Petticoat Alley: London’s Forgotten Women’s Clubs

Despite their reputation, London’s private members’ clubs have never been entirely for men.

Luncheon at the Lyceum Club, London, 22 March 1916.  Left to right: Mrs Hawkins,  Lady Frances Balfour, president  of the Club, and Mrs Parker (Lord Kitchener’s sister). Mary Evans Picture Library.

The recent controversy at the Garrick Club has shone a fresh light on the question of women being admitted to private members’ clubs. Yet the history of London clubs is not – as is often thought – as simple as men keeping women at bay.

London has long been the global ‘capital’ of social clubs, home to over 600 such establishments from the 18th century to the present (not including thousands of ‘spin-off’ institutions, from sports clubs to working men’s clubs). Other cities have had social clubs, but none has had the concentration of London, which had 400 clubs by their Edwardian heyday. But while the prevailing image of them is of quintessentially masculine spaces, with ladies only admitted as guests on sufferance, this is not the case.

The first club with female members was launched in 1770 at 48 Pall Mall, making it older than all but three of today’s clubs. Ladies’ Boodle’s – otherwise known as ‘The Female Coterie’ – was a bold experiment in which female members could only be proposed by men, and men could only be proposed by women. It proved a short-lived experiment, closing by 1779.

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