Victorian elitism had its heart in London’s clubland; exclusive, all-male private clubs populated by the rich and powerful, as well as the talented and ambitious. Amy Milne-Smith gives an account of London’s clubland and draws parallels with our new age of elitism. She notes that the more clubmen lived in a world of privilege cut off from the outside world, the less likely their brand of elitism would survive.
The optics are not great. The current British prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, and the mayor of London all share royal ancestry, public school educations and all were members of the infamous Bullingdon Club while at Oxford. A very wealthy, white, male government introducing austerity measures provides ample media fodder. Stories abound about a growing income gap and the inordinate power of posh public schoolboys and overpaid bankers. But is the House of Commons once again, as Charles Dickens wrote, the best club in the world? Britain has been here before… but in the past elitism felt different.
Victorian elitism, with its heart in London’s clubland, was certainly unapologetic. In the nineteenth century commentators openly bemoaned the dilution of the upper classes and the rise of social bounders and the nouveaux riches. Elite was anything but a dirty word. But what exactly did this elitism look like, and to what purpose did it serve?
London clubland is an institutionalized example of Victorian elitism. It was a veritable oasis of male power and privilege. Clubs reveled in their elitism; it was the defining purpose of their existence. The process of being nominated and elected to a London club was a rite of passage for young aristocrats, and a final stamp of approval for the self-made man. From their imposing, nameless facades to their written and unwritten rules of behaviour, Victorian clubs exuded exclusivity. And yet this selectness had a purpose beyond a simple sense of superiority and condescension; it helped facilitate an expanding democracy.
The strength of Victorian elitism was always its elasticity. A man of talent and ambition could readily find his way into the social world of Pall Mall. Charles Dickens himself grew up in genteel and not so genteel poverty. And yet the Athenaeum Club welcomed him without a public school pedigree. The middle classes provided needed talent in economic, political, and imperial leadership. The genius of Victorian elites was to open doors to such men of capacity and ambition while maintaining the illusion they were closed. A precarious promise of cultural capital kept men striving to be a part of that world. It was the nineteenth-century elite’s genius to keep inviting newcomers in.
Clubs were part of a process of group socialisation that bound together children of the elite with those of rising men of talent and ambition. George W. Smalley wrote that the British ruling classes “may be compared to a family party. Its members have been brought up with the same traditions and in the same curriculum. They are bound together by that identity of sentiment or pursuit which comes from the associations of school, college, or regiment, politics or clubs, official, diplomatic, or military life.” Like any family, they integrated new members into the fold. Group socialisation engendered shared habits, values, and ideals. And yet they were always discreetly open to accepting new talent.
One of the reasons clubland’s particular brand of elitism was so appealing is that it embodied an almost ineffable quality at its core: being clubbable. Pedigree, money and power did not guarantee election. Cecil Rhodes discovered this to his chagrin at the Travellers Club. Despite being endorsed by the Prince of Wales, he was soundly blackballed. Rhodes was many things… ‘clubbable’ was not one of them. A man only joined the upper echelon of clubland if he would add something to the experience. Exclusivity was not an end unto itself, but served to make the elite stronger.
Something often forgotten about London clubland is that it was an immensely convenient space. A man who put down the hefty admission rates and annual subscriptions did not do so solely to list it on his Who’s Who entry. A club was a home in the heart of London where a man could eat, drink, work, or find some solitude. Exclusiveness promised a degree of privacy in an era when a growing media was keen to know the dirty little secrets of Britain’s most wealthy and powerful. Clubs offered a space of discretion, and the betrayal of club confidences was enough to warrant expulsion. Club buildings rivaled the most impressive palatial homes with sweeping staircases, expansive libraries, and gourmet dining. They were, in the words of William Gladstone, “temples of luxury and ease.”
But even at their apogee these were not uncontested institutions. Gladstone, not a particularly clubbable fellow, meant his words as an insult. Not all of the wealthy middle classes aspired to ape the elites and join their ranks. Rising numbers eschewed decadent aristocratic values and lifestyles and proudly put forward their own path to success. The working classes found their political voice through mass protest, the formation of unions, and the gradual extension of the franchise. Women railed against male privilege and power, forcing their ways into politics, and destabilising the social order.
Things invariably had to change. The more clubmen lived in a world of privilege cut off from the outside world, the less likely their brand of elitism would survive. One wonders if a kind of siege mentality didn’t set in. The apogee of club elitism came at the end of the nineteenth century, right before their fall. The most elitist age existed only as long as people aspired to their ranks.
Clubs went out of fashion in the twentieth century because their exclusivity was no longer valued. Gentlemen were drawn to nightclubs, to restaurants, to women—to the world outside their clubhouse walls. Rising men and women of talent and ambition carved out new paths to success. The elite London clubs were nostalgic institutions before they realised what had happened.
The renaissance of clubland in recent decades speaks much to a new age of elitism. Then, as now, clubmen (and Oxbridge men) dominate political, economic, social and global networks of power. Criticism of this new age of elitism is much louder and more strident than it was a century ago. Clubland elitism could suitably exist and thrive in an era transitioning from aristocracy to democracy. Today’s neo-Victorian era of elitism, class privilege and aristocratic governance is less justifiable. Today’s system is seemingly entrenched and stagnant. It is only elites that embrace talent from unexpected places that can survive and justify their existence to the nation. The optics are only the beginning.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Neil Howard CC BY-NC 2.0
Amy Milne-Smith is an Associate Professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Her main research areas include masculinity, cultural history, and the history of madness. She is the author of London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain, published by Palgrave Macmillan.