The contemporary gentlemen’s club may be encapsulated in the image of scantily clad women performing impressive acrobatic routines in front of a beery audience rather less capable of similar athleticism in a windowless building that clings to the seedier edges of town. It seems a fine irony that these strip joints, with their sticky, slick furniture, skewed sexual voyeurism and spilt beer take their moniker from establishments adjoining London’s centre of power, which excluded women, and had large windows from which the elite could watch the world outside without being seen.
Our modern gentleman’s club’s idea of the gentleman is as flat as its beer and as restricted as a bouncer’s facial expressions. There is a much more interesting story to be told, one that tracks the evolution of masculinity and gentility throughout the nineteenth century while touching on wider patterns of socialization.
Aristocratic masculinity was defined through excess at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. The education of a “gentleman” explains both the demand for clubs and their original structure. The privileged eighteenth-century boy in England began his training at public schools that were nothing like Hogwarts. Boys had as low as ten hours of formal instruction a week, although many brought private tutors to coach them through their Latin translations. In their (considerable) free time, they bet on horses, gambled, hunted to hounds and drank. While Eton had a sixth form brothel for a time and there were female staff at the “dame houses” boarding younger children, the boys’ world was distinctly homosocial. Most importantly, they self-organized into semi-autonomous student bodies which regulated the behaviour of boys and intermittently negotiated with the administration. Thus, young men emerged into the adult world with a taste for male companionship and a knowledge of how social contact with their elite peers bled into political and administrative power.
The original clubs evolved from eighteenth century coffee-house culture which united public school specialties: political discussion and high-stakes gambling. The oldest private gentleman’s club, White’s, was originally an open establishment, until a circle of aristocratic regulars began to run their own games in the back. According to historian Amy Milne-Smith, William Macall, who ran Almack’s assembly rooms cannily began Brooks’ and Boodle’s, two elite clubs on Pall Mall, a stone’s throw from Whitehall. As high-stakes gambling decreased in popularity, the clubs’ interests shifted and with it, the membership. The Reform and Carleton clubs formed in 1832 to provide a space for political discussion, and to generate political action, and the Athenaeum in 1824 for religious and literary types.
Clubs also played an important role in a century of enormous imperial expansion and consolidation. In the transitory career of a soldier, the United Service Club (1815) and the Army and Navy Club (1837) offered a permanent address and a place for men to stay on short leave. The Traveller’s Club (1819) and the Oriental Club (1824), by contrast, offered an environment in which returned colonial administrators and diplomatic personnel could reacclimatize to England. The demand for such clubs distinct from the regular gambling-and-debate variety can be seen in Vanity Fair, when Thackeray depicts Jos Sedley’s complete disconnection from the London society from which he has been absent for many years. While Jos’s chronic shyness provides him an authoritative persona as a tax collector for the East India Company, he has lost the ability to find or create peers.
Conversely, the club model became important for the consolidation of the colonial administrative elite throughout the colonies. By providing men centres of community, particularly of British cultural identity consolidated through British peers and British reading materials, clubs discouraged men from getting too close to the peoples they were meant to rule. Indeed, the club provided a basis for cultural reinforcement because organized activity provided the means to survey and monitor one’s peers by separating him from both colonized populations and Europeans of uncertain class status (such as common soldiers). Mrinalini Sinha has discussed the rise of “clubbability” as a means of undercutting colonial resistance and reinforcing racial boundaries. The effects were long lasting – in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Saleem Sinai experiences the cruelty of the “clubbable” paradigm in post-Independence India.
Despite (and partly because of) the restrictive membership policies, the model of an established common space, resources such as books, food and sleeping facilities caught on with middle-class men and reformers. Middle-class men wanted the benefits and markers of their social superiors, and reformers saw the club system as a way of elevating those they deemed at risk. The evidence of these ventures is manifest in large-scale ventures, such as community centres, the YMCA and the Salvation Army, but innumerable club-houses were also run by philanthropic individuals emerged and disappeared.
Perhaps most interesting among these philanthropic clubs are those sponsored by public schools and their alumni. As the century progressed, the public school system had grown more popular, partially due to the change in pedagogy. Although the Classical curriculum endured, adult supervision increased alongside the Muscular Christianity espoused by Tom Brown’s School Days. No longer raised to be bloods, mid-century moral conscientiousness encouraged upper- and upper-middle-class boys to offer an echo of their experiences to those below them. Naturally, the success of these clubs reflected the dedication of their sponsors. In the most successful example, Charterhouse alum Robert Baden-Powell states that “half the battle” in establishing a Scouting troop is providing boys with a “clubroom” from which they can base their activities. The imperial focus on early Scouting is particularly interesting in the way it takes the colonial version of a club with its interest consolidating specifically national and racial identities through community formation and reintroduces it to England. Furthermore, the early Scout troop practices of creating secret signs and enacting self-monitoring exclusivity derive from the aristocratic club ethos, but they transform it in a way that is alternately described as juvenile (by critics of Scouting) and egalitarian (by its supporters).
The popularity of gentlemen’s clubs continued to rise until the social disruption First World War. After 1918, the general resistance to the past, the increasing economic pressure on the aristocratic lifestyle, and the rise of mixed-sex socialization contributed to the decline of the elite gentlemen’s clubs. A few of the old variety continue in existence, but the coffee-house socialization offered by Starbucks is now rather more current.
So what unites the gentlemen’s club of old with that of the new? What unites these two “club” spaces is an engagement with the concept of the “gentleman.” According to the strip joint, a gentleman is one who can pay for ersatz sex and is willing to do it in a shared space. The gentleman performs his masculinity by displaying his participation in a community that assigns a monetary value to (usually) female sexual display. It is a paradox that the lighting at such establishment at once illuminates the man’s gesture of offering the performer money but assures his near anonymity as he resumes his seat. In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gentlemen’s club, a gentleman performs his class identity by being seen by his peers and retaining his distance from the roiling crowds of London by disappearing into his club. Both clubs also provide sanction for certain types of activities. The original gentlemen’s clubs preferred the vice of gambling to whatever goes on beside the stripper’s platform. Gambling fades away, replaced by a semi-porous system of social exclusion judging a man’s clubbability based on his family, money, intelligence, connections, class and race. Like the colonial club, the strip joint creates a space where certain groups of people are reduced to others that can be watched and controlled, desired and distanced from one’s sense of self. For my own part, I prefer coffee.
About the author: Katherine Magyarody is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on social formations in nineteenth-century narratives of empire. She once had to go to a gentlemen’s club for a bachelorette, but thankfully after twenty minutes the waitress saved them and sent them across the street to a karaoke bar.
Selected Sources on Gentlemen’s Clubs and Nineteenth-Century Clubs:
Dawes, Frank. A Cry from the Streets: The Boys’ Club Movement in Britain from the 1850s to the Present Day. Hove, Sussex: Wayland, 1975.
Eagar, Waldo. Making Men: The History of Boys’ Clubs and Related Movements in Great Britain. London: U of London P, 1953.
Forrest, Denys. The Oriental: Life Story of a West End Club. London: Batsford, 1979.
Mack, Edward C. Public Schools and British Opinion, 1780 to 1860, An Examination of the Relationship Between Contemporary Ideas and the Evolution of an English Institution. 1938. Westport, Conn: Greenwood P, 1973.
Milne-Smith, Amy. London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.
Sebag-Montefiore, Charles and Mordaunt Crook, Joe, eds. Brooks’s, 1764-2014: The Story of a Whig Club. London: Brooks’s Club, 2013.
Sinha, Mrinalini. “Britishness, Clubbability, and the Colonial Public Sphere: The Genealogy of an Imperial Institution in Colonial India.” Journal of British Studies 40.4 (2001): 489-521.