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Review: The Athenaeum: More Than Just Another London Club by Michael Wheeler. A guest post by LH Member Margaret Willes. 

athenaeumWhen I was an editorial assistant in a publishing house in, I think, 1969, I was dispatched to the Athenæum Club to deliver a manuscript to an author. I was told two things: that the club was full of bishops; and that women were not allowed in the front door. So, having rung the bell, I hurled the envelope at the porter and departed in high feminist dudgeon. So, half a century later, when asked to write this review I was intrigued to find out more about the institution, especially as one of my female friends is having a lovely time during lockdown attending all kinds of events there, virtually and occasionally in person.

The club was founded in 1824 by John Wilson Croker, described as ‘a true blue Tory who ensured that a majority of Whigs served on the inaugural committee’. Not only did the Athaenæum stand out as a non-partisan club politically, but also as an institution that sought membership from a wide spectrum of people. Original members included artists such as Thomas Lawrence, writers such as Walter Scott, scientists, such as Humphry Davy, and eminent politicians such as the Duke of Wellington. And, yes, there were bishops. Wheeler argues that the emphasis on the episcopacy is misleading, due to the fact that their dress makes them stand out. Nevertheless, the cartoons, of which there is a good selection in this book, do invariably show members in clerical garb.


A Punch cartoon from 1906 imagining a police raid on the Athenaeum Club.

The early 19th century saw the establishment of a series of gentleman’s clubs in the area of St James, but the Athenæum was different from those that were politically based, or military establishments or for purely social purposes. In some ways it was the successor to the 18th-century informal clubs to be found in St Paul’s Churchyard where Samuel Johnson met up with his literary friends in the taverns and coffee houses. From the beginning, however, the Athenæum had a large library: a club attached to a library according to one source.

Croker was keen on all things Greek, so the club was given its name from the temple in Athens where poets, philosophers and orators met to share their ideas. This concept is reinforced by the building itself, on the corner of Pall Mall, with its front façade facing Waterloo Place. A frieze is based on the Elgin Marbles, recently installed in the British Museum, while Pallas Minerva stands guard on the portico.

All through the 19th century the club maintained its reputation as a club of the Great and the Good, and the list is immense, at times making the book reel with famous names. But the author strives to give colour to his biographical sketches, and at times to provide examples of less than good behaviour. One wonderful example is the Revd Carew Hervey St John Mildmay whose career in the club is as resounding as his name. In the midst of the First World War, he constantly questioned his bill, while drawing down complaints from other members by lying full length on sofas and snoring loudly. He went on to inherit a public house, drinking the entire stock before succumbing to his intemperance.

The club has been wary of both ‘strangers’, that is guests, and women. Originally, female relatives were permitted to view on Wednesday evenings. This brought out misogynistic responses from some members, including one who wrote of ‘a party of invading Amazons, with bare necks and yellow gowns’ who swept ‘across the chamber I had hoped would have been for ever sacred to frock coats and the modest virtue of cravats’. A century and a half passed before women were able to become members, in 2002. A delicious cartoon, presaging this event, was drawn in 1974 by Osbert Lancaster. This shows Maudie Littlehampton asking a bemused bishop ‘is it true that even the Athenæum’s thinking of going bi-sexual?’ Maybe this explains why it took another quarter of a century to come to pass.

Michael Wheeler has spent many years delving into the club’s records as well as fleshing out the characters of the members through the two hundred years of the Athenæum’s existence. The result is all that one would ever require to know about the ‘brainiest club in the world’, handsomely produced by Yale University Press.


The Athenaeum: More Than Just Another London Club (480pp) by Michael Wheeler is published by Yale University Press, 2020 with a cover price of

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