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Lawyers petition Garrick Club to admit women members for the first time in its 189-year history 

The Garrick Club is one of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs in the world. Founded in 1831, its past members include Charles Dickens, HG Wells, JM Barrie, AA Milne, Kingsley Amis, Charles Charles Kean, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Laurence Olivier

The Club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick (pictured), whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama

The Club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick (pictured), whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama

The Garrick Club is one of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs in the world. 

Founded in 1831, its past members include Charles Dickens, HG Wells, JM Barrie, AA Milne, Kingsley Amis, Charles Charles Kean, Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Arthur Sullivan, and Laurence Olivier.

The Club was founded at a meeting in the Committee Room at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Present were strolling player James Winston, playwright Samuel James Arnold, hero of the Napoleonic Wars General Sir Andrew Barnard and timber merchant Francis Mills. It was decided to write down a number of names in order to invite them to be original members of the Garrick Club.

The avowed purpose of the Club was to ‘tend to the regeneration of the Drama’. It was to be a place where ‘actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms’ at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society.

The avowed purpose of the Club was to 'tend to the regeneration of the Drama'. It was to be a place where 'actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms' at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The avowed purpose of the Club was to ‘tend to the regeneration of the Drama’. It was to be a place where ‘actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms’ at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The Club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick, whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama.

Less than six months later the members had been recruited and a Club House found and equipped on King Street in Covent Garden. In 1832 it was reported that the novelist and journalist Thomas Gaspey was the first member to enter at 11am, and that ‘Mr Beazley gave the first order, (a mutton chop) at ½ past 12.’

The list of those who took up original membership runs like a Who’s Who of the Green Room for 1832: actors such as John Braham, Charles Kemble, William Macready, Charles Mathews and his son Charles James; the playwrights James Planché, Theodore Hook and Thomas Talfourd; scene-painters including Clarkson Frederick Stanfield and Thomas Grieve.

Even the patron, the Duke of Sussex, had an element of the theatrical about him, being a well-known mesmerist. To this can be added numerous Barons, Counts, Dukes, Earls and Lords, soldiers, parliamentarians and judges.

Edmund Yates, a friend of Dickens, published remarks on William Makepeace Thackeray that were offensive and could only have been heard in the Club. Yates was peevishly championed by Dickens and the disaffection between him and Thackeray lasted until just before the latter’s death. 

The Club’s popularity at the beginning of the 1860s created an overcrowding of its original clubhouse. Slum clearance being undertaken just round the corner provided the opportunity to move into a brand-new purpose-built home on what became known as Garrick Street. The move was completed in 1864 and the Club remains in this building today.

All new candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot, the original assurance of the committee being ‘that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted’. This exclusive nature of the club was highlighted when reporter Jeremy Paxman applied to join but was initially blackballed, though he was later admitted, an experience he shares with Henry Irving who despite being the first actor to receive a knighthood had himself been blackballed in 1873.

As of 2016, the club has around 1,400 members (with a seven-year waiting list) including many actors and men of letters in the UK. New candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot

As of 2016, the club has around 1,400 members (with a seven-year waiting list) including many actors and men of letters in the UK. New candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot

The avowed purpose of the Club was to 'tend to the regeneration of the Drama'. It was to be a place where 'actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms' at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The avowed purpose of the Club was to ‘tend to the regeneration of the Drama’. It was to be a place where ‘actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms’ at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The Club remains ‘for gentlemen only’ – restricted to male members – although women guests are welcome as visitors in most parts of the Club. 

Several past attempts to open the club to women members have failed to attain the necessary two-thirds majority, though the most recent poll, in mid-2015, did garner a majority vote of 50.5 per cent.

Baroness Hale, when President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, protested about the club’s continued exclusion of women and the acquiescence of its members in that policy. 

She said: ‘I regard it as quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about,’ arguing that judges ‘should be committed to the principle of equality for all.’

In reaction to the latest vote, Dinah Rose QC, a leading barrister specializing in human rights and public law, urged leading legal professionals including members of the Supreme Court, to ‘reconsider’ their membership in the club.

The Club holds a remarkable collection of art works representing the history of the British theatre. There are over 1000 paintings, drawings and sculptures, a selection of theatrical memorabilia, and thousands of prints and photographs.

The collection originated with the actor Charles Mathews; they were once displayed by him in a gallery at his home, Ivy Cottage, in Highgate, north London. Mathews managed to secure a large number of pictures from the collection of Thomas Harris, who had been manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and which included paintings by the likes of Johann Zoffany, Francis Hayman and Gainsborough Dupont. He also actively commissioned artists such as Samuel De Wilde to paint all the popular stars of the stage at that time (there are 196 works by De Wilde in the collection).

In 1956 the rights to AA Milne's Pooh books were left to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club

In 1956 the rights to AA Milne’s Pooh books were left to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club

Mathews had hoped to sell the collection to the Club and it appears that lengthy negotiations were entered into without any result. It was eventually purchased by a wealthy stockbroker and donated to the Club, having already hung on its walls for several years.

The collection continued to grow with many being presented by artist members, such as Clarkson Frederick Stanfield and David Roberts, who with fellow scene painter Louis Haghe painted a series of large canvases especially for the Smoking Room at the old Clubhouse. Roberts’ Temple at Baalbec remains today one of the most important paintings by that artist. Sir John Everett Millais is represented by one of his most important portraits, that of Henry Irving which he painted and presented to the Club in 1884.

The picture collection continued to expand throughout the twentieth century with artists such as Edward Seago and Feliks Topolski both represented.

In 1956 the rights to AA Milne’s Pooh books were left to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club.

As of 2016, the club has around 1,400 members (with a seven-year waiting list) including many actors and men of letters in the UK. New candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot.


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