“No Ladies Please”: The Exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs In 21st Century Britain:

What’s the origin of the word “golf”? Brent Kelley, an expert on the game, insists in “golf.about.com” that it’s derived from the medieval Dutch “kolf” (meaning “club”), entered Scots dialect as “gouf” and finally developed into its present form in the 16th Century. Kelley also acknowledges, however, that there’s a myth, or “urban legend”,  that “golf” was initially an acronym for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden” – though he dismisses this as a “joke made by golfers in the late 19th century, when ‘no-women-allowed’ golf clubs were far more common than they are now”.

This particular sport has since then moved with the times, but it seems that many of Britain’s “Gentlemen’s Clubs”, especially those based in London, have been extremely reluctant to follow golf’s example. As the veteran Labour Party MP, Alan Johnson, pointed out on BBC TV’s “This Week” programme  (9th July): “For all the progress we’ve made in the world, there’s a bunch of old buffers who are still somewhere back in the 19th century”. He was referring particularly to those members of “male sanctuaries” such as The “Cavalry & Guards Club” in Piccadilly (founded 1810) ,“Boodles”  (1762), Brook’s (1764) and Pratt’s (1857)- all three located in the St. James SW1 area  – for whom (as depicted by the “Daily Express”) “a crucial part of the traditional clubland ethos is to provide the peace and quiet offered by exclusively male companionship”.

On 6th July, “The Garrick Club” in Covent Garden (1831) voted 50.5% in favour of admitting women . However, as the journalist Amelia Gentleman noted in “The Guardian” the following day, the Garrick’s rules can only be changed by a two-thirds majority. So women can still only go as guests to a club which “stands at the heart of the British Establishment, with supreme court judges, cabinet ministers, academics, senior civil servants, diplomats and journalists as members” .One member explained to Amelia that the club is “better” that way because men behave differently if there are no women around. “There’s camaraderie, banter, an egalitarian atmosphere in which no-one is trying to impress anyone else”.

There was similar dissension last year at The Traveller’s Club in Pall Mall, which was founded in 1819 and has the Duke of Edinburgh as its patron. According to the “Daily Telegraph” columnist, James Edgar, a “chasm” emerged between those members who believed excluding women was “wholly indefensible” and the 60% who feared that “male congeniality would be destroyed” and the club would be invaded by “the shrill voices of hen parties”.

The Travellers thus remains “male members only”. Likewise The East India Club (1849), The Turf Club (1861), The Portland Club (1815), The Savage Club (1857) and “Whites”, which was established in 1693 by an Italian called Francesco Bianco and from where the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned so (it is said) he could project himself as “a modern political figure”.

In his book “The Gentleman’s Clubs of London”, the author Anthony Lejeune defined a good club as “a refuge from the vulgarity of the outside world, a reassuringly fixed point, the echo of a civilized English way of living”.  The “Daily Express” has emphasized that it would be a mistake to assume that the “leather-upholstered watering holes” associated with the inter-war years (1915-1939)  “where newspapers are ironed, coins are plunged into boiling water to disinfect them and waiters are called by the same name (such as “George” or “Georgina”) ”, are a thing of the past.

The mark of a really grand gentleman’s club, asserts the Daily Express, is that it doesn’t have a website and doesn’t put it’s name outside: “If you’re not posh enough to know where it is, you’re not posh enough to go in”.

In The Guardian on 10th July, Geeorge Pitcher (Editor-in-chief of International Business Times UK) conceded that there are “perfectly reasonable arguments” as well for female-only clubs. There are at least three of these in London: The University Women’s Club, “Grace Belgravia” , which has a spa, gym and medical facilities, and the “Other Club” for professional women, where men are only allowed in if they are escorted.

In an era of anti-discrimination regulations, how is it possible anyway that such strict exclusion policies can still be applied?  During the drafting of the Equality Act 2010, it became evident that banning them altogether would be impossible (as Amelia Gentleman has observed) “without simultaneously making it illegal to have, for example, women-only swimming clubs”. The Act therefore allows an association (if it has at least 25 members) to “restrict its membership to people who share a protected characteristic” – so “a gardening club for menis not obliged to admit women as members”. The organization must have rules specifying who can be members and a genuine selection process”. Among those permitted under the legislation are: private sports clubs (such as for golf), ex-forces clubs, alumni clubs, social clubs, working men’s clubs, gaming clubs and drinking clubs.




Filed under: Society | Posted on July 13th, 2015 by Colin D Gordon

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