The Oriental Club
This club is slightly away from London’s traditional club land, having moved to Stratford House, just off Oxford Street, in 1960. The name on the tin says it all – it was originally designed to draw its membership from those who had seen service or made their fortunes in the East, principally in India. The driving force behind the foundation of the club was Major General Sir John Malcolm.
A founding committee was established in 1824 and a series of adverts were posted in the right sort of papers and journals to attract the right sort of chaps – chapesses were not eligible for membership until 2010. The club was seeking to recruit “Noblemen and gentlemen associated with the administration of our Eastern empire, or who have travelled or resided in Asia, at St. Helena, in Egypt, at the Cape of Good Hope, the Mauritius, or at Constantinople.” The initial committee consisted of “forty individuals of rank and talent” including the Duke of Wellington.
According to the prospectus, “the club will be established at a house in a convenient situation” – the first premises occupied was at No 16 Lower Grosvenor Street but in 1827-8 a purpose-built club house was constructed in Hanover Square where the club remained until decamping to the present site in 1960. The prospectus went on to state that “The utmost economy shall be observed in the whole establishment, and the subscription for its foundation and support shall not exceed fifteen pounds entrance, and six pounds per annum.”
As the club increased in popularity, subscriptions had increased. An account of the club in The Great Metropolis, written by James Grant and published in 1837, noted that “The admission money to the Oriental Club is twenty pounds, the annual subscription is eight pounds. The number of members is 550.” A casual observer of proceedings at the club could play a sort of Oriental bingo. Grant commented, “I have often thought it would be worth the while of some curious person to count the number of times the words Calcutta, Bombay and Madras are pronounced by the members in the course of a day.” Members by that time were “persons who are living at home on fortunes they have amassed in India. India and Indian matters form the everlasting topics of their conversation.”
One of the conspicuous habits of nabobs, as men who had return from the East having made prodigious fortunes in double quick time were known as, was their taking of snuff. The legacy of this habit can be seen today at the club. In the Old Smoking Room is to be found an elaborate ram’s head snuff box together with snuff rake and spoons. But if Grant is to be believed, the members must have brought their own snuff as, according to Grant, the amount in the club’s accounts for snuff was a paltry 17 shillings and 10 pennies.
The club, known pejoratively amongst Hackney carriage drivers as the Horizontal, was not to everyone’s taste. It was known for its library-like atmosphere and The New Monthly Magazine wryly commented, “From the outside it looks like a prison;—enter it, it looks like an hospital, in which a smell of curry-powder pervades the ‘wards,’—wards filled with venerable patients, dressed in nankeen shorts, yellow stockings, and gaiters, and faces to match. There may still be seen pigtails in all their pristine perfection. It is the region of calico shirts, returned writers, and guinea-pigs grown into bores.” Perhaps we need to take this description with a pinch of curry powder!