Seasons takes a look at the private members clubs London that have dominated the upper echelons of London’s social scene since the dandy generation of the 19th century, and the new clubs emerging in the capital offering a private escape for today’s clientele. Words by KERRY SPENCER
Ever since Nick Jones rolled out his Soho House group of private members clubs London in the 1990s, London’s clubs have seen a new generation of clientele: media savvy, in-the-know 20, 30 and 40-something members. Home House, Shoreditch House and Little House are just some of the more recent additions, but London has long been associated with private members clubs, dating back as far as the early Victorian era.
Any man worth his money during this period was a fully-fledged member of at least one of London’s top clubs. At its peak, in the late 1900s, the capital had around 400 clubs, most of which could be found in St James’s and Mayfair, much the same as today.
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One of the oldest club’s in London is The Hurlingham Club. Famed for its history with pigeon shooting and affinity with sports, the Georgian style club is nestled beside the Thames in Fulham, set in 42 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens. The Club is internationally recognised as one of the world’s most elite private clubs London, having been around since 1867.
As popular today as it was 145 years ago, The Hurlingham Club follows a strict membership policy and if you’re not already a member, don’t expect to become one anytime soon. The waiting list, according to the Club’s website, is 10 years and in order to become a member in waiting, a candidate must first be proposed and seconded by two current voting members of the Club.
Patience is a virtue, however, as after 10 years an off-peak membership is offered, allowing access to the Club for 10 months of the year, excluding weekends in May to July. After 20 years of waiting, and having spent 10 years enjoying the benefits of an off -peak membership, “full voting membership is then offered.”
The Hurlingham Club isn’t alone in its strict membership policy. Although most clubs don’t have such a long waiting time, the standard process is generally the same. Thanks to the many new clubs that have opened up, in addition to the more established ones such as The Arts Club, which recently re-launched, Annabel’s, Morton’s and Tramp, membership policies have become more relaxed and open to a new generation of clientele.
It is also common for a club to have a niche. For example, The Hurlingham Club’s niche is elite sports, while The Arts Club is associated with creative arts and the Groucho Club media.
A club’s niche is what makes it such a special sanctuary for its members, a place to connect with like-minded members.
One man who has been at the heart of London’s club scene since the 1970s is Chris Steiger, former general manager of Annabel’s and the new manager of Gallery at The Westbury Hotel in Mayfair. Chris met some of the world’s biggest stars, royalty and politicians during his time at Annabel’s, having served the Queen and his favourite screen icon, Gregory Peck. Chris has witnessed London’s club scene evolve to cater for a new generation in recent years.
The challenge faced by newer clubs, Chris says, is trying to maintain the high standard set in the golden-era by clubs such as Annabel’s. “When we still had the tie policy [at Annabel’s], all the men would have a pair of Church’s [shoes] on and everyone was dressed very smartly.
“Now, if I’m honest, it’s only the women who make such an effort. If you take the tie off, your shoulders drop half an inch.”
Another change Chris has witnessed over the years is the clients’ interaction with staff. “The has completely changed over the years. The new generation is more relaxed. There’s less of the stiff upper lip and more warmth between guests and staff these days.”
Gallery, although joined to The Westbury, operates as a separate club, with a restaurant on the ground floor and a glamorous lounge, DJ and dancing area downstairs. Within easy reach of Mayfair’s many boutiques and designer shops, Chris hopes to grow the club’s membership by reaching out to the local ladies who lunch and the many businesses in the area.
Gallery has already attracted big names, from Sir Philip Green, whose first office was on the site of Gallery, to GQ [magazine], which hosted a closing party and dinner for London Fashion Week there, earlier this year.
Chris’s call to London’s clubs came after his mother vowed he would never work for Avon in his native Kent. “Where I grew up it was very remote and my mum was adamant that I was not going to work for Avon or on the pier in Kent!
“I started initially in 1970. For the first six years, I worked in the kitchens [of clubs], but one day, the then manager of Annabel’s asked me to come and work for him.”
Shortly before Mark Birley’s death in 2007, a deal was reached with Richard Caring who reportedly bought the Birley Group for £95m, including Annabel’s, Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club. The following year, Caring bought a majority stake in Soho House, thought to be the reason behind the group’s expansion of 28 worldwide Little House properties.
Chris stayed with Annabel’s until late 2011 when he made the move to Gallery, ready for a new challenge. Having been with Annabel’s on and off for almost 30 years, Chris has fond memories of his time at the club.
“My years at Annabel’s were fabulous and in June 2013 it will celebrate its 50th year, which is phenomenal for any club or establishment.
“Annabel’s isn’t so much for the media types,” Chris concludes, “But the beauty of Annabel’s is that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can walk through the front door and you will never be bigger than the club,”
With the old favourites still as fashionable and hard to get into as ever, and with many new establishments cropping up in the West End and Mayfair, London’s private members clubs are as popular as they were in the dandy days of the 1800s.