Gentlemen’s clubs emerged in 18th-century London. These exclusive associations of gentlemen possessed buildings where members could socialise, drink, dine, relax and occasionally reside.
Not the pub
When the Dunedin Club was set up in 1858, it was seen as an alternative to pubs ‘where you have to rough it in the old room with Tom, Dick and Harry, and have old Gallie, the dirty blacksmith, pop down on the next chair to you and ask what you’ll take.’1 Gentlemen’s clubs were widely seen as an escape from grog shops.
New Zealand’s first clubs were the Pickwick Club, briefly established in Wellington in May 1840; the Wakefield Club, formed there five months later to ‘preserve a high British tone’2; and the Wellington Club, set up in December 1841, which amalgamated with the Wakefield, probably within a decade.
Soon other clubs appeared – a short-lived one in New Plymouth (1853), then Auckland and Christchurch (1856), Dunedin (1858), Hawke’s Bay (1863), the Northern in Auckland (1869), Canterbury and Marlborough (1872), Poverty Bay (1874), Masterton (1877), Invercargill (1879), Hastings (1885) and Tauranga (1894). In Wellington the Junior Wellington Club appeared in 1891. It was later renamed the Wellesley.
Plumbing the depths
Gentlemen’s clubs usually had the most up-to-date facilities – but when the Dunedin club introduced the newly-invented water closet in the 1870s there were some complaints. Colonel Henry Kitchener asked that the closets be lit, while John Cargill complained that ‘the water closet arrangements with regard to bum fodder are simply barbarous – old newspapers and government gazettes. Suggest that Kempthorne Prosser paper manufactured for the purpose be substituted.’3
The clubs attracted well-heeled men. In the 19th century most clubs had an annual fee of £5–£10 (compared to 10 shillings a year for some Workingmen's clubs), and new members had to be elected. The Wellington Club attracted lawyers, merchants and doctors, and provided honorary membership to the members of Parliament and the diplomatic corps.
The Christchurch and Dunedin clubs were established by pastoralists wanting an exclusive place to stay in town. Samuel Butler remembered that at the Christchurch Club in the early 1860s ‘the conversation was purely horsey and sheepy’.4 In 1872 the Canterbury Club opened to serve the business and professional leaders of the city. The Hawke’s Bay Club was started by former officers in the New Zealand Wars. Political leaders were well represented (for example, three of Canterbury’s four superintendents were Christchurch Club members), and all clubs provided welcome and farewell dinners for governors. The clubs always represented élite class interests – in the widespread strikes of 1913, members of the Wellesley Club volunteered as special constables.
In 1879 the chairman of the Canterbury Club wrote to New Zealand’s agent-general in London asking for a first-class female cook: ‘She must not be too young – nor too old – not too good-looking and not too ugly, but a real professor of her art!’5
The clubs were places for affluent men to socialise, smoke, drink, dine and play billiards together. On occasion they were used for business meetings. It is said the agreement for the Union Steam Ship Company to take over Westport Coal was made over a billiard game at the Dunedin Club – but the normal convention was that clubs were for relaxation, not work.
Every club had:
- bars for drinking
- dining rooms for regular lunches and more formal dinners
- bedrooms with modern bathrooms, where members could stay
- a library or reading room, which usually offered copies of newspapers and the best international periodicals
- a card room, although most clubs banned gambling
- a large billiard room.
From the mid-20th century some clubs added squash courts and gymnasiums.
Clubs enforced strict gentlemanly codes of dress and behaviour – even in 2010 the Canterbury Club did not permit jeans, jandals, T-shirts or ‘provocative clothing’. Members who offended by, for example, breaking wind in the card room were reprimanded. The ‘oak, leather and crystal’6 style of the clubs imbued a sense of aristocratic elegance and restraint.
Gentlemen’s clubs were conceived of as ‘the place for gentlemen to foregather without benefit of their womenfolk’.7 Even wives of members were allowed entry only under exceptional circumstances. In 1894 the Canterbury Club invited women for afternoon tea on the first Tuesday of every month.
Things did not change until the 1990s, when the arguments of modern feminism and the public prominence of women made exclusion untenable. The Northern Club admitted women as full members in 1991, as did the Wellington Club in 1993 after the Governor-General, Dame Catherine Tizard, refused honorary membership until entry was open to women. The Christchurch Club opened its doors to women in 1998, but 55 male members resigned in protest. The Dunedin Club, where the ‘dead bodies’ (‘over my dead body!’) had defeated earlier proposals, finally gave way in 2001.
Social change hurt membership. Men began sharing more home responsibilities, and police blitzes to prevent drink-driving made evening functions problematic. Clubs became luncheon rather than dinner clubs. In 2010 the Auckland Club – which had seen membership dwindle to under 300, from over 1,000 in the 1980s – merged with the Northern Club. Some gentlemen’s clubs still prospered, but no longer as exclusive bastions of male privilege.