London is a haven for private members' clubs. From the traditional centres of St James and Mayfair, to Shoreditch and Kentish Town, our appetite for such clubs shows little sign of abating. With the launch of my own club, Library, just weeks away what light can the colourful history of these clubs shed on their continuing appeal?
The coffeehouse culture of the 17th and 18th Centuries was perhaps the most significant precursor to the introduction of the private members' club. The coffeehouse was a place of lively conversation, full of creative energy and conviviality. It wasn't merely a meeting ground, but a place for discussion and the epicentre of news exchange. Friends and strangers alike would sit and share stories and ideas. The venues demonstrated just what could be achieved through debate and engagement over a cup of coffee.
Towards the end of the 18th century, coffeehouses experienced a marked decline. Historians argue that many became victims of their own success. With coffeehouse discussions spilling out into the worlds of trading, politics and printed material, some proprietors became overly ambitious and looked to monopolise news culture by launching a coffeehouse newspaper to become the sole form of print news available. The idea was met with ridicule. There were, however, additional forces at work. The rise of the exclusive club- a place characterised by the aristocratic pedigree of its members- contributed to the waning of influence and authority held by the coffeehouses.
Whilst the coffeehouses had cherished inclusiveness, charging a penny for access and unlimited coffee and conversation, the new breed of club was far more rigorous in its admittance criteria. The coffeehouses had acted as social levellers, enabling men from different backgrounds to engage in discussions on a somewhat equal footing, but the clubs celebrated social difference. Coffeehouses were quick to respond to the changing attitudes, with some beginning to charge higher fees for entrance, but the intelligentsia favoured the new spaces, which unlike the sparsely decorated coffeehouses were designed to be 'a home from home', modelled in some cases on aristocratic houses. For gentlemen, they became the meeting place of the day for political, economic and literary criticism and debate.
Not all of the clubs activities, however, were quite so highbrow. Some of the most exclusive clubs became synonymous with gambling, which was illegal outside of members-only establishments. White's, an exclusive club from the early 18th century onwards, gained notoriety as a gambling house and satirist Jonathan Swift referred to it as the "bane of half the English nobility."
Membership to a private club had become a badge of honour and, with the changing social dynamics of the 19th century, men from outside the narrow social sphere of the upper classes sought the status membership afforded. Reform Laws, from the 1830s onwards, granted the vote to hundreds of thousands more men, who in turn saw themselves as gentlemen and, as such, worthy of inclusion in a private club. As many existing clubs refused entry to the newly enfranchised, new clubs were created to meet the demand. At their peak, London played host to over 400 such establishments.
Today, London's growing landscape of private members' clubs increasingly breaks from tradition. Memberships are broader in terms of gender and demographics. Music and dancing, which were not features of the original clubs, are common. Outside forms of communication including mobile phones and computers are- in some areas at least- welcome. Whilst many clubs retain their interest in specific areas in order to differentiate themselves and their target audiences (Lansdowne for sport, Soho House for film and Library for literary arts), we have to be increasingly able to adapt to what people want and offer unique spaces, activities and incentives.
And yet, in terms of providing a space for conversation and a haven away from the chaos of London life, the ethos of today's clubs reflects that of their predecessors. It seems fitting to me that to mark the launch of Library we will be working with HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy festival. The festival is focused on rigorous debate, incisive talks and ideas with the capacity to change our lives- exactly the spirit of lively conversation that we hope to foster.