Elegant, affluent and quintessentially British, the St James’s district in London’s City of Westminster has long been known as Clubland. The area was the focal point for the development of traditional gentlemen’s clubs during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Like the fashionable coffeehouses that preceded them and the glamorous private members’ clubs that have followed, gentlemen’s clubs are an important part of urban history and culture. For over 300 years, men who possess wealth and influence, as well as aristocratic titles and other honours, have gravitated towards these exclusive enclaves, which provide an appealing, home-from-home atmosphere in the bustling Capital.
Being permitted to join a gentlemen’s club suggests that you’re particularly well respected, refined and successful. In fact, the Enlightenment writer Samuel Johnson is believed to have coined the derogatory term ‘unclubbable’ to describe men with undesirable characteristics.
Historic Institutions for Well-Connected Gentlemen
At a gentlemen’s club you can expect to find a sumptuous, old-fashioned bar, dining room, library, lounge, billiards room and overnight accommodation. Eating, drinking, socialising and unwinding are the order of the day. Discussing business affairs is usually frowned on.
If you’d like to become part of such a distinguished institution, you’re likely to require support from at least two existing members. The club’s committee will then consider your background, political affiliations, accomplishments, personal qualities, etc. before deciding whether or not you’d make a suitable member. (Since the 1970s, some gentlemen’s clubs have accepted female members too, but they remain primarily masculine domains.)
One of the oldest, most prestigious gentlemen’s clubs is Boodle’s on St James’s Street, not far from Buckingham Palace. The club was founded in 1762 by the Earl of Shelburne, a prominent aristocrat and future Prime Minister. Another British Prime Minister, the legendary Sir Winston Churchill, was an honorary member. Gentlemen’s clubs have always hosted the cream of British high society.
Vibrant, Modern Clubs Welcome Diverse High-Flyers
Whereas gentlemen’s clubs are bastions of traditionalism, private members’ clubs are chic and modern, appealing to more forward-looking individuals among the social elite. As Bloomberg News explains, a private members’ club ‘combines the age-old desire for exclusivity with a more relaxed atmosphere tailored to contemporary lifestyles’. The famous Groucho Club in trendy Soho, which was founded in 1985 as ‘an antidote to the stuffy gentlemen’s clubs’, is one of the earliest examples of this kind of vibrant institution.
At private members’ clubs, you’re likely to encounter a diverse range of high-flyers. Aristocrats might rub shoulders with sports stars, magazine editors, acclaimed actors and major entrepreneurs. Most of the clubs are open to men and women, and business networking is often encouraged.
While these modern organisations are somewhat more inclusive than their historic counterparts, an individual hoping to join one will still need to fulfil certain eligibility criteria. You might need the backing of current members or a career in a specific field (Groucho’s caters for the creative industries).
London’s Leading Private Members’ Clubs
As Harper’s Bazaar magazine’s photo gallery demonstrates, private members’ clubs feature breathtakingly beautiful architecture and décor. They’re ideal when privileged members of society want to escape the public gaze and enjoy themselves.
The following are some of the finest private members’ clubs in London.
- Annabel’s in Mayfair, which recently received a £65 million makeover, resembles a decadent, exotic paradise. Expect art by Picasso and floor-to-ceiling chandeliers.
- 5 Hertford Street, also in Mayfair, offers unrivalled luxury and comfort. This softly lit sanctuary features everything from a cinema to a cigar room.
- Home House is situated in one of Marylebone’s glorious Georgian townhouses and boasts a trio of restaurants and several bars, where history meets hedonism.
- AllBright in Fitzrovia addresses the historic gender imbalance associated with exclusive clubs by welcoming women only. Members mix work and pleasure, with facilities ranging from ultra-stylish meeting rooms to a beauty salon.
- The Court is a recent addition to Soho, but this intimate, Art Deco-style club has already earned a reputation for providing top-notch entertainment.
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