In 2014, I was awarded a PhD jointly supervised by Warwick University and the History of Parliament Trust, on "The Political Impact of London Clubs, 1832-1868", which focussed on politics in the gentlemen’s clubs of St. James’s between the first two Reform Acts; but with an eye to the growth of increasingly politicised working men’s clubs, and the trialling of women’s clubs.
London clubs as a major form of social engagement were a Victorian obsession, and some work has been done in recent years on their vast social impact. My work aims to stress their central role in the world of politics, so as to better explain the emergence of a distinctively British “clubbable” political culture.
Nearly sixty years ago, Norman Gash wrote of the aftermath of the First Reform Act being the age of “club government”. Gash’s assertion is often cited, but seldom revisited, and the aim of my work is to map out just how clubs and politics interacted in this crucial period.
With access to previously unpublished club archives, membership records, diaries, letters and digitised newspapers, I have been able to unearth a substantial amount of original material which sheds new light on this topic.
Key questions I have sought to address to address include:
- Precisely what was the role of so-called “club government”? In an age when party alliances were very weak, just how strong were the alliances forged in and around clubs? Was there any noticeable link between how MPs voted, and their club memberships?
- What was the role of clubs in centrally managing political parties?
- To what degree did clubs intervene in national elections in the constituencies? How common was such intervention?
- How politicised were the “non-political” clubs?
- How accurate were the popular portrayals of clubs in this period?
In addition to the PhD thesis on politics in London clubs, which I am seeking to convert into a monograph, the research I have undertaken will also fuel a more general ‘popular’ narrative history of London Clubland.