Trouble in clubland: The backlash at London’s poshest clubs
Traditionalists are fed up with a new wave of women and 'wokery'
Morning — very few Londoners have ever stepped inside Pratt’s, the Garrick or the Athenaeum. They’re three highly exclusive private members’ clubs in central London that all had dirty laundry aired publicly in the past few days. In a nutshell, women and ‘wokery’ are rubbing traditionalists up the wrong way. That’s after your Thursday briefing below.
Plus: an investigation into the takeaway conmen operating in London, and a public split over the green belt.
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What we’ve spied
🍔 Takeaway couriers in London are selling the use of their accounts to people who do not have the right to work in Britain, an investigation has found. The Times has identified more than 100 ads on Facebook where profiles are advertised for weekly fees of up to £140 — meaning sometimes the driver dropping off your takeaway may not be who they say they are. Meanwhile, those renting out the accounts can control when someone works, take a cut of earnings and in some cases withhold wages. The paper speaks to one courier, Adam, who was knocked off his bike when he was hit by a car in London, but asked witnesses at the crash scene not to call an ambulance, fearing it would lead to his deportation.
🏞️ A slightly awkward split over building on the green belt has emerged between mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour leader Keir Starmer. As reported in a recent Spy, Starmer has recently suggested he’ll allow more homes to be built on the protected land around London, a move some think could ease the capital’s housing crisis. But Khan has now said he believes any building should be “very limited”. “The mayor is committed to protecting London’s green belt. It serves a number of vital functions, including mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis and protecting green spaces that Londoners rely upon,” said Khan’s spokesperson.
💰 Plans are in the works to trial universal basic income in north London. Think tank Autonomy is now seeking around £1.5m for a pilot programme that will draw participants from East Finchley, as well as central Jarrow, in north-east England. The trial of a set salary for all participants regardless of means is already quite far along — researchers have been consulting residents in East Finchley about their plans for the past two years. Participants will be drawn randomly and can remain anonymous.
🚨 London MP Bob Stewart has been charged with a racially aggravated public order offence after an incident outside a reception hosted by the Bahraini embassy. Police had launched an investigation into the Conservative MP for Beckenham after he was confronted by an activist whom he allegedly told: “Go back to Bahrain”. He’ll appear before Westminster magistrates court on July 5.
🏘️ Families in an east London borough could be evicted if their children do not inform on people who commit knife crime. The drastic comments were made by the leader of Barking and Dagenham council, Darren Rodwell, who’s seen as a rising figure in the Labour party. “If your child is involved in an incident and knows who the perpetrators are, and refuses to speak out, we will look at reviewing your housing agreement,” Rodwell said. “Everyone must play their part in stopping these crimes. As parents, it is up to us to know where our children are, and that we play an active role.”
🚆 TfL has announced the new London Transport Commissioner: Andy Lord, previously managing director of London Underground. He had some relatively good news to start his term, with data yesterday showing that tube use is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. The drop-off in passengers since Covid significantly dented TfL’s finances and meant it had to be bailed out by government to keep services running. Elsewhere on the tube, the underground 4G and 5G network has now been expanded to Camden Town, ahead of further rollout to the West End in the summer.
🎵 The start of the London festival season is already taking a toll on residents in south London. A group of locals living close to Brockwell Park have complained of “nightmare” noise levels, illegal parking and excessive fencing over the past two weeks from festivals including Wide Awake and Mighty Hoopla. Organiser Brockwell Live said the sound levels had been agreed with Lambeth Council and were "built into our licence".
📣 Ridley Road Market in Dalston was brought to a standstill on Tuesday for a popular trader’s funeral procession. Steven Clarke was known as The Suitcase Man and had worked at the market for more than 40 years. On Saturday a bench in his memory is being unveiled near his pitch.
🍝 Farewell to Caravaggio, a beloved Italian restaurant in Camberwell that’s suddenly shut after 20 years. "Gutted doesn't come close. Thanks to all the staff over the years. SE5 will miss you,” said one regular Max Baxter. The business is apparently being taken over by neighbouring restaurant Silk Road.
🚴♂️ Nude cyclists are headed to central London this Saturday for the World Naked Bike Ride. They’ll converge for a grand finale near Wellington Arch at around 5.30pm, with more than 1,000 riders expected to make it there.
🏊♂️ Open water swimming is back at Canary Wharf. It’s the second summer where the waters of the Middle Dock by One Canada Square are being opened up to swimmers of all levels, this year for the price of £8.50.
“In a world where there are few small pleasures…”
There’s been a lot of noise lately from an insular part of London usually known for its discretion — clubland, the area around St James’s that’s home to the city’s oldest and poshest private members’ clubs. Traditionalists are kicking up a fuss over recent modernisation efforts. One club has decided to finally let in women, one is facing renewed calls to consider it, and another is turning against the woman who’s ended up in charge.
First is Pratt’s, perhaps the most exclusive club in central London, with a six-year waiting list to join its 700 members that are mostly drawn from the aristocracy. Since it was founded in 1847 in a townhouse by William Nathaniel Pratt, membership of Pratt’s has been strictly male-only. Notable members have included Winston Churchill, who’s said to have once popped in after a day at the House of Commons to cook up some chops, Harold Macmillan, Lord Heseltine and George Osborne. Stuffed animal heads, including a rhinoceros, adorn the club’s crimson walls, and it inspired the fictional “Blades” club in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Confidentiality is a key rule, with anyone blabbing on the unguarded opinions spoken in the club’s basement bar or around the 14-seat dining room shunned by members. For the past 166 years, women have been permitted to enjoy a light lunch as guests at Pratt’s, but by evening they’re barred.
That all changed last week though, when the club sent out a surprise email to members. It stated that the club’s committee members and owner, William Cavendish, the Earl of Burlington and heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire, had changed the rules with “immediate effect” to allow women to fully sign up. The email explained that the move was “a positive, necessary and evolving change to enhance and invigorate the club”.
Some members soon grumbled to the Daily Mail. “This email arrived overnight – there has been no consultation with the membership and no ballot,” one told the paper. “In a world where there are few small pleasures, the rules governing membership at Pratt's was one. It will be the end of Pratt's as we know it. Lots of people will resign or simply stop coming in, which amounts to the same thing. And I happen to know that women have not been pressing for it.” The club’s longtime chairman, Lord Soames, the grandson of Churchill and a Tory MP who was expelled by Boris Johnson for voting against Brexit, took to the Telegraph to snap back: “This is going to happen, it’s not very unusual and they are going to do so and that’s the end of it.”
There were once more than 400 gentlemen’s clubs like Pratts in clubland, but there are now only around 40 left today. An even smaller number — around 10 — have still stuck to their male-only rules. Some made the switch when their finances deteriorated, hoping an expanded membership could turn things around, while others, like the incredibly wealthy Pratt’s, have just decided to move with the times.
Of the male-only holdouts still remaining is the Garrick, near Leicester Square, which faced fresh calls to let women in after the changes at Pratt’s. Leading the charge is fashion entrepreneur Emily Bendell, who’s been on the Garrick’s case since at least September 2020. Back then she had sent a legal letter to the club stating that its ban on female members amounted to sex discrimination under section 29 of the Equality Act of 2010. She said at the time: “This is where professional connections are made at the highest level and women are excluded from that.”
Bendell is now calling for the Garrick to give its members a vote on lifting the ban on women. The club was founded in 1831 and is now particularly popular with actors and broadcasters — members include Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Bonneville and Jeremy Paxman. Michael Gove is also believed to be a member. The other big contingent are lawyers, and indeed Bendell has previously gathered up the signatures of at least 100 KCs who believed male-only membership is particularly exclusionary for their profession, given senior male lawyers often network at the club. This includes Cherie Blair, who’s told of the time she was left standing outside the Garrick while her future husband and fellow student Tony waltzed in.
The challenge facing Bendell’s campaign though is in part procedural. A narrow majority of Garrick members — 50.5% – actually voted to allow women back in 2015, but it came to nothing as the club’s rules require at least two-thirds in favour. And there are still plenty who argue “men need their safe space too”. “If you want a place where you can relax as a man with other men, talk about men’s things, shuffle about in the library without worrying if women are looking at you askance, and generally let your hair down, then a men-only club is what you need,” wrote Melanie McDonagh in response to Bendell in the Times.
Getting women is just half the battle for reformers though, as proved by another club battle at the Athenaeum this week. Founded in 1824, the club was relatively early in ending its male-only ban back in 2002. But now the club’s chairwoman, Dame Ann Limb, is in a showdown with traditionalists over ‘woke’ rule changes. Some of the opposition is being driven by financial concerns, with members fearing the club’s collections of art and books might be at risk of selloff to plug budget holes.
But according to a report in the Times, Limb’s sexuality is playing a part in the club’s debate. One member said: “They are demanding ‘we want our club back’ and some of what they are saying is absolutely horrific. Dame Ann has received a vast amount of personal abuse. I am sure in the vernacular of today she is seen by some of them as being excessively woke and the fact she is a lesbian just makes it worse.”
And among Limb’s rule changes that are causing friction: a relaxation of rules to permit “soft shoes in muted shades not designed for sports” in the club.
We don’t blame you if you find this all a bit archaic. Much of the private members’ club scene in London has left the stuffy drawing rooms of clubland behind. New commercial clubs in the vein of Soho House and 5 Hertford Street are springing up from Shepherd’s Bush to Shoreditch for a more modern take on elite exclusivity. And then there are the capital’s working men’s clubs, which despite their own long histories managed to uniformly drop male-only rules back in 2007.
There’s good reason to worry about who gets into London’s poshest clubs though — to this day they’re still the backdrop to key moments at the very top of British politics. Just last year the Carlton Club, also in St James’s, had media camped outside, as inside Cabinet ministers discussed giving Liz Truss the boot after just 40 days in office. The club was also the scene of Chris Pincher’s drunken behaviour, with the resulting fallout partly bringing down Boris Johnson.
Of course, the other thing to bear in mind is that women or no women, London’s private members’ clubs really are quite private. “The owners of Pratt's believe that membership should be based on recommendation, not gender,” the club stressed in its statement about the rule change. In clubland, it’s not only who you are, but who you know.
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