Clubbed to death? London’s Clubland is not going down without a fight

It’s been a tricky time for the stately bastions of London’s rarefied Clubland. But these old boys have seen off plague and war and famine: the Twenty-first Century should be a doddle...

It is hard to think of a world more vulnerable to the effects of covid-19 than London’s Clubland. Even at the best of times, the elegant bastions of St James and Pall Mall have not been noted for their flexibility. For hundreds of years, they have been fortresses within whose walls men – still, mainly men – can catch up with friends, eat a bit, drink a lot and generally make merry. They are hives of business plots, scurrilous gossip, intrigue and intimacy. All activities vital to London life, and all all of which have been heavily proscribed for most of the past 14 months. 

That is before you think of the memberships themselves. They tend to skew old, male and fond of their victuals. You might worry that coronavirus would tear through such a demographic like an icy wind. White’s, Boodles, Brooks’ The Turf, The Athenaeum, the Garrick and the like are all storied institutions, but they are not the first places that spring to mind when you think of pandemic preparedness. 

“I’m not sure the clubs have faced a moment like this in their history,” says Dr Amy Milne-Smith, a professor at Wilfried Laurier University in Ontario, and the author of London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain. “London has a long history of epidemic disease, but there’s no precedent for this kind of lockdown. The closest equivalent might be the wars, where there were restrictions and much worrying, and a number closed.” 

Some memberships have apparently suffered a few deaths. “I heard the Garrick’s lost a great many members,” said one person I spoke to. [The Garrick didn’t reply to a request for comment.] One or two are thought to be in parlous financial straits. More than the short-term effects, there’s a question mark hanging over the point of these places in the Zoom-enabled post-pandemic economy. A survey of the UK’s 50 biggest employers found that almost all of them plan not to bring their staff back to the office full-time. With a permanent drop in city working, clubs risk finding themselves in a world that no longer needs them. 

“It’s been a mixed picture,” says Lord Valentine Cecil, an enthusiastic clubgoer who has served on several senior committees and says he has access, via membership and reciprocity, to more than 40 clubs in total. “Those that have been well managed will come through this. Those that were in difficulty will continue to struggle.”

The Garrick Club "has lost a great many members", a source says

For all the headwinds, there have been signs that behind the austere facades of St James, life is coming roaring back to life. Ironically, given their stuffy image, many clubs have found themselves surprisingly well set to wait out the pandemic. At the time of writing, no club has been permanently closed by coronavirus, in contrast to thousands of bars, pubs, theatres and restaurants that will never reopen. During the lockdowns, some clubs provided a haven of conviviality, where members were trusted to follow the rules. As lockdown has thawed, there’s been no shortage of pent-up demand. At Annabel’s, each member has only been allowed a single lunch booking, such has been the clamour for tables on its terrace. Another club with a terrace is said to have enjoyed one of the most profitable fortnights in its entire history.  

“By this point the older members have either had the vaccines or they don’t care,” says one young clubland expert. Like many members, he prefers not to be named lest he violate the veil of secrecy behind which these institutions still prefer to operate. “Many of my older friends who are members felt that way. They’ve lived a bloody good life, and they’re going to die of something. Many of them were incensed they’d been locked in their houses for the best part of the year, particularly with time running out. I think one of the amusing things is the number of men whose wives have essentially said, ‘bugger off’, I’ve seen enough of you.” 

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