Members Only: The Do’s and Dont’s of Private Clubs

Private Clubs of the Past

The Savile Club, London, UK

Private members clubs have been a source of fraternity and fellowship-as well as exclusion, for centuries. With the advent of coffee-drinking in Britain in the 17th Century, they were venues in which a gentleman from the upper class could enjoy an afternoon cup, in the company of like-minded and similarly-heeled members of society.

They evolved into literary or political venues for rassemblement or debate, and some began to sprout accommodation facilities for members who were travelling through London from distant parts of the Empire, or elsewhere in the UK.

Later, some clubs were created based on the pursuit of a specific activity: card playing, automobile racing, polo, sailing, golfing … and migrated onto the continent, and towards America.

Private Clubs Present Day

Soho House, West Hollywood, CA

These days, many clubs will often have a well serviced bar with comfortable seating, superior dining facilities, a sports area (which can include a swimming pool) and at times banquet or private meeting rooms.

Membership can be a delicate matter and different clubs, not unlike fraternities, will impose varied criteria for joining. In what we know as a Private Members’ club, or a Gentleman’s club, (in the style of those found in St James’ area in London), membership has traditionally been granted after nomination by one or two existing member(s) – a proposer and a seconder, and followed by approval by the other members of the club.

The approval process takes place by petition (adding one’s name to the list of members supporting the incumbent member) or more traditionally by ballot. The word ballot comes from “Ballotte”, a small ball or white or black which one could secretly place in a box to support or to oppose the candidacy. The presence of a black ball meant the member was not welcome to join the club and consequently ‘blackballed’, to the embarrassment of the proposer (who can be pressured to resign). Some clubs may impose further conditions for membership, namely attendance to a particular school, political opinions and lineage.

Nowadays many clubs have opened their doors to women, though their attendance is less frequent. Indeed, it would seem women prefer to have their turn at excluding men from all-women clubs!

Clubs here in France can be just as difficult to join, but contrary to their British neighbours, the French favour Automobile clubs or Sports associations, over a ‘salon’ setting.

The Hurlingham Club, London, UK. Photo: Tony Gamble
The Hurlingham Club, London, UK. Photo: Tony Gamble

Understandably, it can be much easier to gain access to an exclusive club if one has family members within. For the less fortunate, waiting lists can be as long as 6 years. As is the case with most gifts, the ‘gift’ of a nomination is not something for which you should ever consider asking, even with a subtle hint: this is extremely bad form. Also bad form is club name dropping: if you don’t want your acquaintances to think you are a snob, or to pressure you for a nomination, it’s always best to keep your private membership just that: private.

As a member of a club, your sponsor should have ensured you have an understanding of the ‘savoir vivre’. Bear in mind that while you are in your ‘home away from home’; so are the other members:

Any behavior which is disruptive in the least should be avoided-this includes loud voices-ESPECIALLY on mobile telephones, laptop use, photography, removal of footwear (!) and smoking, if a ban is not already in place.

You will be made aware of a dress-code in the likelihood that there is one. Respecting it also means that athletic wear should never be worn in areas other than those designated for sports. While a tie may not be mandatory, it is certainly okay to wear one.

Clubs are a lot of things; a place to socialize, relax or luncheon with friends; occasionally some are set up for business meetings (while others frown upon it). What clubs are not, however, are places to bring a date. Ever.

Many clubs have banded together as a network, granting their members access to their sister-clubs when they are travelling. Here, cultural differences may also apply: exercise great care and adhere to the house rules even if they aren’t what you are used to back home.

The personnel of your club is there to help make your stay more comfortable, all the while remaining discrete and attentive: they should be treated with the utmost consideration. Tipping is not necessarily the form, however remembering them at the end of the year with a recompense is most definitely the way to show one’s appreciation.

So You’ve Been Invited to a Private Club …

Kee Club, Hong Kong
Kee Club, Hong Kong

While membership may be quite exclusive, invitations to visit a club for coffee or a meal are far more frequent. As with any invitation, this is a privilege and an honour.

Here are a few guidelines for conduct:

  • The member of the club should have announced your arrival to the reception personnel, and in theory, should already be on site. He should also let them know where he can be located once you arrive, ensuring you can be escorted most expediently, if he is not there to greet you. No attempt should be made to seek out your host on your own.
  • If you are invited for lunch, arrive on time, as a table will have been reserved. As an honoured guest, you are likely to be issued a ‘ladies’ menu (with no prices) even if your host is female and you are not. (This is true for all top tables by the way)
  • The bill will be dealt with even more discreetly than at a ‘normal’ restaurant. The club will not expect you to pay, nor should you offer to do so in front of the server, as this might embarrass your host. If it’s an occasion in which you will be going dutch for whatever reason, then make your arrangements in private, prior to lunch or later on. Social intelligence and tact will dictate whether that conversation should even take place.
  • If you can reciprocate, then you should, of course!
  • If you need anything, asking your host is preferable to asking the serving staff directly: they are the “employees” of the member, not yours. As a rule they are trained extremely well and selected with care, but should an error occur this is not a circumstance in which you can easily admonish them.
  • As with any other invitation, you should follow-up with a note of thanks, telephone call or even an email.

Country clubs, polo clubs, jockey clubs, tennis clubs, and golf clubs all follow somewhat similar guidelines, but given the different dose of post hole-in-one adrenaline in the bar, the rules tend to be a little more lax. You would be right to ask before making assumptions, and as always ‘blend’.

Nathalie Findlay

After completing a degree in Fine Arts and another in Interior Architecture, Nathalie began modelling in New York, Hamburg, Munich and Paris where she eventually decided to base herself. Always on the lookout for opportunities to grow, she combined her modelling career with other areas of interest, working for the Canadian Embassy, Christian Liaigre, A Small World and Sotheby's. She has also enjoyed appearing regularly as a presenter and speaker for television and media events and as a pit-lane reporter on Eurosport. Exposed both personally and professionally to the intricacies of etiquette and protocol, Nathalie now focuses on applying her extensive knowledge-base practically, addressing matters of refinement, image and manners for individual and corporate clients with Lifestyling, a consultancy she created in 2007. Nathalie lives in the French countryside with her husband, their baby and two Korthals.

One Comment
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    I personally don’t know much about private clubs and so I wanted to learn a little bit more about them. I really appreciated how it talked about how many memberships have traditionally been granted after nomination by one or two existing members. I will have to keep this in mind if I look for any private clubs.

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