Gentle(wo)men’s Club

28 Aug|Lucy Morgan

Lucy Morgan is a member of The Reform Club in London. Here she writes on the ins and outs of joining a historically exclusive gentleman’s club

Ialways skip up the steps into the Reform Club. Through the enormous doors I enter a magical world, where my problems at home and work temporarily float away. It’s my very own Victorian palace in central London, situated at the very heart of the Establishment in Pall Mall. Grand and yet cosy, it’s like visiting your extremely posh nana’s house. The staff feel like part of this extended family.

Founded, in 1836, by the movers behind the Great Reform Act of 1832, it still feels as if present members are descendants of these Whigs. Certainly, they tend to be clever, interesting, interested and liberal. Many are older than me, but by no means all. I would never have joined a club full of Tories but at the Reform I find many smart people interested in social change as well as history and excellent wine.

The Reform was the first of the gentlemen’s clubs to admit women in 1981, and I am proud to count myself among what I think of as the formidable ladies of the Reform. Although I believe it was a fight to get in at the outset, nowadays the club is proud of its feminist credentials. In 2018 there was an evening celebrating women’s suffrage with a theatre company acting out key historical events, and speeches from Baroness Boothroyd and Lady Hale, the first and only female speaker of the House of Commons and the first (and current) female President of the Supreme Court. 

Within the club, all sorts of societies are run by volunteer members. I attend the Science and Technology, Economics and Current Affairs, Media and the Reading Groups, but there are many more. The general format is dinner and a speaker, although this varies, and speakers are often eminent. I have learnt much I did not know and thought about issues I would not have considered through attending these events. Sometimes I bring friends, but more often I go alone – I almost always meet new and interesting people and as a result, I have a wide acquaintance. As a divorced woman, I have never experienced any form of creepiness from the male members; in fact, many of the older generation often express anxiety about committing a faux pas in the  ‘Me Too’ world.

I haven’t stayed overnight in one of the rooms because I have kids at home, but I’m dying to. I especially fancy staying over the weekend (no catering then though) when there isn’t a wedding or a film shoot on and lounging in the library in my pyjamas. The library is huge, like the fabulous book-lined parlours of Around the World in Eighty Days or M’s office in the old James Bond films. If they don’t have the book you’re seeking, they’ll go and get it for you from the London Library, just over the road. I had a fantasy when I joined the club of curling up by a fire with a book or periodical and not moving for a very long time. 

I use the garden, which is also divine, especially of a summer evening after dinner with friends. The architecture, décor and garden have their own traditional English style, and bear no resemblance whatsoever to a hotel, unlike some other clubs that have undergone disastrous refurbishments. There is true magic here.

Speaking of which, for those of us who have become addicted to the Rivers of London books by Ben Aaranovitch, large parts of the Folly’s interior are clearly modelled on the Reform. All sorts of films hire it out as a location, Paddington being a notable recent hit.

Food is good and reasonably priced, and the cellars are outstanding. I have learnt something about wine since joining but have much more work to do on this! There is no background music, which I see as a major selling point.

For the future? I think it is rosy at the Reform. We need more younger members, more women, and far more black and ethnic minority members, but we are the progressives and therefore the natural home for like-minded members of these groups. It is my personal hope that the club will make more of its historical legacy and find some ways for members to participate in relevant movements for social change, perhaps electoral reform or mentoring, for example. 

One reason I like the Reform is because I feel that I am a part of the radical/reforming continuum of English history. I see myself as a descendant of the people who campaigned for the abolition of slavery, and for the vote, and the Reform is a part of that history. Just because Conservative forces so often win the right to tell the story, it doesn’t mean that we should forget the inspiring history of people who tried – and often succeeded – in making society fairer. This is a key part of our English history and we need to hang on to it especially in the current dark days.

The Reform is never ever going to be hip , but it is historical, thoughtful, beautiful intelligent and meaningful.

This is an excerpt from a longer article in Idler issue 68. You can find the magazine in shops or online.