TLR 6 – Members Only

Private members’ clubs and secret societies go together in fiction like boy meets girl.

In real life, I don’t think I’ve ever been near the inside of one – certainly not one of the grand old clubs in London such as the Reform Club or the Savile.

a room with ornate panelling, tables and chairs, the Savile Club in London

The Guild of Students at university doesn’t count. Nor the social clubs open only to employees of certain large organisations, of which I might have been entitled but never partook.

A relic of an age where polite society was limited to those of an aristocratic background, or by dint of wealth, many of the gentlemen’s clubs of the Victorian era still exist (have a look inside some of them – and some modern counterparts – here).

Places which provided support functions for a single man – always a man – in a place far from home, at a time when travel took days on horseback instead of hours by private jet. Laundry facilities; food and drink; a library, armchairs, browse expensive periodicals and pass the time between meals, or business meetings.

Somewhere you didn’t have to fight for a table, struggle to be served, or shout to be heard.

You could gamble, at a time when gambling was restricted, and speculate, at a time when profit was a slow process that relied on sailing-ships, sugar and rum.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how groups of like-minded people gathering together to discuss what interests them might lead to accusations of sedition. In the 19th Century, there was plenty about. Most of it came from the “lower” end of the social spectrum, unhappy with their lot and increasingly vocal.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to what was then Colonial Australia for the crime of meeting together and swearing an oath of secrecy. Their secrecy involved asking for a living wage with the threat of co-ordinated strike action against their employers, and the employers did not like that one little bit.

Conservative and Liberal Clubs in towns and cities across the UK, neo-classical columns flanking the doors in imitation of the 18th century’s stately homes, provided places for employers and shareholders to discuss their political affiliations in comfort.

By the late 19th Century, Acts of Parliament had been enacted to recognise trades unions. The labour movement in the UK argued for better working conditions for the male workforce; employers undercut their power by employing women, or immigrants, on reduced wages – wages too low for a free man’s dignity, or to support a family with any degree of comfort.

For those who want to learn more, the Dictionary of Victorian London has a whole subsection devoted to clubs of all sorts, including Working Men’s Clubs.

By 1888, free libraries such as those funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie were being built, such as the one in his home town of Dunfermline.

“The facilities included a library room, ladies’ and gentlemen’s reading rooms, a recreation room, a smoking room, and a flat for the librarian.”

These were places where ordinary men and women could gather to discuss politics, economics or philosophy. To study art, or engineering, and improve their understanding of the world. To discover and read pamphlets of all persuasions, and a place to host social clubs and societies beyond the scope of those citizens without sumptuous parlours or libraries of their own.

Somewhere to meet like-minded individuals.

To mingle with the opposite sex (or the same), with the opportunity of romance.

A place to organise sedition, if that was to your liking.

Social clubs and secret societies proliferate in fiction, too.

Dickens wrote the first fictional club in The Pickwick Papers, in 1837, so the notion was well-established by the time Sherlock Holmes visits his brother Mycroft at the Diogenes Club.

Jack London invented The Assassination Bureau in the novel of the same name, Wodehouse the Drones Club in Jeeves & Wooster.

In real life or in fiction these are places with all the comforts of home, in a shared space with others of your social circle, where you or your characters can loosen their collar a little.

They exist as a nexus of power. They provide contacts with others in positions of influence or affluence, the Old School Tie brigade of “chums”. They are the very essence of the saying, “small world”.

And I decided I ought to build one of my own.

A location where my elderly hero, Louis Beauregard, kept his magical monitoring equipment and his weaponry. A forum to discuss the threat to the Sacred King and the goddess he served; a nexus of Establishment power focused on maintaining the supernatural status quo ante; a garrison wherein to muster a company of extraordinary gentlemen.

The Cuckoo Club.

The next post in this series is here.

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Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 11:00 am  Comments Off on TLR 6 – Members Only  
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