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The Athenaeum: More than just another London Club, by Michael Wheeler

09 April 2021

Richard Chartres reads about an Establishment institution in Pall Mall

THAT great British institution, the Athenaeum Club, was founded in 1824, and Michael Wheeler is early to the 200th-anniversary party in his history of what he describes as “more than just another London Club”. His copiously illustrated book is yet another sumptuous product from Yale University Press.

There were clubs before the Athenaeum, but they tended to be the haunt of the landed and titled. John Wilson Croker, the founder of the Athenaeum, designed something different. At a time of political polarisation, although he was a convinced Tory, he ensured that there was a majority of Whigs on the inaugural committee. He also designed a club in which the membership was open to those who had achieved distinction in the arts and sciences, politics and the Church, rather than on accidents of birth.

Historically, the sounder sort of Anglican bishops have been members. Cartoons by Osbert Lancaster, depicting gaiter-wearing Athenian bishops, decorate the walls close to the entrance of the downstairs lavatory. Edward Burne-Jones told his cousin Rudyard Kipling soon after his election to the club that he would “soon know more of the inner life of bishops than in a hundred biographies of them”.

Some of the most celebrated Victorian ecclesiastical debates about the authority of the Bible, the Colenso affair, and the storm over Essays and Reviews reverberated around the Athenaeum, where nearly all the principal protagonists were members.

It is significant that priority as to wall space has always been given to bookshelves rather than the pictures that dominate clubs such as the Garrick. As a 19th-century General Committee minute declares, “the social enjoyments of a club are here united with the means of intellectual gratification and improvement in a degree enjoyed, it is presumed, by no similar Association.” Wheeler provides a careful account of the various changes in the organisation and the physical and architectural setting of the club.

Until the First World War, the British intellectual and political Establishment actually existed as a network of relationships which was compact and whose members encountered one another in the Athenaeum. Wheeler’s roll call of eminent members over the past two centuries occasionally reads like a reduced version of The Dictionary of National Biography, the brainchild of Leslie Stephen, who was elected to membership in 1877.

In 1902, the club had its first banquet since its foundation to celebrate the inclusion of no fewer than nine Athenians among the 12 recipients of the newly instituted Order of Merit, the pinnacle of the honours system. The Prime Minister, A. J. Balfour, in his speech at the occasion claimed that never had there been gathered in a room of comparable size such “a body of undiluted distinction”.

Social change, especially after the Second World War, led to the fragmentation of the now mythical Establishment. At the same time, there was an expansion of parallel vertical career hierarchies, whose demands put limits on the extent to which leaders in any particular field were able to interact with those in another.

© the athenaeumGeorge Morrow, “Raid on the Athenaeum Club”, Punch, 1906, a cartoon reproduced in the book

Wheeler describes the Athenaeum’s post-war doldrums. It was accompanied by a decline in the prominence of the clerical element. It is true that Archbishops of Canterbury continued to play a significant part in the running of the club until comparatively recent times. Archbishop Runcie was proud to be a member of the Wine Committee, while his predecessor, Donald Coggan, remained as a trustee until his death in 2000. Currently, however, only ten diocesan bishops are members, and some of the rest have defected to the cheaper Farmers’ Club. It is a development that reflects the vanishing presence of the clergy in wider society.

In other ways, however, the years since 2000 have brought a revival in the fortunes of the Athenaeum. Women members were admitted in 2001, and there has been a vast improvement in the facilities and, not least, the food.

It is all recorded in loving detail by Michael Wheeler. Inevitably, in such a crowded canvas, there are one or two slips. In the concluding chapter, Lord Mackay of Clashfern is described as “the late”, when, thankfully, to judge by his trenchant and frequent contributions to debates in the House of Lords, he is still very much alive.

The lockdown has pointed to the value of those places where new friends can be made and the arts of conversation and civility can be practised. Wheeler has given us a comprehensive history of one such place, the Athenaeum Club, as it approaches its bicentenary. As we contemplate the baleful results of the polarisation in the political universe in the contemporary United States, we can be grateful for the non-partisan vision of the founder, John Wilson Croker, an Irish Tory, who in this volume gets his deserved meed of praise.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.


The Athenaeum: More than just another London Club
Michael Wheeler
Yale £35
Church House Bookshop £31.50

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