Stephen McGinty: Best damned club in London
For 121 years Scots have gravitated towards the Caledonian Club in Belgravia, nowadays the epitome of Scottish hospitality, writes Stephen McGinty
Once upon a time, a Scot was a rarity on the streets of London. In the 1560s, a census recorded that when the streets of the capital were tramped by 3,300 Flemish, there was just 40 to 60 Scots, and not one of them welcome.
In the eyes of Sir Edwin Sandys, Scots were, well, “better than aliens”, but “not equal with natural subjects”. The arrival in 1603 from Edinburgh of the one Scot to rule them all, James VI & I and his retinue of courtiers, poets, musicians, wool merchants and weavers triggered a tide that has since seen wave after wave of Scots making London a new home.
For the last 121 years, and for a price, one of the most congenial places for a Scotsman in London has been the Caledonian Club, now one of the featured subjects in a lavish new hardback book, The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London. Today, each week, 100lb of haggis are despatched from Cockburns to 9 Halkin Street, Belgravia, where the saltire flutters from the flag pole outside what is affectionately known as “The Scottish Embassy”. As Sir Campbell Fraser once said: “They call the House of Commons the best club in London, but it is not – the Caledonian is the best damned club in London.”
Yet it is built on a principal which one of the famous Scottish visitors to London would not have approved. When James Boswell went to the city in 1766 (he made annual visits), he wrote that: “Scotch who come up to London are like galley-slaves chained together. They only coast it and never get into the main ocean …when a Scotsman asks you to dine with him here, instead of letting you see English company, he asks at the same time a number of the very people whom you see at home.”
The Caledonian Club was set up, initially as a proprietary club, in January, 1891 at Waterpark House in Charles II Street, but moved to larger premises first in 1897 and then again in 1912 when it settled into Derby House, in St James’s Square, at the heart of London’s clubland. In 1917, when the owner Robertson Lawson died, the property and assets were purchased by a group of members led by the Marquis of Tullibardine, who declared at the first general meeting on 8 March, 1918, that the club should be “the representative national club and headquarters for Scots in London”.
In 1928 a club member invited a guest to the demonstration of a new-fangled gadget. The guest was the Prince of Wales and the club member John Logie Baird, with the gadget, of course, being the television. As Baird, who was proposed as a member by Lord Angus Kennedy, wrote in his memoirs: “We installed a receiver at the club and arranged a special television programme to be sent over the line from our studio in Long Acre. One of the performers was Gwen Farrar: she was recognised by the Prince of Wales.” The future king noted: “very interesting – amazing – did you invent this? Remarkable. Still a good deal to be done before it rivals the cinema.”
It is interesting that while the club was so ahead of its time in having, however briefly, the first television, there was a lengthy debate over whether to permit iPads into some rooms as the debate centred on whether it was being used as a “newspaper” or a prohibited device on which to work. Mobile phones, of course, are banned in public areas.
In the early 1980s, it was not uncommon for guests to spot a retired brigadier on his favoured spot, the end stool at the bar. He had been invited to join by the colonel of the Black Watch when he was but a young subaltern, up to his knees in the churned mud of the Western Front.
At the time he declined on the grounds that the prudent use of his funds dictated that they should be spent on necessities he could readily enjoy rather than a club membership which may be rendered null and void by a German bullet. It was a sensible decision, as 210 out of the club’s then membership of around 1,000 were killed during the First World War, yet after surviving the conflict, he joined in 1920 and lunched there for the next 60 years.
In many ways, the Caledonian Club was more forward thinking when it came to the comfort of its female guests. In 1902 they were permitted to join members as guests for lunch and tea daily, and for dinner each Wednesday and Friday. In 1930 the club bought the house next door, formerly the home of the Bishop of London, which was then converted into a Ladies’ Annexe. Hitler evidently did not approve, as the annexe along with the club was bombed in 1940 and the entire membership forced to decamp to the East India and later then Devonshire Club for the duration of the war. The bombing also destroyed the club’s records.
Yet, like a tartan phoenix who preferred not to rise from the ashes of Derby House but instead flap off in search of a sumptuous new nest, in 1946 the Caledonia Club settled into the last old-style mansion town house built in London.
The property in Halkin Street was built in 1908 as the home of Hugh Morrison, the MP for Salisbury and then one of the richest men in Britain whose property empire included a large swath of Islay. (Today, guests to the dining room who notice a distinctive spring in their step will be pleased to learn that it was previously the family’s ballroom). A deposit of £10,000 was put down and a mortgage of £30,000 arranged with the Abbey National for the £40,000 purchase of a lease that would run until 2043.
After the war there were rationing and restrictions. A circular was sent to members pointing out the problems of supply of whisky and spirits and requesting they “comply with their committee’s request normally to limit their orders to single measures”.
Public bar measures at the time were 1/6 gill, while the club, following Scottish tradition, favoured 1/4 of a gill. Despite laying in supplies, there were occasions when “doubles” were banned, to the consternation of the more enthusiastic members. For the sweet of tooth, the rationing of sugar meant regular complaints about the quality of tea, only one lump allowed, and cakes.
While women were initially permitted to use the main entrance, they were expected to move swiftly through to their own wing and, as the minutes read, “and would not be seen in any other part of the club”. Later, a new female entrance was opened, via a side patio and rose garden. When, in 1967 Winnie Ewing was invited to lunch at the club after her by-election victory, the new MP for Hamilton had to wait until the male members had departed and the coast was clear before being swiftly ushered in to see the grand main staircase.
It was only when the IRA began targeting London’s clubland in early 1970s and the side entrance, often not manned, was deemed a security risk and closed, that the ladies were once again permitted to use the front door. For a number of years the wives and daughters of members, and later any woman who so desired, could join as a Lady Associate Member for a slightly reduced rate, on the grounds that, as women, they would not be permitted to enter either the bar or the smoke room. Since October 2010, when the Caledonian Club finally accepted that under the Equality Act such discrimination was illegal, they have enjoyed full rights and access.
Last year I visited the club and, I’m ashamed to admit, had to borrow a tie on the grounds that it was not yet the weekend and rules were, after all, rules. There will be those who view such establishments as ancient anachronisms, but I thoroughly enjoyed touring the grand rooms and rather fancied the idea of a home from home in the capital, especially as the bedrooms have now all been modernised and prove excellent value at roughly £120 a night.
Groucho Marx famously said that he could not belong to a club that would have him as a member, but then again he never visited the Caledonian Club, which would indeed now have him as a member.
While in the past it was necessary to have at least one grandparent of Scottish birth to be eligible for membership, last year, in the spirit of egalitarian brotherhood (and now sisterhood, of course) it was decided to throw open the doors to anyone over the age of 18 who has “an appropriate association with Scotland and empathy with Scotland and things Scottish.”
Is that not the definition of Scots hospitality, open to all?
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