Historical image of Pall Mall
with the Carlton Club
, describing itself as the "oldest, and most important of all Conservative clubs"
Historically, clubs occurred in all ancient states of which we have detailed knowledge. Once people started living together in larger groups, there was need for people with a common interest to be able to associate despite having no ties of kinship. Organizations of the sort have existed for many years, as evidenced by Ancient Greek clubs and associations (collegia) in Ancient Rome.
Origins of the word and concept
It is uncertain whether the use of the word "club" originated in its meaning of a knot of people, or from the fact that the members “clubbed” together to pay the expenses of their gatherings. The oldest English clubs were merely informal periodic gatherings of friends for the purpose of dining or drinking with one another. Thomas Occleve (in the time of Henry IV) mentions such a club called La Court de Bonne Compagnie (the Court of Good Company), of which he was a member. In 1659 John Aubrey wrote, “We now use the word clubbe for a sodality [a society, association, or fraternity of any kind] in a tavern.”
In Shakespeare's day
Of early clubs the most famous, latterly, was the Bread Street or Friday Street Club that met at the Mermaid Tavern on the first Friday of each month. John Selden, John Donne, John Fletcher
and Francis Beaumont were among the members (although it is often asserted that William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh were members of this club, there is no documented evidence to support this claim). Another such club, founded by Ben Jonson, met at the Devil Tavern near Temple Bar, also in London.
Coffeehouse in London
, 17th century
The word “club,” in the sense of an association to promote good-fellowship and social intercourse, became common in England at the time of Tatler and The Spectator (1709–1712). With the introduction of coffee-drinking in the middle of the 17th century, clubs entered on a more permanent phase. The coffee houses of the later Stuart period are the real originals of the modern clubhouse. The clubs of the late 17th and early 18th century type resembled their Tudor forerunners in being oftenest associations solely for conviviality or literary coteries. But many were confessedly political, e.g. The Rota, or Coffee Club (1659), a debating society for the spread of republican ideas, broken up at the Restoration in 1660, the Calves Head Club (c.1693) and the Green Ribbon Club (1675). The characteristics of all these clubs were:
- No permanent financial bond between the members, each man's liability ending for the time being when he had paid his “score” after the meal.
- No permanent clubhouse, though each clique tended to make some special coffee house or tavern their headquarters.
These coffee-house clubs soon became hotbeds of political scandal-mongering and intriguing, and in 1675 King Charles II issued a proclamation which ran: “His Majesty hath thought fit and necessary that coffee houses be (for the future) put down and suppressed,” because “in such houses divers false, malitious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majesty’s Government and to the Disturbance of Peace and Quiet of the Realm.” So unpopular was this proclamation that it was almost instantly found necessary to withdraw it, and by Anne’s reign the coffee-house club was a feature of England’s social life. See English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries.
18th and 19th century
The idea of the club developed in two directions. One was of a permanent institution with a fixed clubhouse. The London coffeehouse clubs in increasing their members absorbed the whole accommodation of the coffeehouse or tavern where they held their meetings, and this became the clubhouse, often retaining the name of the original innkeeper, e.g. White's, Brooks's, Arthur's, and Boodle's. These still exist today as the famous gentlemen's clubs.
The peripatetic lifestyle of the 18th and 19th century middle classes also drove the development of more residential clubs, which had bedrooms and other facilities. Military and naval officers, lawyers, judges, members of Parliament and government officials tended to have an irregular presence in the major cities of the Empire, particularly London, spending perhaps a few months there before moving on for a prolonged period and then returning. Especially when this presence did not coincide with the Season, a permanent establishment in the city (i.e., a house owned or rented, with the requisite staff), or the opening of a townhouse (generally shuttered outside the Season) was inconvenient or uneconomic, while hotels were rare and socially déclassé. Clubbing with a number of like-minded friends to secure a large shared house with a manager was therefore a convenient solution.
The other sort of club meets occasionally or periodically and often has no clubhouse, but exists primarily for some specific object. Such are the many purely athletic, sports and pastimes clubs, the Alpine, chess, yacht and motor clubs. Also there are literary clubs (see writing circle and book club), musical and art clubs, publishing clubs. The name of “club” has been annexed by a large group of associations which fall between the club proper and friendly societies, of a purely periodic and temporary nature, such as slate, goose and Christmas clubs, which do not need to be registered under the Friendly Societies Act.
The institution of the gentleman's club has spread all over the English-speaking world. Many of those who energised the Scottish Enlightenment were members of the Poker Club in Edinburgh. In the United States clubs were first established after the War of Independence. One of the first was the Hoboken Turtle Club (1797), which still survived as of 1911. In former British Empire colonies like India and Pakistan they are known as Gymkhana.
The earliest clubs on the European continent were of a political nature. These in 1848 were repressed in Austria and Germany, and later clubs of Berlin and Vienna were mere replicas of their English prototypes. In France, where the term cercle is most usual, the first was Le Club Politique (1782), and during the French Revolution such associations proved important political forces (see Jacobins, Feuillants, Cordeliers). Of the purely social clubs in Paris the most notable were the Jockey-Club de Paris (1833), the Cercle de l'Union, the Traveller's and the Cercle Interallié..