Once the preserve of the aristocracy, and only the male ones at that, London’s members clubs are now open to most. From leather bound to business chic, Penelope Rance finds one that’s right for you
Address 37 St James’s Street, St James’s
Profile The oldest of London’s members clubs, this very British institution was in fact founded by an Italian immigrant, Francesco Bianco (Francis White), as a hot chocolate emporium. He flogged the exclusive beverage under the name Mrs White’s Chocolate Shop, but managed to transition from teashop to exclusive club despite the disapproval of the (understandably) paranoid monarch Charles II, who saw them as nests of dissent. Moving to St James’s Street in 1778, it was at the heart of clubland, renowned for its gaming tables and betting book (which records Lord Alvanley’s famous wager on a raindrop race) and as the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party. Former members include Beau Brummell, Edward VII, Oswald Mosley and David Cameron – who famously resigned over the club’s refusal to admit women, despite having been a member for over 15 years.
Entry £1,275, subs: £1,275
Membership requirements Being a man, ideally a Tory, and knowing people in high places at the club.
Special because The history of the place. It might be stuffy and elitist, but it has always been that way.
Address 104-105, Pall Mall, St James’s
Profile The palatial, Charles Barry-designed clubhouse is as impressive today as it was in 1841. Although no longer associated with any party, the club was once entirely politically motivated, being made up of the supporters of the Great Reform Act of 1832 – among them Whig peers and radical MPs, effectively making this the headquarters of the Liberal Party. Since the 1920s, however, it has been a social affair, and stated membership requirements are “character, talent and achievement”. JM Barrie and Winston Churchill were members, as was HG Wells. It was also the first members club to accept women on equal terms. You can stay in its “chambers” overnight, but don’t think of working – business papers are not permitted in the public rooms. Play billiards instead.
Entry £1,842, subs: £1,416
Membership requirements Must be proposed by two existing members.
Special because It is where the wager was conceived and laid for travelling around the world in 80 days.
University Women’s Club
Address 2 Audley Square, Mayfair
Profile Founded as an antidote to the misogyny of the gentlemen’s clubs of the day, the University Women’s Club has survived through more incarnations and addresses than most, and still provides accommodation and a welcoming environment to graduate, professional and business women in London. Owned and managed by the members, it eschews the stuffy vibe of many clubs. The committee makes an effort to create reciprocal relationships with clubs all over the world. One of its boons is the discounts it offers for local spas and beauty salons.
Entry £150, subs: £576
Membership requirements Being a woman. Proposal and seconding by current members, although exceptions are made.
Special because It’s survived in the face of equality and political correctness. Or perhaps because of them.
The Arts Club
Address 40 Dover Street, Mayfair
Profile Founded to “facilitate social intercourse” between those interested in art, literature or science, the Arts Club aimed high, and was rewarded with a membership that has included Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Franz Liszt and Auguste Rodin. It’s a place for socialising and relaxing, rather than working, and networking in a louche, artistic way, and there’s a suitably large number of dining and drinking options. The afternoon tea is really rather special. As one might expect, there’s an impressive art collection, and as one might not, in an institution of such a venerable age, a pretty decent nightclub.
Entry £2,000, subs: £1,500
Membership requirements A connection with the arts, literature or sciences. So pretty much anyone, as long as they are proposed and seconded by a member.
Special because it values art over money – as long as you can afford to pay the subs.
Address 28 Berkeley Square, Mayfair
Profile Home-from-home comfort, assuming your home is a 19th century gem with an impressive collection of contemporary art. A nice balance between the welcome of the original gentleman’s club and the needs of the modern businessperson, with the Club Room study offering a pleasant working environment. The membership is a mix of those from the property, art, fashion and finance worlds. As you’d expect from the team that runs Michelin-starred restaurants The Greenhouse and Umu, the restaurant, bar and wine list are all excellent.
Entry £250, subs: £1,000 (reduction for direct debit).
Membership requirements Proposal by a member of the club and an interview with the membership department before applications are put before the club committee.
Special because Once the residence of the chancellor of the exchequer, the Grade II Listed Georgian townhouse has one of the most exclusive addresses in town, overlooking the sweep of Berkeley Square.
The Groucho Club
Address 45 Dean Street, Soho
Profile Created by a group of publishers who wanted an exclusive-yet-relaxed hangout a world away from the stuffy image of the gentleman’s club, not least because half of them were women. Run by the members for the members, its focus is on media and the arts, and it has one of the finest collections in London, sometimes donated by up and coming artists in lieu of subs. It looks a bit shabby, which helps the celebrities who flock there to relax into the stripy furniture. With traditional British fare on the menu and a well-stocked bar, people come here to relax not to network. Known as the original contemporary members club, the waiting list is two years long, but it’s worth it.
Entry £695, subs: £695
Membership requirements Media types, artists, musicians, mates of the founders and those not easily star-struck. Must be proposed and seconded by current members.
Special because You could sip a whisky with Noel Gallaghe while Jools Holland tickles the ivories.
Address 20 Portman Square, Marylebone
Profile Built for Elizabeth, Countess of Home in the late 18th century, the charm of Home House lies in its history as well as its reincarnation as a very modern members club. The three refurbished Georgian terraces are a triumph of historic grandeur and cutting-edge design. Focused on the social, it has a wealth of lounges, bars and dining rooms, all decorated in an opulent style designed to imply that membership makes you a bit special. The rooms and suites are seen as an essential rather than an afterthought, as it’s assumed you’ll be partying long and late. The social calendar and number of linked societies are unrivalled, but don’t expect to get any work done.
Entry £1,840, subs: £1,840
Membership requirements Subject to the decision of the committee and a waiting list. You can pay to be a ‘member in waiting’ and get to the top of the list.
Special because A “Pleasure Palace” that will have you believing, if only for an evening, you’re a member of the Georgian aristocracy.
One Alfred Place
Address 1 Alfred Place, West End
Profile Created as a “business club” rather than a social environment, One Alfred Place is designed to make working comfortable. Members have access to the club’s communal areas, quiet zones for concentrated work, a restaurant and a bar. Private rooms can be booked for presentations, workshops and other events. The exclusive, spacious business environment is maintained by limiting the membership, which is made up of freelancers, corporate members, entrepreneurs and those who need extra space or a more luxurious office.
Entry Subs: £1,560 for up to 120 visits per year.
Membership requirements Prospective members must have a legitimate business interest, and applications are reviewed monthly by the club committee.
Special because Not pandering to the traditional selection criteria of social status or trade affiliation, it’s open to anyone looking for a place to do business in London.