Who would write, let alone read, a weighty history (literally so: my elderly mother complained she couldn’t lift it), published in a luxury edition priced at £35, of the parish hall or Women’s Institute hut to be found in one of our lesser-known villages? But this is a history of the Travellers Club, 106 Pall Mall, London: patron, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh; premises, a superb Italianate palace designed by Charles Barry and completed in 1832; members, a blinding cascade of distinction over two centuries. ‘In the 1920s and 1930s’, John Martin Robinson writes, ‘diplomat members of the Club included Sir Horace Rumbold, 9th Bt … Eric Drummond, the 16th Earl of Perth, Ambassador to Italy, Esme Howard, 1st Lord Howard of Penrith … the Hon Ronald Lindsay … Sir Frank Lascelles … and Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen.’ An appendix lists members who were or are Knights of the Garter.
The Travellers Club was founded in 1819 with a distinctly anti-Brexit agenda of welcoming foreign visitors and bringing together those who had travelled principally to Europe, not necessarily on the traditional grand tour but as soldiers and diplomats too. You could only join if you’d journeyed five hundred miles outside the British Isles. In the time of social change after the Napoleonic Wars, the club was a howling success, always bursting out of one building into another, until finally settling into the Barry mansion in 1832, where it has been ever since. Members were not exclusively prime ministers or aristocracy, although it is noted that really hardcore travellers, such as David Livingstone, John Speke and Samuel Baker, were not members. After the Second World War, rather more wacky figures, such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Nigel Nicolson and Alan Pryce-Jones, got in. Today, the club appears to be in the hands of QCs and that species of immensely important person nobody has ever heard of.
A London gentlemen’s club is a London gentlemen’s club when all is said and done: a stately home in the middle of London, but with no bedrooms (originally at least) and, of course, no women, a place where one goes to meet people like oneself over ‘luncheon’ or dinner. These institutions have their own funny customs of which they tend to be immensely proud, so what appears to be the dining room at the Travellers is called the Coffee Room. Those of us who are not members might be inclined to peer in and find it all rather preposterous, but that would be sour grapes.
So what has actually been happening at the Travellers Club over the last two hundred years? The installation of a Turkish bath in the club’s second premises was quite an event, as was the serving of dinner at 7pm instead of 6.30pm, and later the provision of luncheon. There were spats with the Athenaeum, next door to the Barry building, regarding a light well which objectionable windows overlooked. That went on for fifteen years or more. Come 1867 and the committee was trying to replace Barry’s stone balustrade with iron railings to let in more light. Frightful outcry, stone reinstated at once.
Meanwhile, an errant laundry mistress was found to have placed a large number of the club’s tablecloths in various pawnshops in the neighbourhood. In the second half of the 19th century, a member said the tea was ‘nauseous’. The committee was appalled: they held a tea tasting and declared the tea ‘delicious’. This followed on from the terrible coffee incident, when the steward had to be told not to offer the previous day’s brew. But oh the joy of the Otis lift, installed in 1904, and the glory when Barry’s iron flambeaux outside the club were lit to mark great events, such as the wedding of the Prince of Wales. The kitchen chimney at 106 Pall Mall ‘in particular was prone to regular conflagrations’, Robinson writes, but rest assured that ‘Barry’s new building was always maintained in exemplary condition’. We also learn that ‘an unexpected off-shoot of the Crimean War was an increase in the number of members smoking … in the Club’.
Intermittently, Robinson is aware of the bathos of all this. The club’s members, he says at one stage, ‘were often up to their necks in public affairs as individuals in Britain and the empire. Generally, however, the Club concerned itself largely with its own business.’ Well, it’s a club, isn’t it? That’s the whole point: to be a little sealed-off world of its own and to have a book like this written about it which is really a catalogue or roll call rather than what is commonly understood to be a book. Everybody and everything must be included.
Robinson refers to ‘luncheon’ without irony and calls a recipe a ‘receipt’, but really is to be congratulated (and no doubt will be at some formal event in the club with speeches) for maintaining over 367 large pages a steady, dignified and perfectly smooth flow, punctuated by the occasional tiny little quip – just like the club itself, one imagines.