THE NEW Club, located at No. 86 Princes Street since 1837, may not be strictly lost, but is regarded by some as a shadow of its former self.
A private gentlemen-only establishment going by the name of ‘The New Club’ first existed in Edinburgh way back in 1787. The original premises were within Bayle’s Tavern, Shakespeare Square by the present site of the old G.P.O. building. The New Club then acquired property on St. Andrew Square before moving on to its current location at No. 86 Princes Street in 1837. The building was designed by architect William Burn for a reported £10,000. Private clubs became increasingly popular during the Victorian era, with most professional men belonging to one of the numerous clubs in and around Princes Street by the middle of the 19th century. The New Club was arguably the most famous in Edinburgh. Its elegant Italianate façade, similar to George Street’s Standing Order, graced the city’s main thoroughfare for well over a century. Generations of Edinburgh judges, doctors, lawyers and bankers have mingled in the secluded warmth of its oak-panelled interior over the years.
During the middle of the 20th century, attitudes to Victorian architecture across the United Kingdom were beginning to change. In Edinburgh, the Princes Street Panel was examining ways to improve the area’s commercial viability. Plans included ridding Princes Street of its existing architecture entirely and introducing an upper level walkway that would effectively double the available retail space. Hallmarks of these plans exist within the eventual designs of several 60s builds along Princes Street, the best example being the replacement of the original New Club. The 1837 Italianate design was swept away in 1967 despite the best attempts of conservationists to save it. The current New Club, designed by Appleton Tower architect Alan Reiach at a cost of £750,000, has divided opinion ever since it was completed in 1969. Some argue that the current New Club is both bold and inspiring while there are others who fervently dismiss it as a cruel ‘Brutalist’ monstrosity. Outside as well as inside, the design is very much of the era that it was created, though the retention of the original oak-panelled walls and red leather furnishings has at least appeased those of a more conservative mindset.
The New Club continues to thrive in the 21st century, boasting over 2500 members to date – partly due to the fact that many of its rivals have since closed their doors. It is keen to move on from its dusty prejudices of the past where people of a certain gender, or social status would once have been denied entry. Joining up, however, remains a tricky business that still requires approval from existing members. A source from within the club interviewed in 2004 said: “The New Club has always been home from home. What is interesting is that the club today is still going strong, and that is because it still offers the ultimate retreat and last word in discretion. Many members are related to those who joined from previous generations.
“Why else does Sir Sean Connery stay there when he’s in Edinburgh and still feel very happy to muck in and join other members at the club table?
“The membership numbers have never been higher, and lots of younger ones are signing up - whatever the allure of other new clubs on the block”.
Regardless of your architectural preference, the club’s reputation as an attractive haunt for the wealthy half of Edinburgh looks intact for the foreseeable future.
• More intriguing insights into Edinburgh’s past can be found on the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page