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The Athenæum

More Than Just Another London Club


 Michael Wheeler


 New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020

Hardback. 420 p. 36 colour illustrations

ISBN 978-0300246773. $50/£35


 Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière–Lyon 2



Seen from abroad, London gentlemen’s clubs appear as a quintessentially British institution. Even if the oldest one, White’s, was founded in 1693, most of them were established in the nineteenth century. In 2024, the Athenæum will celebrate its bicentenary, and this may well be the reason why Professor Michael Wheeler decided to spend six years researching those almost two centuries of existence. Obviously, previous anniversaries had been duly commemorated in their time by various publications. In 1894, the Reverend F.G. Waugh wrote The Athenæum Club and its Associations, no more than a “slim volume” [270]. In 1926, for the first hundred years of the Pall Mall club, journalist Humphry Ward was chosen to produce a commemorative book in which he used the research accumulated by historian Henry Tedder, whose work was left unfinished when he died in August 1924; more than two thirds of Ward’s History of the Athenæum were occupied by “potted biographies” [96]. Finally, in 1975, F.R. Cowell published The Athenæum : Club and Social Life in London, 1824-1974, which ended on a “lament over modern Britain” [286]. Since the Athenæum and Clubland more generally have managed to reinvent themselves over the last fifty years, the need existed for a new approach to a “Society” which singularised itself right from the beginning by being openly non-partisan and by welcoming the country’s intellectual glories rather than the landed and the titled. Following chronologically the trajectory of the club, The Athenæum : More Than Just Another London Club is divided into four parts, devoted to the creation and early years (1823-30), the Victorian era, until the redecoration of the building and change in the status of the club (1830-90), the somewhat stagnant period which came next (1890-1939), and finally the time of decline and renaissance, bringing us to the present day.

How does one write the history of a London club? A dry list of its members and a mere survey of the various rules successively added to the original ones would obviously make most unpalatable reading. Such basic data have to be fleshed out, and this is exactly what Michael Wheeler does, underlining all the social and professional connections between the now more or less famous individuals who were elected members, not forgetting their links of friendship. He thus produces a sort of intellectual portrait of several decades, with references to the cultural and political battles which were fought in Britain all through the last two centuries. Wheeler can also briefly focus on particularly flamboyant members, such as “Mummy Pee” Pettigrew (elected in 1830), who “entertained his friends by carrying out autopsies on mummies, and was asked by the duke of Hamilton to preserve his body after death” [98], or the Reverend Canon Brian Dominick Frederick Titus Brindley, a liturgist well-known for his red-heeled shoes as much as for the fantasies about young men which provoked his fall from grace in 1989 [319].

It all started in the early 1820s, when John Wilson Croker, an MP and first secretary of the Admiralty, decided to create a “literary club” in the widest meaning of the word. As the reader is usefully reminded by Professor Wheeler, “literary” and “scientific” were not opposing terms in the first half of the nineteenth century, “when scientific papers were written in polished English prose, often embellished with classical allusions, and when scientific discovery and literary work often went hand in hand” [14-15]. Croker’s ambition was to create an informal site of discussion, a place of cross-fertilisation, where the artists, writers and patrons of a recently victorious nation could meet. The committee he gathered, seconded by Sir Humphrey Davy, gave a more clearly scientific turn to the society which was still without a name on the day of its inaugural meeting, Monday 16 February 1824. It took as a temporary address the apartments of 12, Waterloo Place, vacated by the Union Club. Over twelve months, the one thousand original members were selected. As a sign of the club’s commitment to intellectual exchange, most of them were polymaths, with few writers strictly speaking, even if being a “man of letters” was one of the criteria to become a member. Several years were then necessary for the Athenæum to build its own clubhouse. When Carlton House was demolished, a new site was found and, in a time of Greek revival, the aim of the Prince Regent being to outshine Paris, a protégé of John Nash was asked to draw the plans: Decimus Burton designed a simple but elegant building with a portico and a frieze, characterised by neoclassical sobriety, which opened in February 1830, a few months before the death of George IV.

Faced with growing debts, the Athenæum soon resorted to a solution it would use many times along its history: welcoming new members. Two hundred of them were required, one hundred being selected by the committee, the other hundred being elected by ballot. Thanks to the new “Rule II”, “persons of distinguished eminence” could be fast-tracked into the club without having to cool their heels on an already long waiting list: a “Rule II candidate” could join the club in two rather than ten or fifteen years. In 1838, as forty people were still needed to attain the objective of twelve hundred members, the committee proceeded to the rapid selection of the so-called “Forty Thieves”, who included such promising luminaries as Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, then aged 26 and 29 respectively. The growing library of the club soon made it necessary to create more shelf space to accommodate dozens of new books (in 1830, Burton had provided for 4000 volumes, but they were ten times as numerous in 1860), and poor ventilation could not be easily remedied in spite of the experiments led by physicist Michael Faraday. During the Victorian age, as a club whose members covered a wide range of ideologies, the Athenæum weathered two Reform Bills and a few religious controversies. It was even open-minded enough to tolerate the irregular private lives of several famous figures, like John Stuart Mill (who had fallen in love with a married woman before she became his second wife) or Richard Burton, well-known as a specialist of the East but less so as a closet pornographer. “Diversity and heterodoxy were certainly in evidence” [149].

In 1890, the Athenæum was entirely redecorated by such pillars of the Aesthetic Movement as Sir Edward John Poynter, PRA, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. While their contribution made the building even more sumptuous and daring in the eyes of their contemporaries, the institution itself slowly turned into “a bulwark against the forces of change and modernity” [159]. The club now counted more Professors than MPs and in 1902, nine of the twelve recipients of the Order of Merit were Athenians. More than ever, Athenæum rhymed with Mausoleum, like a cathedral providing the safety of rest and routine. During World War I, those characteristics were further set into relief, while the club shared the same restrictions as the rest of the country and contributed to the war effort. Among the “Owls” (a nickname due to the association with the Greek goddess of wisdom), there were war writers, war artists, spies, and even conscientious objectors like Bertrand Russell. The Roaring Twenties were a time of reserve and dignity, when only mature and established personalities were recruited, rather than young men of promise. Despite its anti-modern stance, and a steep decline in the number of candidates, the Athenæum welcomed Aldous Huxley in 1922, Lytton Strachey in 1931 and W.B. Yeats in 1939. An annexe for ladies was created in 1936, where members could be joined by their wives (it would remain open until 1961).

World War II was marked by the election of exiled foreign leaders and ministers – De Gaulle was one of them. The bomb was very much discussed, but also the questions of economic and moral reconstruction. The mid-1950s marked the beginning of a period of financial instability for most London clubs, and the Athenæum had to find new means of saving on expenses (selling some of its books was contemplated, but refused). Confronted with the rise of the middle class and of youth culture, it was more and more often seen as the preserve of the Establishment, welcoming eminent artists only when they were in their old age: Benjamin Britten was 61 when he became a member in 1974, barely two years before his death. The 1980s opened an era of great changes. The notion of accepting women members started being discussed in 1984, but only became reality in 2002. The dress code for both gentlemen and ladies then had to be reconsidered, even though composer John Tavener persistently objected to wearing a tie. A new programme of activities was introduced, with talks, films, concerts and even semi-staged operas, the demand for seats being much greater than the supply. Music and history have become the dominant private passions of members (after the death of Seamus Heaney in 2013 and P.D. James in 2014, literature was only represented through academic writers, and Bridget Riley was the only painter). Nevertheless, the Athenæum remains “an institution which nurtures civilised conversation and companionship, traditional standards and etiquette, and access to a great library and high-quality cultural and social events” [325].



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