The author enlivens his narrative with some entertaining anecdotes and a splendid cast of characters from that well-known dandy Beau Brummell, who appraised ladies from the large bay window in White’s, to Colonel Dan MacKinnon, a Battle of Waterloo veteran and founder member of the Guards’ Club, who amused his friends by climbing over the furniture like a monkey and dressed up as a nun to play a joke on the Duke of Wellington; and Charles James Fox, the notorious gambler who would drop £12,000 in an afternoon... This book inevitably focuses on the venerable historic clubs at the expense of more contemporary establishments, so modern-day counterparts such as Soho House and the Groucho warrant just a fleeting mention. From a peak of 400 gentlemen’s clubs in the late 19th century, the author tells us clubland now comprises just 50 clubs. That’s contingency for you.
As Stephen Hoare shows in his sober study of these institutions, clubland represents “a sedate experience based on shared British values”. Most of the clubs are housed in beautiful, solid 18th and 19th-century buildings, usually by James Wyatt, Charles Barry or Alfred Waterhouse. The Reform, for example, an Italianate palazzo in Pall Mall, was constructed in 1841 at a cost of £84,000 and is a popular film location — Phileas Fogg, in Jules Verne’s book and David Niven’s performance, set off from there to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.