Behind Closed Doors by Seth Alexander Thévoz

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

What goes on behind the closed doors of a Private Members’ Club in London? Seth Alexander Thévoz throws them open to give us both a look and a history lesson. The history lesson shows how the establishment of members’ clubs in London in the late eighteenth century paved the way for other clubs from various walks of life to begin their lives by providing a template of organisation that continues to the present time.

The history as eloquently told by Thévoz describes how the major private members’ clubs such as Whites, the Reform Club and the Beefsteak Club came into being and collectively over the years went through cycles of boom, bust and eventual resurrection that has allowed them to be part of London’s social life in the twenty-first century.

The media has often portrayed these clubs as being predominately white, male and aristocratic. Some of them were and to an extent still are but Thévoz shows that the story is far more complex and therefore makes interesting reading.

During the nineteenth century clubs, both small and large, were all the rage. The reasons for their establishment were many and varied. The bigger ones offered a home away from home for their members with a range of amenities including dining facilities and accommodation. The smaller ones catered for those who had a common interest such as sport or politics. Anyone looking for a club during this period could easily find one that catered to their desire of belonging to a group of likeminded people.

Though there were men’s only clubs, women were not left out. They established their own clubs and salons to meet their needs and desires to gather. Thévoz’s detailed research has uncovered a real treasure trove of information and critical thought that opens the doors so we, the readers, can look in. The high-quality photos and illustrations assist in telling the story.

The pattern of club life was transmitted throughout the world. It’s not, as Thévoz says, a British empire thing since some of the first members’ clubs were established in the United States and Europe well before the growth of their London counterparts. The growth of clubs in different parts of the world has led to the concept of reciprocal status where members of one club can enjoy the amenities of another club in a different city or country.

It’s worth knowing that here in Brisbane there are several Private Members’ Clubs who have enjoyed a long history as the city has grown and developed. They are all, in the main, based on the template that the London clubs created back in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Thévoz does not shy away from the fact that Private Members’ Clubs have had their challenges and problems during the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Attracting members as well as finding the resources to maintain old and venerable buildings have caused many of them to reassess their life and reason to exist. While some have closed their doors, others have reinvented themselves by expanding their membership criteria and developing different income streams.

For Thévoz, Private Members’ Clubs are no longer hidden as they adapt to modern life in its current form. They continue to provide a service to their members and guests that offers a different atmosphere while retaining their historic links to a fascinating way of life.

Dr Seth Alexander Thévoz is a freelance historian and journalist. He holds degrees from the Universities of Cambridge, London and Warwick and is a former associate of the History of Parliament Trust and Nuffield College Oxford. He has variously been shortlisted for the Whitfield Prize for his first book, Club Government, and a British Journalism Award for his investigative work with openDemocracy.

Behind Closed Doors The Secret Life of London Private Members’ Clubs

by Seth Alexander Thévoz



ISBN 978 147214 647 2

$34.99; 375pp


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