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Coffeehouses to Clubhouses: Understanding the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London

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Abstract

Two men enter the Rota Club, retire to a small smoking-room, and begin to talk politics and foreign affairs.2 By the end of their brief conversation, they have planned one young man’s political destiny, speculated on another’s foreign mission, and contemplated a future revolution in Bardur.3 The fictional Rota Club that John Buchan described in his turn-of-the-century novel The Half-Hearted could stand in for any gentlemen’s club of the late nineteenth century. The impressive membership list, the perfectly appointed accommodations, and the good company defined this as a familiar space. Within a few short pages, a contemporary reader would have known exactly the kind of social space Buchan was describing: this was one of the gentlemen’s clubs of London. But to know a gentlemen’s club was one thing—to define it is another.

Keywords

  • Eighteenth Century
  • Late Nineteenth Century
  • Social Club
  • Rota Club
  • Foreign Mission

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

It was not a handsome building, nor had it any particular outlook or position. It was a small old-fashioned place in a side street, in a style obviously of last century, and the fittings were far from magnificent. Yet no club carried more distinction in its membership. Its hundred possible inmates were the cream of the higher professions, the chef and the cellar were things to wonder at, and the man who could write himself a member of the Rota Club had obtained one of the rare social honours which men confer on one another Every man bore the stamp of competence on his face, and there was no cheap talk of the “well-informed” variety.1

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Notes

  1. John Buchan, The Half-Hearted (London: Nelson, 1953), 85–86.

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  3. See, for example, Algernon Bourke, The History of White’s, 2 vols. (London, 1892)

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  53. Even Margaret Booth, a onetime chairman and current trustee of the Reform Club records that today women are often not believed to be clubbable. Cited in Burlingham, Reformed Characters, 227.

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  54. Entrance and membership fees varied over the course of the study, but in 1890 they ranged from 15–40 guineas for entrance fees to 8–11 guineas for annual subscriptions. Alfred Benzon, Benzon’s Black Book: A History of the Clubs of London, Baltimore and Washington [S. I.], 1891.

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  55. Possessing no formal home, and with much smaller membership numbers, their internal workings are difficult to track. Lubenow’s recent work on the world of Liberal politics does an admirable job tracing the details of some of these dining societies. W. C. Lubenow, Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815–1914: Making Words Flesh (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2010).

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© 2011 Amy Milne-Smith

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Milne-Smith, A. (2011). Coffeehouses to Clubhouses: Understanding the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London. In: London Clubland. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137002082_2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137002082_2

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, New York

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-349-29886-0

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-137-00208-2

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