I’ve always had a soft spot for the Garrick. Named after an 18th-century theatrical impresario, it was established in 1831 as a club where ‘actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms’, and in the intervening years it has admitted members of other equally disreputable professions – lawyers, writers, surgeons, journalists. I was put up myself about 15 years ago, but blackballed by the chair of the catering committee who took exception to a throwaway remark I’d made about the food. I intend to reapply, but will probably be blackballed again on account of the argument I’m about to make in defence of the club’s ‘men only’ membership policy.
You might think that would endear me to the crumbling pillars of the British establishment, but no. A recent members’ poll revealed a majority are in favour of admitting women, but not because the club’s make-up is becoming more ‘progressive’ as the old guard dies out. Seth Alexander Thévoz, author of a book about London clubland, told the Guardian that ‘the younger members in historic clubs can be among the most traditionalist… whereas it’s often the older members who are rather more liberal’.
That analysis is borne out if you compare the results of the poll with the last time the members voted on this issue eight years ago. Then, too, a majority were okay with admitting women, with Damian Lewis, Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Fry among the 50.5 per cent in favour. That’s almost identical to the number of ‘modernisers’ in the recent survey, 51 per cent, suggesting the changing composition of the membership isn’t moving the dial. The club’s constitution requires any rule change to be approved by a two-thirds majority, so the next time a motion is put forward on this issue it’s unlikely to be carried.
In 2020, a lingerie tycoon called Emily Bendell threatened to challenge the policy in court, claiming it was a breach of the Equality Act 2010, but didn’t follow it through.