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London Clubs and Victorian Politics

Seth Alexander Thévoz looks at how Victorian clubs in London’s West End played a role in oiling the nation’s political wheels.

A map of Ladies and Gentlemen's Clubs of the West End of London, c.1910.

‘Westminster cannot go on like some sort of gentlemen’s club’ was the familiar refrain throughout the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. Yet in the 19th century the House of Commons was revered by Charles Dickens as ‘the best club in London’ and the world of clubs and Parliament overlapped heavily. Indeed the present Houses of Parliament, designed in 1836 by club architect Charles Barry, can be seen as a product of the age of clubs. While today’s MPs have run into trouble with overnight accommodation, printing, postage and meals all being covered by the taxpayer, these needs were met for Victorian MPs by their clubs.

Victorian London saw an explosion in the popularity of clubs. At the beginning of the 19th century London’s West End contained some 30 such establishments, but by 1900 the number had multiplied to over 250. Clubs provided a convenient and regulated way of meeting others with shared interests, affording men of even modest incomes the means to live in luxurious surroundings they could ill afford at home. (Indeed, one miserly 19th-century member, Charles Agar, was so reluctant to leave the Carlton Club each evening that the night porter invariably had to search the building for him.) Although strict social conventions forbade the meeting of strangers in society without introduction, clubs offered a unique opportunity to make new acquaintances, since being a fellow club member carried its own recommendation.

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