The author has shared the following passage from pages 44-46, 46-48 of her London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain (2011) with the permission of her publishers, Palgrave Macmillan.
he gentlemen’s clubs provide us with concrete evidence as to how men defined their society. The underlying impetus of elections was to secure both the most congenial members and to maintain clubland as an exclusive space. The members of the gentlemen’s clubs of London rigorously controlled their social grouping by a nomination and election process. While clubs were private institutions, elections were very public among the small upper-class community with candidates listed on the fireplace mantles of clubs, and election results sometimes published in the newspapers. Thus the club’s membership decisions had a larger import than simply adding names to membership lists. Ideally, the election process was rational and logical, guaranteeing that only the best candidates gained membership. In the late nineteenth century, perhaps the most successful club in this endeavor was the Travellers’ Club, which managed to maintain its reputation for exclusivity without caprice. In all clubs, candidates were excluded for a variety of reasons, typically related to status, politics, or simple spite. With the daunting task of discriminating in a seemingly indiscriminate world, few clubs escaped election drama and scandal.
The election process was the prime opportunity to put exclusivity into practice, as clubmen could directly express who was in and who was out. The methods of election at West End clubs were remarkably similar. Members nominated candidates, vouched for their eligibility and added their names to a sometimes-lengthy waiting list. Waiting lists tended to be cited as a source of pride among clubs, signifying the desirability and popularity of the institution. Many of the club histories celebrate their high points of demand. The Army and Navy Club had 3,000 candidates waiting in 1865 (Firebrace, Army and Navy, 72), the Athenaeum boasted a typical waiting list of 1,600 or sixteen years in the 1890s (Waugh, Athenaeum, 32), while White’s could still claim a nine-year waiting list in the 1990s (Lejeune, White’s, ix). Each candidate’s name, family, and profession (if any) was recorded in a book, which was on display in the club before an election by ballot took place. Candidates could wait months or even years before their election depending on the popularity of the club at the time. When a candidate came up for election, his supporters championed his cause among members, and often wrote letters of endorsement to the committee. Such support was essential for the success of prospective candidates (Blake, “Victorian Brooks’s, 19-20).
Leading up to an election night, those who proposed new members would canvass opinion and try to encourage their friends to attend in support of their candidate. A typical example was an inveterate clubman who had a nephew up for election at both the Garrick Club and the New Club in Edinburgh on the same evening. Knowing that the New Club was in the throes of a blackballing upsurge, he decided to be at that club to further his suit, and wrote asking a friend to help stir up support in London for the less contentious Garrick Club ballot (Blackwood, Garrick Archives). When Charles Merivale received an anonymous letter warning him he might be blackballed at the Garrick, he informed his proposer and seconder who tried to settle the matter before the ballot took place. In this case, the truth came to light, and when the petty nature of the dispute was revealed, the election proceeded successfully (Merivale, Bar, Stage and Platform, 48-50).
Some clubs had specific qualifications for membership. For example, the Garrick Club catered to the dramatic arts and had only actors, writers, managers, and wealthy patrons as members. The Athenaeum Club required specific eminence in or patronage of the arts, science, politics, or religion before admission. The Travellers’ has a rule, still in existence, that all candidates must have traveled at least 500 miles from London to be eligible. The Reform and the Carlton sought members with more or less formal ties to their respective political parties. With such qualifications, election would seem a straightforward matter; with the right background, interests, and friends, any man would gain admission to the right club. However, candidates were rarely blackballed for not meeting specified preconditions for membership as the selection and nomination process typically eliminated any such obvious problems. Instead, members wielded the black ball for any number of reasons from the trivial to the deeply personal.
. . . .
It is difficult to determine how socially damaging a blackballing actually was. For a man on the boundaries of respectable or upper-class life, it could serve as the deciding blow to his hopes for social advancement. However, for a man of title and position, it might only damage his ego. Blackballing was common enough that Vanity Fair’s etiquette scenarios covered the situation. In one case at a country-house party a young university graduate meets the man who blackballed him for an exclusive club and is told the man blackballs everyone as a rule. The two men become friends over the course of the weekend, and the old man volunteers proposing the graduate he once blackballed for membership at his club—an awkward situation indeed. The solution proposed is to accept the old man’s offer without hard feelings and without any allusion to the previous ballot (“Hard Case,” 353-354).
In real life, however, most people realized that a candidate’s natural reaction would not always be good humored. When members of the Garrick blackballed legendary actor Henry Irving, the chairman of the committee wrote to him in an effort to assuage any offense. He attempted to put the affair in perspective while offering to repropose him at the earliest opportunity. The chairman ventured:
Will you not be offended if I take the liberty of saying further (as a man who, in nearly sixty years, has seen much of Clubs) that after all the rejection of a candidate only means that somebody dislikes him—and I suppose you have not the pretension to be liked by everybody.
The chairman was correct and Irving went on to become one of the best-known members of the Club (Taylor, Garrick Archives). Some men, however, felt that everybody should indeed like them. Tempers flared near the end of the century when the Travellers’ Club blackballed a friend of the Prince of Wales: the always controversial Cecil Rhodes (Hibbert, Edward VII, 174). After the blackballing, the duke of Fife, Earl Gray, A. B. Mitford, and Sir Francis Knollys (at the behest of the Prince of Wales) wrote a series of letters protesting the results. While the committee and trustees of the Travellers’ recognized that they had had a problem of “grave importance,” they were powerless to overturn the election results (Travellers’ Club Minute Book, 387). The Travellers’ Club blackballed many prominent men, and even the support of the Prince of Wales was not enough to outweigh club sentiment.
- Exclusion in Theory: Ideal Society, Ideal Clubmen
- Gentlemen Behaving Badly: Gambling
- Epilogue: Clubland after 1918
- A Clubland Bibliography
Milne-Smith, Amy. London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in late-Victorian Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Last modified 25 September 2013