The month of September is known as "birthday month" in my family as we have three significant birthdays, which have each developed their own traditions. A "boys" activity for husband and his "birthday boy" son, a pool party of little girls for my eldest granddaughter, and an elegant night as a foursome at The Chatham Club in Savannah to celebrate my good friend and daughter-in-law’s big day – complete with champagne cocktails, of course.
Our recent elegant dinner has made my mind turn to the traditions of club membership back in London, the home of the private club, and my own club there called Home House. For many years I was a member there of Home House in central London on Portman Square, and boy does it have an interesting history.
This fabulous and historic building, which has been restored to preserve its original magnificence, was commissioned in 1773 by Elizabeth Home, who became the notorious Countess of Home. The grand building was designed first by King George III’s architect, James Wyatt, and then completed by Robert Adam, another famous architect who is responsible for the sumptuous neo classical style that was his trademark. Architecturally, the building was one of the grandest in London in the late 1700s and still is today.
The Countess of Home was a childless widow in her 60s when she decided to build a pavilion of entertainment and enjoyment for her own pleasure. Known in London as the "Queen of Hell" due to her scandalous tastes, Countess Home’s idea of a good time was a heady mix of wild parties, seductions and overindulgence at Home House. The huge building is full of little hidden bedrooms, bars and hiding places, each of which no doubt has dozens of stories to tell.
On her death in 1784, the building passed to her nephew and later his heirs, and for many years was leased to famous tenants, including the Ambassador of France and Earl Grey of tea fame.
In 1932 the Courtauld Institute of Art rented the building before it fell into disrepair in the 1980s. Home House was vacant and included on the World Monuments Watch List of the 100 most endangered sites, although it was occasionally used as a film location and featured in Annie Lennox’s 1992 music video "Walking on Broken Glass."
In 1996 it was rescued, restored and opened as a private members club. Visit www.homehouse.co.uk for more information.
I joined Home House soon after it re-opened and used it as a central London base for events, client meetings and entertaining for my London PR agency I founded the same year. One of the reasons I liked the club was that it was very different to the traditional stuffy and "men’s only" gentlemen’s clubs of London. They have an informal dress code. They welcome dogs. It strikes a great balance between business needs and social fun. My husband is still a member and I love to go when I return to London.
These types of private clubs have their roots in the coffee and chocolate houses that became popular in London in the late 1600s. Private clubs with dining, drinking and hotel facilities became a sign of success with upper-class London males in the 1800s. White’s Club is believed to be the first of its type and began the trend of formalizing into club memberships with permanent quarters on London’s Pall Mall and St. James Street, a posh area that became known as "clubland."
The 19th century was the heyday of the gentleman’s club, which were basically private mansions where men smoked, drank, ate, read newspapers in the libraries, gambled, played billiards and socialized with other men of equal status in society. Members were nominated and elected (or at least not blackballed by other members) and clubs often revolved around similar political beliefs or interests.
Among the political clubs of the Victorian period were The Reform Club, an institution related to the Liberal political party with a name relating to the Reform Act of 1832, as well as The Conservative Club and the Carlton founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1832. Other clubs were for members and graduates of universities (The Oxford and Cambridge Clubs), for automobile lovers in the early 1900s (The Royal Automobile Club), for members of the armed forces (The Army and Navy Club), for travelers who had been more than 500 miles from London, which was a big deal in the 1800s (The Traveler’s Club) and for artists, writers and scientists and their patrons (Athenaeum Club).
It was not uncommon for a gentleman to have membership of more than one club, and waiting lists were often for years. The clubs were generally furnished in an austere "bachelor" style, foregoing the "feminine" clutter of the typical Victorian house. All these clubs still exist and some still do not allow women to join either at all or on a "full access" basis (really!).
How the club tradition crossed the Atlantic and developed into U.S. style country clubs of today is the topic for another day. For now, I will leave you with a great quote from American writer, comedian, stage, film, radio and television star, Groucho Marx: "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member!"
God bless America!