Wellington’s Clubland

Soft words over cigars and port

By Stephen Hoare

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of WellingtonKGGCBGCHPCFRS, ‘the Iron Duke’, is well known as the military man who defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and as the man who ended the Napoleonic Wars – with a little Prussian help. He was also the Tory prime minister from 1828 to 1830. Wellington was a master of the exercise of military and political power. But there is another side to Wellington: he was also a master of soft power. Stephen Hoare discusses this side of the Duke .

On 18 November 1852 over one million people lined the streets of London to pay their final respects to a man described by Queen Victoria as “the greatest Englishman”. The Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo and an Irish peer had earned his place in the national pantheon of heroes and a full state funeral.

Before dawn broke, Horseguards in Whitehall was a hive of activity as troopers of the Household Cavalry groomed their mounts and made last-minute adjustments to gleaming ceremonial helms and cuirasses. At nearby Wellington Barracks, entire brigades were turned out and drilled under the keen eye of colour sergeants, regimental sergeant majors and officers on horseback. 

In a few short hours, the entire effective strength of the British army would be marching to honour Wellington and the victory of Waterloo. From the red-coated Coldstream and Grenadier Guards to the regiments of the line, riflemen in green shakoes, and the flamboyantly uniformed cavalry troops – hussars, dragoons, lancers, the royal house artillery and the light brigade which was to feature famously in the Crimean war. All would escort the Duke’s funeral car to its final destination, St Paul’s Cathedral.

The three-mile long funeral procession headed by Prince Albert on horseback would leave Horseguards at 9.00 am and travel at a slow march accompanied by regimental bands up Constitution Hill, along Piccadilly, into St James’s Street then along Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, the Strand, and Fleet Street before finally arriving at the Cathedral.  The crowned heads of Europe travelled in carriages near the head of the cortege, where Wellington’s groom led his riderless horse with the general’s boots reversed in the stirrups.

The focal point of the procession was the funeral car, a four tonne juggernaut, constructed in bronze melted down from cannons captured at Waterloo which carried the Duke’s coffin, so heavy that it needed six dray horses to pull it.    

The choice of route was highly symbolic. Instead of taking the shortest route to St Paul’s Cathedral the cortege would pass Wellington’s London home, Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner before travelling through the heart of London’s clubland.

Antonio Canova‘s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1806, statue in Apsley House

In St James’s Street, White’s, Brooks’s, and Boodles, could trace their origins from the chocolate houses and gambling clubs of the late seventeenth century. They would later become exclusive members’ only clubs for the aristocracy and the beau monde. Wellington was a lifelong member of White’s.   

The clubs that lined Pall Mall had erected temporary grandstands decked with flags and patriotic banners from which members and their guests could view the procession. The Oxford and Cambridge, the United Universities Club, the Carlton Club, the Reform, the Travellers, the Athenaeum and the United Services Club all paid homage to Wellington as the procession passed slowly along the ceremonial route.

Wellington’s links to the revival of London’s clubland cannot be over-stated.

Palatial clubhouses were constructed on the site of the Prince Regent’s palace, Carlton House which had been demolished in 1824 creating a blank canvas that would see this area transformed into a new elevated clubland centred on Waterloo Place, Cockspur Street and Pall Mall.  


The Reform Club Lobby, Photo Alexander Williams

Wellington’s links to the revival of London’s clubland cannot be over-stated. With the obvious exception of the Reform Club, the Duke of Wellington was involved with every single one of the Pall Mall clubs, either as a founder member or as a guiding light. For Wellington the soldier statesman, clubs represented a modern ideal. He saw them as cementing a new Pax Britannica– a form of cultural imperialism designed to show Britain at its best. Throughout his career, Wellington was an active member of no less than eight clubs including White’s and Crockford’s.

But beyond global power politics, Wellington had a more pressing reason to value members’ clubs as an institution. They were a form of soft power. On leaving the army and entering the political arena as a Tory, Wellington needed to network and build his power base. Clubs were private spaces where influence could be brought to bear over a glass of port and a cigar.  

He saw [clubs] as cementing a new Pax Britannica – a form of cultural imperialism designed to show Britain at its best.

The Duke was a founder member of the Union Club for Irish peers. Having served as a general in the East India Company’s army, he was closely associated with setting up the Oriental Club for former army officers, colonial administrators and merchants.

The Athenaeum, William Radclyffe (1783–1855) 

In 1816 Wellington lent his support to the United Service Club whose aim was to provide a congenial home from home for officers of the rank of major and above who had fought at Waterloo. Wellington’s advice was in defiance of prime minister Lord Liverpool’s fear was that such a club might encourage the army to form a military junto that might one day overthrow an elected government. Wellington’s opinion carried the day.

Clubs were private spaces where influence could be brought to bear over a glass of port and a cigar.

The Athenaeum was founded in 1824 by John Wilson Croker a lawyer, Irish MP and a long-term associate of Wellington’s. With Sir Humphrey Davy, John Faraday, assorted bishops, leading artists and writers among the founder members, the Athenaeum set out to champion Britain’s achievements in the arts and sciences. Investing in building a world class library and art collection, the club stood in marked contrast to the aristocratic St James’s gambling and drinking dens.      

The ‘Iron Duke’ in 1850

Most of all Wellington is associated with the Carlton Club which he helped establish in 1832. Here he would build the network that finally led to his election to Parliament and his short career as Tory prime minister from 1828-1830 and briefly in 1834. Alas, the club and Parliamentary democracy failed to live up to the Duke’s desire to pull strings and peddle influence. Unable to fully comprehend democracy, Wellington became disillusioned with politics. “Damme sir, I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them!” Wellington is said to have exclaimed after his cabinet colleagues rejected his command-and-control leadership. 

the Athenaeum set out to champion Britain’s achievements in the arts and sciences.

His disillusion was complete when in 1834 Sir Robert Peel led a clique that dislodged him from Downing Street, using the Carlton Club to hold secret meetings of co-conspirators.

“Never write a letter to your mistress and never join the Carlton Club,” was Wellington’s considered verdict. 

The Carlton Club, photo by Debonairchap

In later life reconciled to the political wilderness, Wellington was appointed Chancellor of Kings College London, a post that enabled him to claim membership of the United Universities Club. Here he would often retire to enjoy a quiet hour of relaxation.

There is a lovely story that members of the Guards’ Club in nearby St James’s Street, were given reciprocal dining rights at the United Universities Club while their own building was being refurbished. One boisterous young officer on spying an elderly gentleman sitting quietly in front of a blazing fire reading the Times remarked to his fellows:

“I say, these old University types really know how to treat themselves!”

The paper was lowered gradually to reveal the scowling countenance of no less a person than the Duke of Wellington!

Stephen Hoare, Author of Places of Power: The Birth and Evolution of London’s Clubland

Stephen Hoare is the author of Palaces of Power: The Birth and Evolution of London’s Clubland published by The History Press 2019. ISBN 978-0-7509-9076-9 price £25

For the past twenty years, Stephen Hoare has been a freelance writer and journalist, writing about higher education, business schools and the public sector for The Guardian. He is a regular contributor to the Times’ special reports and author of many non-fiction titles including The Assassination of John F Kennedy and Hiroshima for Batsford’s ‘A Day That Made History’ series

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