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date: 27 November 2021

Century Clubfree

(act. 1865–1881)

Century Clubfree

(act. 1865–1881)
  • Christopher A. Kent

Century Club (act. 1865–1881), first convened in 1865 in London, in the Lincoln's Inn chambers of Henry Yates Thompson. It then moved to the Alpine Club before settling in a room at 6 Pall Mall Place. In the words of Frederic Harrison, one of its founders, it was 'essentially a political, not a social club, with a very definite purpose and a strongly marked political colour' (Harrison, 314). That colour was advanced Liberal. The club's membership was overwhelmingly composed of men who had attended and excelled at Oxford or Cambridge between the 1840s and 1860s, winning first-class degrees, prizes, and college fellowships, debating at the Union Society, and belonging to élite intellectual coteries like Oxford's Essay Society and Old Mortality Society, the Cambridge Apostles, and the inter-university Ad Eundem Club. The Century Club was a London extension of that milieu. The typical Century member was an old Etonian, Harrovian, or Rugbeian who had gone to either Balliol College at Oxford or Trinity College at Cambridge, and then become a barrister, though not necessarily with a view to practising. Most were gentlemen of some means with a strong commitment to devoting their talents to the cause of humanity.

The club was modelled to a certain extent on the Cosmopolitan Club. Members were elected by a committee vote which had to be unanimous. It met on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. No newspapers, books, cards, or dice were allowed in the club, and although Harrison claimed it barred alcohol in deference to the principles of Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Edward Clodd recalled its guinea a year subscription as including free tobacco, whisky, and brandy. It was a talking club, where 'freedom of speech was an absolute principle' (Harrison, 316). Men were free to address one another without introduction or acquaintance. The club had a reputation for high seriousness. 'I don't suppose that there is a single man in the Century dances' declares a character in Laurence Oliphant's satirical novel Piccadilly. 'Our one annual frivolity', Clodd remarked, 'was an invitation to ladies to an oyster soiree' (Clodd, 255).

One of the club's founding causes was university reform—changing Oxford and Cambridge from bastions of Anglican privilege into non-sectarian centres of scholarly excellence and national intellectual leadership. Century Club members viewed themselves as an élite whose duty it was to exercise leadership in politics and the press. The club's founding moment seemed particularly propitious. Politics and parties were in flux, parliamentary reform was in the air, and a change of generation was taking place in political leadership. Gladstonian Liberalism was emerging, higher journalism was flourishing, and opportunities for men of intelligence and good will to make a difference seemed to abound.

Essays in Reform and Questions for a Reformed Parliament, two volumes of essays appearing in 1867, were virtually a Century Club manifesto. At least twelve contributors were club members: G. C. Brodrick, James Bryce, A. V. Dicey, Harrison, Frank H. Hill, Lord Houghton [see Milnes, Richard Monckton], Godfrey Lushington, Thorold Rogers, Albert Osliff Rutson (1838–1890), Goldwin Smith, Leslie Stephen, and Sir George Young. A number of members had recently entered parliament, including Lord Amberley [see Russell, John], Henry Fawcett, Mountstuart Grant-Duff, Thomas Hughes, Lawson, T. B. Potter, G. J. Shaw-Lefevre, James Stansfeld, and G. O. Trevelyan. The 1867 Reform Act inspired several more to stand in the 1868 general election, successfully for Thomas Brassey, Sir Charles Dilke, Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice, and George Osborne Morgan; unsuccessfully for Brodrick, Lushington, Frederick Maxse, Charles Savile Roundell (1828–1905), Yates Thompson, and Young. John Morley and Rutson unsuccessfully sought nomination. Morley and Roundell eventually entered parliament, as did Bryce, Arthur Cohen, Leonard Courtney, Horace Davey, Arthur Charles Humphreys-Owen (1836–1905), Herbert Paul, John Rigby, Rogers, Lyulph Stanley, and John Westlake.

Few Century Club members enjoyed the glittering political careers that distinguished so many Cosmopolitan Club members. Many of them offered their intellectual guidance to the nation through the gentlemanly organs of higher journalism. Writing leaders for The Times were Brodrick, Lushington, and James Macdonell; editing it were G. W. Dasent and Thomas Chenery. Paul wrote leaders for the Daily News, which Hill edited. Contributors to the Saturday Review included Walter Bagehot, C. S. C. Bowen, Bryce, Alexander Grant, Grant-Duff, T. H. Huxley, Morgan, Goldwin Smith, Fitzjames Stephen and his brother Leslie, and R. S. Wright. Writing for the Pall Mall Gazette were Courtney, Houghton, Hughes, Huxley, both Stephen brothers, John Addington Symonds, and John Tyndall. Bagehot edited The Economist; Morley edited the Fortnightly Review; Leslie Stephen edited the Cornhill Magazine; David Masson edited Macmillan's Magazine; Herbert Spencer co-edited The Reader. T. B. Potter's father was a founder of the Manchester Guardian who sent his son to Rugby School under Thomas Arnold before taking him into the family's cotton business.

Among the enthusiasms uniting Century Club members were Italian unification—the quixotic Lord St Maur fought in Garibaldi's army—and the northern cause in the American Civil War: Leslie Stephen spent three months in the north in 1863, and Goldwin Smith resigned his regius professorship in modern history at Oxford and went to teach at Cornell University. Harrison, Hughes, Roundell, Spencer, and Fitzjames Stephen actively promoted the prosecution of Governor Eyre. E. S. Beesly, Harrison, Hughes, and Vernon Lushington were energetic defenders of trade unions. National education and higher education were major concerns for many members including Llewelyn Davies, Joshua Fitch, Lewis Morris, William Rogers, Henry J. S. Smith, Stanley, and Stansfeld.

Members' generally advanced religious views ranged from the liberal Anglicanism of clerical members like Davies, W. H. Fremantle, Mark Pattison, Samuel Reynolds, and Rogers, to the agnosticism of Huxley. Rogers was the first Anglican priest to renounce his orders when this became legally possible in 1870 and Leslie Stephen soon followed suit. Auguste Comte's ‘religion of humanity’ attracted the support of Beesly, Charles Alfred Cookson (1829–1906), Harrison, and the Lushington twins, Godfrey and Vernon. More controversial still were Amberley's support of contraception and the promotion of eugenics by Montague Cookson [see Crackanthorpe, Montague Hughes]. Stansfeld was a leading parliamentary opponent of the Contagious Diseases Acts, while Dilke and Trevelyan risked their political careers by openly criticizing the cost of the monarchy. Courtenay Ilbert is remembered for his controversial bill which proposed the authorization of Indian judges to hear cases involving Europeans. Homophile members of the club included Walter Pater, Rutson, and Symonds.

The club contained a small but important group of scientists: Huxley, Spencer, and Tyndall also belonged to the exclusive and highly influential X Club. The mathematician and Apostle W. K. Clifford, the anthropologist Edward Tylor and Darwin's ingenious critic Samuel Butler were members, as was, appropriately for so Gladstonian a club, Gladstone's physician Andrew Clark. At least eleven Century members also belonged to the more philosophically inclined Metaphysical Society, and several intellectual socialites like Grant-Duff and Houghton to the more fashionable Cosmopolitan.

Not surprisingly, given its strongly generational character, the Century Club lost momentum as its members aged, married, and dispersed. In Clodd's words it 'died of inanition' (Clodd, 255) in 1881, with many members joining the newly formed and less strenuous National Liberal Club.

Sources

  • E. Clodd, Memories (1926)
  • F. Harrison, Realities and ideals (1908)
  • C. Harvie, The lights of liberalism: university liberals and the challenge of democracy, 1860–86 (1976)
  • C. Kent, Brains and numbers: élitism, Comtism and democracy in mid-Victorian England (1978)