmitted only after he was cautioned and he abjectly apologized (St. James’s Minutes, 296, 298). Gambling debts surfaced the next year. A member of the Raleigh Club, where the St. James’s had been temporarily staying, wrote to the committee in March 1889 over a £6 whist debt incurred at the Raleigh Club the previous December. Duff-Gordon received numerous reminders from the Raleigh with no response. The committee of the St. James’s sent a copy of the letter to Duff-Gordon asking for an explanation. The letter of explanation duly arrived containing apologies and responding that the debt was paid. The committee let the matter drop (St. James’s Minutes, 16, 20). Duff-Gordon’s association with the St. James’s came to a rather pathetic end in 1895 when he bounced another check and was later fined by a magistrate at the Westminster Police court for disorderly conduct. The committee wrote asking for a letter of resignation. His wife wrote back saying that her husband was not responsible for his actions as he was under medical care, although she acknowledged that the money owed for the invalid checks needed to be paid before his other liabilities drop (St. James’s Minutes, 279, 283). Gambling was just one of many problems for Duff-Gordon.
Beyond 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.
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.
- Understanding London Clubland — Exclusion in Theory: Ideal Society, Ideal Clubmen
- Understanding London Clubland: Exclusion in Action — Club Elections
- Drunkedness, gambling, and violence — London men's clubs before Victoria
- 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