The Liberal Club

Recently due in part to heavy rain I dropped a passenger off at the Liberal Club only to pick up another fare from the same place.

Nothing unusual except that both men independently related the same story – the demise of the Liberal Club. This was due in part, I suspect, to the defeat suffered by their party at the hands of the electorate. According to my passengers the club is now a fraction of its original size.

[I]t then stretched up the entire eastern side of Whitehall Court. It was then the second largest clubhouse in London. Designed by the President of the Royal Institute of Architects Alfred Waterhouse its foundation stone was laid by William Gradstone in 1884 addressing the audience with these words:

Speaking generally, I should say there could not be a less interesting occasion than the laying of the foundation-stone of a Club in London. For, after all, what are the Clubs of London? I am afraid little else than temples of luxury and ease. This, however, is a club of a very different character.

He had envisioned the club as a popular institution for the mass electorate.

At that time popularity in the Liberal Party was at its zenith with Gladstone having been returned as Prime Minister with 352 seats in a Parliament comprising 652. A huge number compared with the 8 they hold today.

When the National Liberal Club opened in 1887 business emanating from there was so brisk that not only did it have its own dedicated rank but a Cabbie’s Green Shelter stood beside it providing refreshments as seen in this picture:

WHITEHALL PLACE: The title reads: City of Westminster, London. Horse-drawn hansom cabs are waiting for fares outside the recently built National Liberal Club in the Victorian equivalent of a taxi rank. The small hut to the foreground is a cabman’s shelter, which offered some refuge from the elements. York & Son image taken some time between 1887 and 1900.

Here is another picture clearly showing the Green Cab Shelter.

Whitehall-Court

The club’s facilities were impressive: dining room, bar, function rooms, billiards room, smoking room and library complete with a riverside terrace. The total cost of construction was over £150,000.

During World War I Canadian troops were billeted here out staying their welcome after cessation of hostilities. It was only after a ’farewell dinner’ in March 1919 they took the hint and departed donating a moose head as thanks for the Liberals’ hospitality.

There is a well-known story told of the National Liberal Club, that the Conservative politician F. E. Smith would stop off there every day on his way to Parliament, to use the club’s lavatories. One day the hall porter apprehended Smith and asked him if he was actually a member of the club, to which Smith replied “Good God! You mean it’s a club as well?” This story, and apocryphal variations thereof (usually substituting Smith with Churchill), are told of many different clubs. The original related to the National Liberal Club, at the half-way point between Parliament and Smith’s chambers in Elm Court, Temple. The comment was a jibe at the brown tiles in some of its late-Victorian architecture.

Today most of the club’s amenities have been taken over by the Royal Horseguards Hotel only leaving a few rooms, but curiously it’s one of the few London clubs to contain another club within its walls. Since 1990 it has also been home to The Savage Club which lodges in some of the few rooms it has left at its disposal.

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