Once upon a time, private members’ clubs were the reserve of the rich. They were the hub of London’s high society in the 1800s, and many of the clubs that are still standing today have long (and often debaucherous) histories.
Like all great institutions, these clubs have grown with the times. While the buildings might remain the same, the culture today is much more inclusive and you no longer have to be one of the city’s select few super-rich to become a member - although it still pays to know a few insider tricks.
History of London’s Private Members’ Clubs
In the beginning, these kinds of clubs were known as “Gentlemen’s Clubs” because of their exclusive (and gender specific) clientele. The first clubs opened in the 18th Century and catered only to the upper classes, but it wasn’t until the upper-middle classes were welcomed in during the 19th and 20th Centuries that they really hit their stride.
It’s thought that as the Reform Acts in Britain meant the vote became more inclusive, more and more members of society began to feel they had been accepted as “gentlemen”, and sought confirmation among their peers through the founding of elite clubs.
While originally unique to London life, Gentlemen’s Clubs became popular around the country as well as in other countries such as India - largely because of the influence of the British Empire. They became popular among travellers, who would uses clubs as substitute hotels when visiting, as well as young men, who would often stay in their clubs when they first moved away from home.
Initially, these clubs were thought of as an escape from family life for men, at a time when the home was considered the woman’s domain. As these gender stereotypes began to soften, women founded their own clubs (often known as “institutions”) which were popular in the 19th Century. Today, most clubs are open to all genders, although The 1883-founded University Women’s Club remains women-only.
Types of Clubs
Traditional clubs were designed very much like country houses, and served as a home away from home for their members. It’s thought that the upper-middle class men of the time, who grew up in single-sex boarding schools, felt more at home in male-dominated environments than in the homes shared with their wives. Over time, most private members’ clubs have become more gender inclusive, and commonality is instead found in shared interests. Today, clubs are often divided into categories such as sports and wellness, work spaces and bars and restaurants - although many will include some combination of all.
Business-centric clubs have become increasingly popular, in contrast to the homely establishments that once were. These present a unique opportunity to network outside the office - or offer a place to impress important clients. Shared workspaces have also seen an increasing demand, likely as a result of the rise of the digital nomad.
When you think of London’s private members’ clubs, the first names to spring to mind are often White’s, Brook’s and Boodle’s. These long-standing clubs undoubtedly epitomise the traditional idea of a members’ club, but they’re also notoriously exclusive and carry price tags almost as large as their waiting lists. Luckily, there are a number of alternatives hidden around the city - if you know where to look.
Disrepute in Kingly Court Soho is a private cocktail bar that recaptures the spirit of the 60s both in its décor and its atmosphere. It sells itself as the home of “luxury libations, high jinks & late night liaisons”. Membership applications are open online, or anyone who’s a member of TimeOut Black can use their membership ID to gain entry.
Stepping even further back in time is The Society Club with bases in Shoreditch and Soho. It masquerades as an out-of-print booksellers during the day before transforming into a literary-inspired drinking spot during the evenings. The Society Club is a popular choice for travellers, partially because it allows a discounted membership for anyone who lives abroad.
The Quo Vadis club is another Soho establishment, located on the popular Dean Street above the celebrated restaurant. The club remains an exclusive one, with membership required and carrying a £500 price tag - but the cost is significantly lower than many similar venues, and the admissions process perhaps more relaxed. The club owner, Sam Hart, explained to GQ: “There’s no blanket policy at the QV Club...We are essentially looking for people who are happy to be themselves and who don't have any airs and graces.”
For networking and working, travellers and tourists might like to visit The Hospital - a space dedicated to those in the creative industries. There are partner clubs in many European cities as well as New York, Shanghai, Toronto and Rio to name but a few, and members of the group can use any of the clubs.
There’s no shortage of clubs to explore in London - but the problem many visitors face is at the doors themselves. While many clubs have strict policies on membership and entry, there are a few ways to get around the red tape.
It’s Who You Know
Never has the saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” been more apt than at the door of a private members’ club. If you’re looking to apply as a member, you’ll often need a proposal and recommendations from existing members. If you simply want entry for the day, you can often visit with a member using their guest passes.
If you don’t have friends already inside, experienced club-hopper Nimrod Kamer suggests simply making them up. In his guide to getting into London’s private members’ clubs, Kamer highlights clubs such as Home House that don’t ask members to leave their friends’ names at the door. Here, he says, you can simply find the name of an existing member and say you’re meeting inside.
Family connections also prove useful in gaining access to London’s clubs. Some of the older establishments, such as The Athenaeum, offer inherited membership. The new Maggie and Rose Family Club - aimed at parents of young children and featuring soft play areas as well as child-friendly cafés - provides membership passes for the entire family, including grandparents.
While London’s private members’ clubs are adapting with the times, they’ve maintained much of that same allure that drew in 18th Century aristocracy. Both an important place to network and an enthralling place to play, these clubs offer an exciting insight into London society - and with a little know-how, they’re more accessible than ever.