The Eccentric Club
We all love an eccentric – they come in all shapes and sizes – and naturally a club promoting the virtues of eccentricity was bound to be both successful and highly entertaining.There have been at least four clubs through the ages in London bearing that name, the first of which was founded in 1781 and lasted until 1846. They met initially in a tavern in Chandos Street in Covent Garden but settled for a long time at May’s Building in St Martin’s Lane near Charing Cross.
The first president’s inaugural address in 1781 set the scene. “Look at that eccentric wheel in that steam engine, what motion would you get out of it without that wheel’s eccentricity – only rest. So in society you would get precious little driving force out of it, but for eccentricities having free and active motion. Let us encourage them, let us utilise them!”. Throughout its 65 years some 40,000 claiming some form of eccentricity joined its ranks, some of whom were drawn from royalty and the aristocracy and many more from the Arts, Law and Politics. The Club was said to “flourish at all hours” and someone being proposed for membership had to take part in an initiation ceremony which culminated in a jubilation from the President.
The Eccentrics had a philanthropic side to their activities, supporting struggling writers and artists and raising funds for the poor in London, Ireland and other parts of the Empire. Famous members included Sheridan, Lamb and Thackeray, the latter joining on 30th January 1846 just months before the club disbanded. Quite why, we don’t know. May be it had something to do with Thackeray!
A second incarnation of the Eccentrics appears to have flourished between around 1858 and 1881, drawing its members from the arts and businessmen interested in the arts. It seems to have met in the Leicester Square area. By 1881 it had lost some of its key members and, more fatally, the premises in which it met and the remaining members scattered to other clubs.
On 21st November 1890 theatrical costumier, Jack Harrison, established a new Eccentric Club which became inextricably linked with the theatre. Its first home was at the premises of the old Pelican Club in Denman Street where actors and back-stage staff had somewhere to unwind, have a chat, a glass of wine, smoke a pipe and play a game of billiards.By virtue of its members’ professions the Club kept late hours – midnight to 4 am being its busiest period – and members were known as the night owls.
When the Club moved in 1914 to new premises in Ryder Street from 21 Shaftesbury Avenue where it had been in residence for 21 years the main bar was known as the Owl’s Roost and featured a clock which went backwards.
The club continued the philanthropic works of its predecessors and there were always queues of the poor waiting for distributions of free food and around Christmas of the famous “best in London” Christmas hampers.
But the Club fared badly in the early 1980s and closing ostensibly for renovations in 1984 it went into liquidation in 1986. A fourth version of the Eccentrics was launched in August 2008 and is thriving today.