Ever considered staying in a club when in London?

And it allows you an insight into a secret slice of London life off limits to most Britons.

London clubs – once exclusive and designed to suit Philistine males who like to feel superior and relax in a comfy armchair over a malt whisky with men of the same ilk – have been a feature of British life since the days of Beau Brummell. There’s a statue of Brummell in Jermyn Street, the heart of his dandified fiefdom.

Beau Brummell – the original fashion influencer – in Jermyn Street, London. Alamy

Even in this social media age, there’s probably never been a fashion influencer quite like Brummell. He is credited with introducing trousers to London society, banishing Shakespearian hosiery forever.

So influential was Brummell that it is said he’d place himself in the front window of his club so wealthier gentlemen could spot what colour cravat, shirt or jacket he was wearing that morning – and rush out to the tailors of Jermyn Street or Savile Row to duplicate his attire.

Brummell came to a sticky end. He fell out with his patron – the Prince Regent, later George IV – addressing him as a “fat friend” and dying dissolute in Caen, France.

Gieves & Hawkes is one of the tailors on Savile Row that club members frequent for their suiting. Alamy

Brummell’s legacy remains in Clubland. Savile Row (north of Piccadilly) is still the street for a bespoke suit while Jermyn Street tends to concentrate on the other accoutrements of a gentleman: handcrafted shirts, shoes, umbrellas, walking sticks and Havana cigars.

Ian Fleming, seconded to MI5 during World War II, bought his shirts and cigars from Jermyn Street, so naturally they feature in his Bond thrillers. Fellow novelist Graham Greene worked for the intelligence agency, and is said to have enjoyed a pub whisky with Kim Philby, who was later exposed as a Soviet spy.

So Clubland is a vivid, unique slice of British social history – with the added benefits of antique furniture, fine art and elevated accents.


In 2022, Debrett’s – the authority for what remains of Britain’s upper classes – published a history of London’s private members’ clubs, explaining the first of them grew out of the 17th-century passion for coffee houses. There the likes of Dr Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and Samuel Pepys met up to “eat, drink, socialise, read newspapers and debate contemporary issues” while escaping “the domestic, female-dominated sphere” of their homes.

White’s, the oldest, grew out of White’s Chocolate House, founded in 1693. Evelyn Waugh, a member, referenced it in many guises in his novels.

The Carlton Club Banquet illustration shows a toast to Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield.  Alamy

“London clubs were concentrated in the affluent district around the St James area, in what became known as Clubland,” Debrett’s reports. “Originally aristocratic, by the early 19th century they were bastions of the contemporary class system, wielding extremely strict controls over the calibre of potential members.”

This led to “black balling”. In some of the 400 private clubs during Victorian times (there are now fewer than 40), a would-be member’s hopes could be dashed by the inclusion of a single black billiard ball among the white balls in an anonymous election.

“Typical clubs provided a formal dining room, a bar, a library and a suite of parlours for gambling,” Debrett’s explains.

Most appealed to men of like mind. White’s was for the Tories, Brooks’s (1764) for the Whigs, Boodles (1762) for the country set. As the political parties changed during the 19th century, The Carlton Club (1832) became the refuge for the Disraeli-era Conservatives, while The Reform Club (1836) was home to Gladstone’s Liberals.

The Reform Club on Pall Mall occupies a building designed by Sir Charles Barry. Alamy

Jules Verne had his hero Phileas Fogg set off from the Reform Club and returned to win a bet, having travelled around the world in 80 days.

Strict dress codes are mainly still observed: jackets and ties being obligatory in the poshest of establishments, though some relax the rules at the weekend. Each has its own idiosyncrasies. The Beefsteak Club was established in the 18th century for actors, politicians and writers who met for a lunch of beefsteak followed by toasted cheese. For some bizarre reason, all staff are addressed as “Charles”. At Pratt’s (1841), they’re called “George”.


As the Suffragette movement was gaining sway, the first women’s-only clubs were created, including the Alexandra (1884), Pioneer (1892), Bath Club (1894) and the Empress (1897). The University Women’s Club, founded in 1921, still bans male members, as does the AllBright (2018).

The Royal Over-Seas League club has no such gender hang-ups – nor racial ones, come to that. Founded in 1910, it has always been a not-for-profit members club “dedicated to championing international friendship”, primarily giving members of Commonwealth countries a place to stay in diplomatic London.

For some bizarre reason, all staff at the Beefsteak Club are addressed as “Charles”.

Many fellow guests during our stay were from Africa, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. The dress code is smart casual “though national/traditional dress equivalents are always welcome”. Guests are allowed to wear shorts or exercise wear for ventures outside as long as they don’t “linger” in the club’s public spaces.

The best rule? All mobile phones, laptops and tablets have to be switched to silent on entry.

More club options

Of course London also has an abundance of “new” clubs which appeal to a younger, equally affluent clientele – without offering accommodation.

Annabel’s, which opened in the early 1960s in Mayfair, is said to be the only nightclub the Queen ever visited (when she was 73).

Other clubs include The Ned, Soho House, Quo Vadis and The Curtain Club.

Need to know

Many Australian private member clubs have reciprocal arrangements with London clubs. Check whether it is worth joining a local club to gain cheaper entry to the London club of your choice. Not all offer accommodation (the Garrick, for example). The Royal Over-Seas League rosl.org.uk is at Six Park Place, St James, SW1A 1JB.

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