Gentlemen’s Clubs; End of an Era.

by Hannes Wessels

 

As the Anglo-Saxon heterosexual male slides inexorably into some sort of guilt-ridden oblivion so do his institutions and this includes the gentlemen’s clubs that once provided a social pivot for ‘clubbable’ men. Originating in England the top clubs were terribly selective to the point they discriminated against men who were considered unacceptable because they needed to earn an income so professionals such as doctors and lawyers did not cut it. In those days it was much about the schools, so if you had not been to Eton or Harrow you were unlikely to make it to Whites, Boodles or The Garrick Club no matter what else you did. This was a shamelessly elitist era, a time when misogyny was considered quite acceptable, even preferable and racial prejudice was a way of life.

This tradition was transferred to the colonies and men’s clubs took root almost immediately after the Union Jack was planted on foreign soil. Some continued the British tradition of being extremely stuffy and brazenly discriminatory. The Kimberley Club which was founded by Cecil Rhodes was one of those institutions. It became a place of business for him and indeed it was at the Club that he organised the occupation of Rhodesia with Frank Johnson.

Money was not the decisive determining factor. Barney Barnato (real name Isaacs) was repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to join. Unlike some English clubs, Jews were welcome from the inception of the Club with Alfred Beit being an early member.  Legend has it that Barnato wanted three things from Rhodes; Life Governorship of De Beers, which he did get, Member of the Cape Legislative, which he got and membership of the Kimberley Club. Coming from humble beginnings Barnarto’s greatest aspiration was to break through the class barriers and reach the top. In those days the Kimberley Club was the pinnacle and making it there was the ultimate success. Eventually his application was accepted but with considerable reluctance. It is believed that although he was popular with most of the town folk, the “big boys” did not enjoy his company as his language was improper.

It then followed that a ‘club-culture’ evolved in the colonies and these then morphed into facilities demanding less rigorous entry requirements as sports clubs were formed throughout an empire where outdoor pursuits became a favoured pastime. But there remained a demand that members of clubs follow the rules and so an incipient discipline became part of the colonial culture. This laid a platform for an honest and healthy ethos because the clubs became a bedrock to the way of life and exclusion from a club of choice for bad or dishonest behaviour was a massive blow to pride and social standing, therefore to be avoided at all costs.

As a result the clubs of the colonies became social engines for economic growth. Countless business deals were struck on a shake of hands and men went forth from the bar into the world of commerce armed only with the word of their associates or a few lines on the back of a cigarette box. This simple but unusual pattern of behaviour grew countries at a rapid pace because entrepreneurs were unhindered by cumbersome contracts and extensive negotiations that took time and money. They could do this because club-member loyalty to one another was almost sacrosanct and nobody wanted the ignominy that went with deceiving or in any way unfairly prejudicing a fellow member. The clubs became kernels for commerce and this was one of the subtle fundamental reasons that the British colonies, particularly Southern Rhodesia, developed so fast. A brotherhood was cultivated in the club that moved seamlessly from the bar to the rugby field, to business and even on to war and this was the backbone of a great success story.

Sadly, no more. These institutions have become synonymous with the cardinal crimes of the modern era; racism, classism and gender discrimination, and as a result they are dying under political and social pressure to be replaced by amorphous facilities where anything goes, rules are loosely applied if at all and discipline is scorned.

Ironically, today Rhodes is one of the most loathed figures in history and an uninformed multitude has decided, quite erroneously, that he was an extortionist and plunderer who enriched himself at the expense of others. But in his day there was hardly a person alive who did not want to be a member of his club.

 

 

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