|National Liberal Club|
The National Liberal
|Status||Private members' club|
|Architectural style||French Renaissance|
|Address||1 Whitehall Place, London|
|Design and construction|
The National Liberal Club (NLC) is a London private members' club, open to both men and women. It was established by William Ewart Gladstone in 1882 to provide club facilities for Liberal Party campaigners among the newly enlarged electorate following the Third Reform Act in 1884, and was envisioned as a more accessible version of a traditional London club.
The club's Italianate building on the Embankment of the river Thames is the second-largest club-house built in London. (It was the largest ever at the time, but was superseded by the later Royal Automobile Club building completed in 1911.) Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, it was completed in 1887. Its facilities include a dining room, a bar, function rooms, a billiards room, a smoking room, a library and an outdoor riverside terrace. It is located at Whitehall Place, close to the Houses of Parliament, the Thames Embankment and Trafalgar Square.
The genesis of the club lay with Welsh Liberal party activist (and later MP) Arthur John Williams, who proposed the creation of such a club at a Special General Meeting of the short-lived Century Club on 14 May 1882, so as to provide "a home for democracy, void of the class distinction associated with the Devonshire and Reform Clubs". The first full meeting of the new club was held on 16 November 1882, at the (now-demolished) Westminster Palace Hotel on Victoria Street. The Century Club itself then merged into the NLC at the end of the year. In its early years, the club declared its objects to be:
An initial circular for subscribers meant that by the end of 1882, 2,500 members from over 500 towns and districts had already signed up for the new club, and membership would reach 6,500 by the time the clubhouse opened in 1887.
An initial temporary clubhouse opened on Trafalgar Square in May 1883, on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall. The club would be based here for the next four years. The opening of the first clubhouse was marked by an inaugural banquet for 1,900 people at the Royal Aquarium off Parliament Square, which Punch reported saw the consumption of 200 dozen bottles of Pommery champagne. During the club's time on Trafalgar Square, a parliamentary question was asked in the House of Commons about the White Ensign being raised on the club's flagpole as part of a prank.
The club's foundation stone on the modern clubhouse was laid by Gladstone on 9 November 1884, when he declared "Speaking generally, I should say there could not be a less interesting occasion than the laying of the foundation-stone of a Club in London. For, after all, what are the Clubs of London? I am afraid little else than temples of luxury and ease. This, however, is a club of a very different character", and envisioned the club as a popular institution for the mass electorate. However, another of the club's founders, G. W. E. Russell, noted "We certainly never foresaw the palatial pile of terra-cotta and glazed tiles which now bears that name. Our modest object was to provide a central meeting-place for Metropolitan and provincial Liberals, where all the comforts of life should be attainable at what are called 'popular prices'", but added "at the least, we meant our Club to be a place of "ease" to the Radical toiler. But Gladstone insisted that it was to be a workshop dedicated to strenuous labour." Funds for the clubhouse were raised by selling 40,000 shares of £5 each, in a Limited Liability Company, with the unusual stipulation that "No shareholder should have more than ten votes", so as to prevent a few wealthy men from dominating the club. However, this only raised £70,000, and so an additional £52,400 was raised for the construction of the clubhouse by the Liberal Central Association. The remaining £30,000 necessary was raised by mortgage debentures.
The clubhouse was still unfinished when it opened its doors in 1887, but it was opened early on 20 June to allow members to watch that year's Jubilee processions from the club terrace. It was when the club had only recently moved to its present address that "Bloody Sunday" ensued on its doorstep during the Trafalgar Square riot of 13 November 1887. NLC members flocked to the windows to watch George Bernard Shaw (a member of the club) address the demonstration, and later in the day, witnessed the bloodshed which ensued.
In its late-19th-century heyday, its membership was primarily political, but had a strong journalistic and even bohemian character. Members were known to finish an evening's dining by diving into the Thames. Of the club's political character, George Bernard Shaw remarked at a debate in the club, "I have never yet met a member of the National Liberal Club who did not intend to get into Parliament at some time, except those who, like our chairman Lord Carrington, are there already."
On the club's launch, it represented all factions of liberalism from whiggery to radicalism, but within four years it was rocked by the Home Rule Crisis of 1886, which saw the Liberal Unionists led by Joseph Chamberlain and the Marquess of Hartington (both of whom had been founder members of the NLC) secede from the party and eventually go into alliance with the Conservatives. Indeed, Chamberlain had been one of the NLC's most enthusiastic promoters upon its launch. At the 1884 ceremony of Gladstone's foundation-stone-laying for the club, Hartington had argued that the club would be the future home of Chamberlain's Radical Birmingham Caucus, and Chamberlain, standing next to him, pointedly refused to contradict him. Chamberlain himself resigned in 1886, shortly after the Home Rule split, Hartington and other prominent Liberal Unionists followed early in 1887, and when a further 130 Unionists simultaneously seceded from the club in 1889, the Scots Observer called it "one of the most important events that has recently occurred in home politics", due to its ramifications for the Liberal Party breaking in two.
The club enjoyed a reputation for radicalism, and H. V. Emy records that Radicals secured
a distinct success when the Radical wing of the National Liberal Club (NLC) captured the club's organisation in the summer of 1897 and elected a new political committee with [Henry] Labouchere as the chairman and H. J. Reckitt as secretary. The Committee itself included Sir Robert Reid, [Philip] Stanhope, Herbert Samuel, Rufus Isaacs and W. F. Thompson, the editor of Reynold's News. The Committee wrote an open letter to the constituencies, asking them for their opinions on policy, designating several areas where opinion would be welcome. By November, the replies indicated that the weight of opinion lay with the democratisation of Parliament, involving the abolition of the Lords' veto, reform of registration and electoral law, and devolution. Amongst "other prominent reforms" were included all the major issues of the day (except nationalisation). These were then drafted into a manifesto of Radical reform which was "greatly resented by the official organisation." 38,000 copies were circulated, and a meeting of the General Committee of the NLF at Derby agreed to make reform a priority, a decision endorsed by [H. H.] Asquith a few days later.
This reputation for radicalism was underlined when former Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery resigned from the club in September 1909, denouncing it as "a hotbed of socialism."
Several discussion groups met at the club, including the Rainbow Circle in the 1890s, an influential group of Liberal, Fabian and socialist thinkers who came to be identified with the Bloomsbury Group.
It was also the site of much intrigue in the Liberal Party over the years, rivalling the Reform Club as a social centre for Liberals by the advent of World War I, although its membership was largely based on Liberal activists in the country at large; it was built on such a large scale to provide London club facilities for Liberal activists from around the country, justifying its use of the description 'national'.
On 22 March 1893, during the Second Reading of the Clubs Registration Bill, the Conservative MP (who was later to defect to the Liberals) Thomas Gibson Bowles told the House of Commons "I am informed there is an establishment not far from the House frequented by Radical millionaires and released prisoners, the National Liberal Club, where an enormous quantity of whisky is consumed." Despite this remark, it seems that the club accounted for relatively little alcohol consumption by the standards of the day – Herbert Samuel commented in 1909 that the average annual consumption of alcoholic liquor per NLC member was 31s. 4d. per annum, which compared very favourably with equivalent Conservative clubs, including 33s. 5d. for the nearby Constitutional Club, 48s. for the City Carlton Club, and 77s. for the Junior Carlton Club. One possible explanation was the strength of the Temperance movement in the Liberal party at the time.
On 3 December 1909, Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George used the club to make a speech fiercely denouncing the House of Lords, in what was seen as a de facto launch of the "People's Budget" general election of January 1910.
On 21 November 1911, the club was one of a number of buildings to have their windows smashed in by the suffragette Women's Social and Political Union, in protest at the Liberal government's inaction over votes for women.
During the Marconi scandal of 1912, Winston Churchill used a speech to the club to mount an impassioned defence of embattled ministers David Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs, asserting that there was "no stain of any kind" upon their characters.
The club's cosmopolitan and internationalist make-up drew outside criticism as nationalist feelings rose in World War I - the fervently anti-German and anti-semitic campaigner Arnold White wrote in his 1917 tract The Hidden Hand that:
an official of the National Liberal Club at the beginning of the war publicly ex- pressed the opinion that Germans would always be welcome. The spiritual home of every pro-German crank in the country was the National Liberal Club — a temple of luxury and ease where every enemy of England enjoyed the rites of hospitality. Enver [Pasha] when he was "Bey", and all the cosmopolitans, all the friends of every country but their own, were made welcome at the National Liberal Club.
From late 1916 to December 1919, the clubhouse was requisitioned by the British government for use as a billet for Canadian troops, the club relocating in the meantime to several rooms in the Westminster Palace Hotel - the venue of its original meetings in 1882-3. Many of the Canadian troops billeted in the clubhouse were offered heavily discounted temporary club membership during their stay, although it appears that some overstayed their welcome – a "farewell dinner" by the club on 19 March 1919 attempted to hint that their departure was imminently expected. At the end of the First World War, the Canadian soldiers who had stayed there presented the club with a moose head as a gift of thanks, which was hung in the billiards room for many years. After the troops finally left in December 1919, the club was closed for a year for renovations (partly necessitated by the damage done by the troops), and did not re-open until 19 December 1920.
As H. H. Asquith was deposed as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George, he spent his last full evening as Prime Minister on 8 December 1916 reporting to a full meeting of the Liberal Party at the club. It provided an overwhelming vote of confidence in his leadership.
During the Liberal Party's 1916–23 split, the Asquith wing of the party was in the ascendant in the club, while Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George (who had been a regular by the Smoking Room in previous years, often found warming his bottom by the fireplace where his portrait now hangs) was personally shunned by many NLC members. This was a highly acrimonious time within the Liberal Party, with both the Asquithian and Lloyd Georgeite factions believing themselves to be the 'true' Liberal party, and viewing the other faction as 'traitors'. Michael Bentley has written of this period that "The Lloyd George Liberal Magazine, which appeared monthly between October 1920 and December 1923, spent much space attacking the National Liberal Club for its continued Asquithian partisanship – in particular for its refusal to hang portraits of Lloyd George and Churchill in the main club rooms, or to accept nominations for membership from Coalition Liberals. The creation of a separate '1920 Club' in neighbouring Whitehall Court was one reaction to this treatment." The Lloyd George and Churchill portraits were removed in 1921 and put into the club's cellar. At the time, the Asquithians were popularly known as "Wee Frees", and historian Cameron Hazlehurst wrote that, "the civilities of social life at the National Liberal Club were increasingly reserved by 'Wee Frees' for 'Wee Frees.'"
The reunion of the two branches of the Liberal Party in the run-up to the December 1923 general election meant that the neighbouring 1920 Club for Lloyd George supporters was disbanded, and "the portraits of Lloyd George and [fellow Lloyd George Liberal] Churchill, long consigned to the cellar, were recovered and reinstated in the places of honour in the smoking room", although Churchill's defection back to the Conservatives within less than a year meant that his portrait was just as swiftly returned to the basement, and would not re-emerge for another 16 years.
There is a well-known story told of the NLC, that the Conservative politician F. E. Smith would stop off there every day on his way to Parliament, to use the club's lavatories. One day the hall porter apprehended Smith and asked him if he was actually a member of the club, to which Smith replied "Good God! You mean it's a club as well?". This story, and apocryphal variations thereof (usually substituting Smith with Churchill), are told of many different clubs. The original related to the NLC, at the half-way point between Parliament and Smith's chambers in Elm Court, Temple. The comment was a jibe at the brown tiles in some of the NLC's late-Victorian architecture.
During the hung parliament of 1923–24, it was at the club that Asquith – as Leader of the reunited Liberal Party – announced on 6 December 1923 that the Liberals would support Ramsay MacDonald in forming Britain's first ever Labour government.
The club continued to be a venue for large-scale meetings of Liberals. On Armistice Day 1924, over one hundred defeated Liberal candidates met at the club to express their anger at Lloyd George's failure to use his infamous "Lloyd George fund" to help the Liberals in the disastrous general election campaign one month earlier. After the 1929 general election, the first meeting of the newly expanded Parliamentary Liberal Party was held at the club, with all MPs except one (the independently minded Rhys Hopkin Morris) re-electing Lloyd George as Liberal Party Leader.
In 1932, the club first introduced non-political membership (now simply called Membership, in contrast to Political Membership). Michael Meadowcroft explains that this was done to provide, "membership for Liberals who, by reason of their employment, such as judges, military officers or senior civil servants, were not permitted to divulge their politics", and so who had been previously debarred by the club's insistence on all members signing a declaration of Liberal politics. This continues to this day, with Members signing a pledge that they will "not use the club or...membership thereof for political activities adverse to Liberalism", and not having full voting rights at Annual General Meetings, but otherwise enjoying the full benefits of club membership.
On 11 May 1941 the club suffered a direct hit by a Luftwaffe bomb during the Blitz, which utterly destroyed the central staircase and caused considerable damage elsewhere. The £150,000 cost of reconstructing the staircase in 1950 placed a considerable strain on the club's finances, although generous support from the War Damage Commission helped to fund the new staircase. In the nine-year interim between the bomb blast and the rebuilding of the staircase, members had to use the stairs of the club's turret tower, often taking highly circuitous routes around the vast clubhouse.
One of the items damaged in the blast was the 1915 portrait of Winston Churchill (a member of the club), by Ernest Townsend. Ironically, after 25 years of being hidden from sight, it had only just been put on display the year before. Painted in the year of the Dardanelles Campaign, Churchill was soon unavailable for unveiling the portrait as he went into exile in the trenches. After his return, his strong support for the Lloyd George coalition meant that from 1916 he proved to be persona non-grata at the club, and this only increased after he left the Liberal Party in 1924. Thus from 1915 to 1940 (with only a brief display in 1923-4), the painting was held by the club in storage. When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, the club rushed out the painting and put it on display in the main lobby (where it still hangs today). It was bombed after one year, suffering a diagonal gash down the middle. The painting was then painstakingly restored, and Churchill re-unveiled it himself on 22 July 1943, at a ceremony also attended by his wife (a lifelong Liberal), Liberal Leader Sir Archibald Sinclair (a friend and colleague of over 30 years, then serving in Churchill's cabinet), lifelong friend Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Club chairman Lord Meston and cartoonist David Low.
The fortunes of the NLC have mirrored those of the Liberal Party – as the Liberals declined as a national force in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, so did the NLC. However, despite the Liberals' national decline, the NLC remained a focus for debate.
In the early 1950s, it was a centre of anti-ID card sentiment, and Harry Willcock, a member who successfully campaigned for the abolition of ID cards, tore his up in front of the club as a publicity stunt in 1951. He subsequently died at a meeting of the Eighty Club during a debate on 12 December 1952, with his last word being "Freedom."
It was at a debate at the club in 1971 that Yale professor James Tobin first publicly voiced his proposal for a Tobin tax on financial transactions.
In addition to the Blitz bombing in 1941, the club also sustained an attack from an IRA bomb at 12 past midnight on 22 December 1973 (as part of a concerted Christmas bombing campaign) which blew open the front door and gashed the duty manager's arm, while on 10 January 1992 an IRA briefcase bomb exploded outside the club, shattering many of its windows.
During the February 1974 general election campaign, Liberal Leader Jeremy Thorpe was defending a wafer-thin majority of 369 votes in his Devon constituency. Instead of fighting a "typical" party leader's election campaign based in London and focusing on the London-based media, Thorpe spent almost the entire election in his constituency, keeping in contact with the national press via a live closed-circuit television link-up to daily press conferences at the National Liberal Club. Thorpe later credited this system with giving him more time to think of answers to questions, and it helped to keep the Liberal campaign both distinctive and modern. Further Liberal election campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s would retain the idea of a daily press conference at the NLC, but with live participants rather than a TV link-up to the party leader.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, all London clubs were in serious decline, and the NLC was no exception. By the 1970s the club was in a serious state of disrepair, its membership dwindling, and its finances losing almost a thousand pounds a week. In 1976, Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe handed over the club to Canadian businessman George Marks, styling himself George de Chabris (and, more improbably, "His Serene Holiness the Prince de Chabris", which he claimed was "a Catholic title"), who, unknown to Thorpe, was a confidence trickster. "De Chabris" claimed to be a multi-millionaire willing to funnel money into the club (although both his wealth and his willingness to finance the club turned out to be untrue), and he spent nine months running the club, relaxing membership rules and bringing in more income, but also moving his family in rent-free, running several fraudulent businesses from its premises, paying for a sports car and his children's private school fees from the club's accounts, and he eventually left in a hurry owing the club £60,000, even emptying out the cash till of the day's takings as he went. He eventually agreed to pay back half of that sum in instalments. In his time at the club he also sold it a painting for £10,000, when it was valued at less than £1,000. One of his more controversial reforms was to sell the National Liberal Club's Gladstone Library (which contained the largest library of 17th- to 20th-century political material in the country, including 35,000 books and over 30,000 pamphlets) to the University of Bristol for £40,000. The pretext given was that the club could no longer afford to pay the Librarian's wages, and that it did not want to leave such valuable material unguarded. Ian Bradley described it as "a derisory sum" for the sale, particularly in light of the unique collection of accumulated candidates' manifestos from 19th-century general elections. Until its sale, it had been, as Peter Harris observed, "The most extensive of the Club libraries of London." The collection is still housed at Bristol today. However, the papers referring to the history of the club itself were returned to the NLC in the 1990s, as they had not been included in the sale, and had been sent to Bristol by accident.
After the 1977 dismissal of de Chabris, a 1978 rescue package by Sir Lawrence Robson (a former Liberal Party President and parliamentary candidate, co-founder and partner of Robson Rhodes, and husband of Liberal peer Baroness Robson) did much to stabilise the club and secure its future – to this day the club honours Sir Lawrence with a portrait in the Smoking Room, and one of its function rooms has been renamed the Lawrence Robson Room.
As the Liberal Party's lease on its headquarters expired in 1977, the party organisation moved to the upper floors of the NLC, the negotiations being arranged by "de Chabris". The Liberals occupied a suite of rooms on the second floor, and a series of offices converted from bedrooms on the upper floors. The party continued to operate from the NLC until 1988, when it merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats, and moved to occupy the SDP's old headquarters in Cowley Street. During this time, party workers were known to avail themselves of the club downstairs, and the NLC bar became known as the "Liberal Party's 'local'" and a Liberal Party song "Down at the Old NLC" was written in response to this:
Come, come, roll up your trouser leg
Down at the old NLC.
Come, come, stuff your coat on the peg,
Down at the old NLC.
There to get your apron on:
Learn the secret organ song;
Bend your thumb when you shake hands.
Come, come, drinking till the dinner gong,
Down at the old NLC.
In the autumn of 1980, former Liberal Leader Jo Grimond delivered the inaugural 'Eighty Club' lecture to the Association of Liberal Lawyers at the club, drawing press attention for his scathing criticism of those Liberals who believed that their future lay in some form of social democracy, or what he termed, "a better yesterday".
In 1985, the club undertook a two-year negotiation to sell off its second-floor and basement function rooms, and the 140 bedrooms from the third floor to the eighth floor (including two vast ballrooms and the Gladstone Library, which had contained 35,000 volumes before their sale in 1977, and was standing empty by the 1980s) to the adjoining Royal Horseguards Hotel, which is approached from a different entrance, and which has operated as a hotel since 1971. This was not without some dissent among the membership, but the sale ensured that the club's financial future was secure, and the remaining part of the club still operating, mainly on the ground and first floors of the vast building, still remains one of the largest clubhouses in the world. Originally built for 6,000 members, the club still provides facilities for around 2,000.
The club's calendar includes an Annual Whitebait Supper, where members depart by river from Embankment Pier, downstream to The Trafalgar, the Greenwich tavern which Gladstone used to take his cabinet ministers to by boat; as well as the Political and Economic Circle, which was founded by Gladstone in the 1890s.
On 17 July 2002, Jeremy Paxman gave a well-publicised interview with Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy in the club's Smoking Room for an edition of Newsnight. The interview generated much controversy over Paxman's querying Kennedy's alcohol intake, including his asking, "Does it trouble you that every single politician to whom we've spoken in preparing for this interview said the same thing – 'You're interviewing Charles Kennedy, I hope he's sober'?" It was the first time a major television interview had raised the topic with the Lib Dem leader, who would resign three and half years later after admitting to suffering from alcoholism.
In the 2006 Liberal Democrats leadership election, Chris Huhne launched his leadership campaign from the main staircase of the club, while in the 2007 Liberal Democrats leadership election, frontrunner and eventual winner Nick Clegg launched his successful leadership bid from the club's David Lloyd George Room, praising "the elegance of the National Liberal Club". As party leader, Clegg has delivered further landmark addresses at the club, such as his "muscular liberalism" speech of 11 May 2011, marking one year of the Liberal Democrats in power as part of the Conservative-led coalition government.
After the Liberal Democrats' mixed result in the 2017 general election, party leader Tim Farron used the club to give his first major speech, calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to resign after she had lost her majority.
Designed by leading Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse using the Renaissance Revival architecture style, the clubhouse was constructed at a cost of some £165,950; a substantial sum in 1884, worth a little over £15 million in 2014. An earlier design by architect John Carr was rejected by members.
The NLC was described by Munsey's Magazine in 1902 as possessing, "The most imposing clubhouse in the British metropolis", and at the time of its construction, it was the largest clubhouse ever built; only the subsequent Royal Automobile Club building from 1910 was larger. The NLC's building once hosted its own branch of the Post Office, something which the Royal Automobile Club still does. Waterhouse's design blended French, Gothic and Italianate elements, with heavy use of Victorian Leeds Burmantofts Pottery tilework manufactured by Wilcox and Co. The clubhouse is built around load-bearing steelwork concealed throughout the structure, including steel columns inside the tiled pillars found throughout the club. (It was this resilient structure which enabled the building to survive a direct hit in the Blitz.) Waterhouse's work extended to designing the club's furnishings, down to the Dining Room chairs.
It was the first London building to incorporate a lift, and the first to be entirely lit throughout by electric lighting. To provide its electricity, the Whitehall Supply Co. Ltd. was incorporated in 1887, being based underneath the club's raised terrace. By the time the supply opened in 1888, it had been bought by the expanding Metropolitan Electricity Supply Co. NLC members were so enamoured with the modern wonder of electric lighting that the original chandeliers featured bare light bulbs, whose distinctive hue was much prized at the time.
The club's wine cellar was converted from a trench dug in 1865, intended to be the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway, stretching from Scotland Yard to Waterloo station, which planned to carry freight that would have been powered by air pressure; digging was abandoned in 1868, and when the company wound up in 1882, the National Liberal Club adapted the tunnel to its present use.
Over the years, numerous Liberal and Liberal Democrat MPs have lived at the club, including David Lloyd George in the 1890s, Cyril Smith in the 1970s and Menzies Campbell in the late 1980s.
The club has had a number of members who were notable authors, including Rupert Brooke, G. K. Chesterton, Jerome K. Jerome, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Dylan Thomas, H. G. Wells and Leonard Woolf; several of whom featured the club in some of their works of literature.
Additionally, the Authors' Club, founded in 1891 in neighbouring Whitehall Court, lodged with the National Liberal Club between 1966 and 1976, and has done so again since 2014.
I engaged myself to speak at one or two London meetings, and lunched at the Reform, which was fairly tepid, and dined and spent one or two tumultuous evenings at the National Liberal Club, which was in active eruption. The National Liberal became feverishly congested towards midnight as the results of the counting came dropping in. A big green-baize screen had been fixed up at one end of the large smoking-room with the names of the constituencies that were voting that day, and directly the figures came to hand, up they went, amidst cheers that at last lost their energy through sheer repetition, whenever there was record of a Liberal gain. I don't remember what happened when there was a Liberal loss; I don't think that any were announced while I was there.
How packed and noisy the place was, and what a reek of tobacco and whisky fumes we made! Everybody was excited and talking, making waves of harsh confused sound that beat upon one's ears, and every now and then hoarse voices would shout for someone to speak. Our little set was much in evidence. Both the Cramptons were in, Lewis, Bunting Harblow. We gave brief addresses attuned to this excitement and the late hour, amidst much enthusiasm.
"Now we can DO things!" I said amidst a rapture of applause. Men I did not know from Adam held up glasses and nodded to me in solemn fuddled approval as I came down past them into the crowd again.
Men were betting whether the Unionists would lose more or less than two hundred seats.
"I wonder just what we shall do with it all", I heard one sceptic speculating....
It is one of my vivid memories from this period, the sudden outbreak of silk hats in the smoking-room of the National Liberal Club. At first I thought there must have been a funeral. Familiar faces that one had grown to know under soft felt hats, under bowlers, under liberal-minded wide brims, and above artistic ties and tweed jackets, suddenly met one, staring with the stern gaze of self-consciousness, from under silk hats of incredible glossiness. There was a disposition to wear the hat much too forward, I thought, for a good Parliamentary style.
My discontents with the Liberal party and my mental exploration of the quality of party generally is curiously mixed up with certain impressions of things and people in the National Liberal Club. The National Liberal Club is Liberalism made visible in the flesh—and Doultonware. It is an extraordinary big club done in a bold, wholesale, shiny, marbled style, richly furnished with numerous paintings, steel engravings, busts, and full-length statues of the late Mr. Gladstone; and its spacious dining-rooms, its long, hazy, crowded smoking-room with innumerable little tables and groups of men in armchairs, its magazine room and library upstairs, have just that undistinguished and unconcentrated diversity which is for me the Liberal note. The pensive member sits and hears perplexing dialects and even fragments of foreign speech, and among the clustering masses of less insistent whites his roving eye catches profiles and complexions that send his mind afield to Calcutta or Rangoon or the West Indies or Sierra Leone or the Cape....
I was not infrequently that pensive member. I used to go to the Club to doubt about Liberalism. About two o'clock in the day the great smoking-room is crowded with countless little groups. They sit about small round tables, or in circles of chairs, and the haze of tobacco seems to prolong the great narrow place, with its pillars and bays, to infinity. Some of the groups are big, as many as a dozen men talk in loud tones; some are duologues, and there is always a sprinkling of lonely, dissociated men. At first one gets an impression of men going from group to group and as it were linking them, but as one watches closely one finds that these men just visit three or four groups at the outside, and know nothing of the others. One begins to perceive more and more distinctly that one is dealing with a sort of human mosaic; that each patch in that great place is of a different quality and colour from the next and never to be mixed with it. Most clubs have a common link, a lowest common denominator in the Club Bore, who spares no one, but even the National Liberal bores are specialised and sectional. As one looks round one sees here a clump of men from the North Country or the Potteries, here an island of South London politicians, here a couple of young Jews ascendant from Whitechapel, here a circle of journalists and writers, here a group of Irish politicians, here two East Indians, here a priest or so, here a clump of old-fashioned Protestants, here a little knot of eminent Rationalists indulging in a blasphemous story sotto voce. Next to them are a group of anglicised Germans and highly specialised chess-players, and then two of the oddest-looking persons—bulging with documents and intent upon extraordinary business transactions over long cigars ...
I would listen to a stormy sea of babblement, and try to extract some constructive intimations. Every now and then I got a whiff of politics. It was clear they were against the Lords—against plutocrats—against Cossington's newspapers—against the brewers.... It was tremendously clear what they were against. The trouble was to find out what on earth they were for!...
As I sat and thought, the streaked and mottled pillars and wall, the various views, aspects, and portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone, the partitions of polished mahogany, the yellow-vested waiters, would dissolve and vanish, and I would have a vision of this sample of miscellaneous men of limited, diverse interests and a universal littleness of imagination enlarged, unlimited, no longer a sample but a community, spreading, stretching out to infinity—all in little groups and duologues and circles, all with their special and narrow concerns, all with their backs to most of the others.
What but a common antagonism would ever keep these multitudes together? I understood why modern electioneering is more than half of it denunciation. Let us condemn, if possible, let us obstruct and deprive, but not let us do. There is no real appeal to the commonplace mind in "Let us do." That calls for the creative imagination, and few have been accustomed to respond to that call. The other merely needs jealousy and bate, of which there are great and easily accessible reservoirs in every human heart.
The NLC is a private members' club, with membership needing the nomination of an existing member, and a waiting period of at least one month. Members are in one of two categories: either Members, who sign a declaration that they shall not use the club's facilities or their membership for 'political activities adverse to Liberalism', or Political Members, who sign the same declaration, plus an additional declaration that they are a Liberal in their politics, in exchange for additional voting rights within the club. Non-political Membership was first introduced in 1932, to allow Liberals to join when they had been barred up until that point, as several occupations such as judges, army officers and senior civil servants specifically forbade political declarations.
It is currently one of the few London clubs to contain other clubs within. The Authors Club meets and hosts events at the NLC. The NLC has also been home to the Savage Club from 1963-5, and again from 1990-2021 (as of 2020, notice has been given to terminate the Savage Club's lease).
In return for a collective subscription, members of the Old Millhillian's Club (OMC) were allowed to use the NLC clubhouse after 1968, when their own neighbouring Whitehall Court clubhouse closed down, until the arrangement was discontinued in the 2010s.
In keeping with its liberal roots, it was one of the first London club to invite ethnic minorities as members, and the first to do so from its very foundation. (A handful of other Victorian clubs remained accessible to minority candidates, including the East India Club whose members included the opium trader Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, but the NLC's ethnic minority members tended to be more radical and anti-imperialist than "establishment" figures such as Jejeebhoy.) The first recorded ethnic minority member of the NLC, Dadabhai Naoroji was admitted in 1885, when the club was less than three years old. Spurred on by Club Secretary William Digby (himself a long-standing anti-imperialist campaigner), by the late 1880s, the club had cultivated a large overseas and expatriate membership, particularly concentrated in India and among Indian nationals resident in London. Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian lawyer, pan-Africanist, and Progressive Party Marylebone councillor, was a member, as were Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a successful barrister who went on to be the founder of modern-day Pakistan; C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, the Diwan (Prime Minister) of Travancore; and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the Indian independence leader would mentor the young Mahatma Gandhi - who was himself an occasional visitor to the club as Gokhale's guest.
Since the club's 1882 foundation, women had always been allowed to use the club as visitors, but remained barred from membership until the 1960s, when it became one of the first "gentlemen's clubs" to admit women members. It offered women an 'associate membership' category from 1967 until 1976. The Lady Associate membership referendum was submitted for adoption by the General Committee in June 1967. The first five applications for Lady Associate Members were approved by the Membership Committee in November 1967. "Number of lady associate members elected, or applying, at 19 January 1968" was 34. One of the early Lady Associate Members was Miss. V.E. Wilcox, approved by the Membership Committee in March 1968. Lady Associate members initially had to be the wife or widow of a member of NLC. In 1969, women who were not related by family relationships to a male member could be nominated as Lady Associate Member, paying a higher membership fee to a Lady Associate member who is a wife or widow of a member. Both types of Lady Associate member fees were still lower than male members' membership fees because of restricted privileges of Lady Associate members. Other early Lady Associate members included Violet Bonham Carter and Nancy Seear.
It did not admit women as full members until 1976, although this did still make it the first major London club to admit women, while many other such clubs did not admit women until the 1990s or 2000s (and several still do not). The next major London club to admit women was the Reform Club, in 1981. The club's first full women members in 1976 were Christina Baron and Joyce Arram.
When the club was originally launched in 1882, like every other London club of the era it had no prescriptive dress code. In 1888, a simple requirement was introduced that "No member shall appear in any public rooms of the Club in a dressing gown, slippers, or other deshabille." Beyond that, the club's only dress code was a request in the Regulations that members "dress and conduct themselves in a manner consistent with civilised standards", but precisely how members chose to observe that remained a matter of considerable personal interpretation. Indeed, the club's first official history, in 1925, noted that an unusual feature of the NLC was the way in which it enjoyed far more casual dress than other London clubs, with members turning up in their working clothes, and it singled out, "the practical tabooing of evening dress, which assisted in securing the attendance of the House of Commons and Press Gallery men for at least part of the social evening."
This absence of any prescriptive dress code remained the club's modus operandi from 1882 until 1979, when the Club's flurry of recent scandals led the General Committee to impose a strict jacket-and-tie dress code for men for the very first time, emulating the jacket-and-tie dress codes introduced in other London clubs in the 1950s, which the NLC had previously held out against. No vote of the membership was held on the new dress code. This strict jacket-and-tie dress code remained in place for 40 years after the General Committee's 1979 decision, although a 2005 review led the club to permit men to remove their jackets on the club's terrace.
In May 2018, the Club's Annual General Meeting voted by 49 to 36 in favour of a trial relaxation of the dress code in July and August of that year, removing the jacket-and-tie requirement from every part of the club except the Dining Room. It was the first time in 39 years that members had been permitted a formal vote on the dress code. At the following AGM in May 2019, the dress code was more permanently relaxed, by 80 votes to 19.
The club has been used as a location in numerous films and television programmes, including:
Over the years the NLC has contained a large number of notable members. In addition to many politicians, including seven Prime Ministers – five Liberals from Gladstone to Lloyd George, one Labour (Ramsay MacDonald) and one Conservative (Winston Churchill), its membership has also contained a sizeable literary element, with writers including Rupert Brooke, G. K. Chesterton, John Creasey, Jerome K. Jerome, George Newnes, C. P. Scott, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Edgar Wallace, H. G. Wells and Leonard Woolf.
Besides the members, famous guests who have signed the Visitors' Book over the years have included Tony Benn, Mahatma Gandhi, Field Marshal Montgomery, and Harold Wilson.
The club is open to members from Mondays to Fridays, 8:00am–11:30 pm. During the weekend members may use either the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall, or the Naval and Military Club and the East India Club in St. James's Square. The club's link with the latter relates to the East India incorporating the now-defunct Devonshire Club, which was another Liberal-affiliated club of the 19th century. There are also reciprocal arrangements with over 250 other clubs worldwide, granting members a comfortable place to stay and to entertain when abroad. The club does not affiliate with the NULC (National Union of Liberal Clubs), which represents the interests of Liberal Working Men's Clubs in the country nationwide.
As of 2020, the NLC's reciprocal clubs around the world are as follows (club foundation dates are provided in brackets):
|The Rt Hon William Ewart Gladstone MP, FRS, FSS†||1882–1898|
|The Rt Hon Earl Carrington (later the Most Hon Marquess of Lincolnshire) KG, GCMG, DL, JP†||1903–1928|
|The Rt Hon Earl Beauchamp KG, KCMG||1929–1932|
|Baron Gladstone of Hawarden†||1932–1935|
|The Most Hon the Marquess of Crewe KG†||1935–1945|
|The Rt Hon Viscount Samuel of Mount Carmel and Toxteth GCB, OM, GBE†||1946–1963|
|Harold Glanville JP†||1963–1966|
|The Rt Hon Baron Rea of Eskdale OBE, DL, JP†||1966–1981|
|The Rt Hon Baron Banks of Kenton CBE||1982–1993|
|The Rt Revd Eric Kemp, Lord Bishop of Chichester FRHistS||1994–2008|
|The Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP (later the Rt Hon the Baron Beith of Berwick)||2008–present|
†=died in office