The Leeds Club

The Leeds Club (est. 1852)
Albion Place
Founded in 1849, moved into premises on Albion Place in 1852. Said to have been the equal of “any clubhouse out of London,” the Club ensured exclusivity with a very high annual subscription fee: approximately £6 a year, while the Leeds Radical Universal Suffrage Association, a working-class Chartist organisation, charged the equivalent of forty-eight pence for their yearly subscription. Club members were spread across the political spectrum of Leeds during the late 19th- century; one can only guess at the nature and importance of the conversations, deals, and arrangements which took place there.

The Leeds Club – established in 1849 and originally based in the Stock Exchange building on Albion Place – was arguably the foremost site for the circulation of power networks among the town’s elite in the mid-Victorian era, at least until the opening of the Town Hall in 1858 (and possibly beyond).  The Club lasted only three years in the Stock Exchange, before moving to two houses owned by a Mr. Martin – at number 3, Albion Place, neighbouring the surgeon William Hey’s grand Georgian home. In 1861 the Club purchased the Martin houses and approved alterations; creating one opulent space at a cost of more than £5300 (at least £500,000 in today’s monetary value). Those alterations were complete by January of 1864.

Undated. Engraving of the headquarters of the Stock Exchange in Leeds built in 1846/7 at the junction of Albion Street and Albion Place. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

There are three main sources available at the Central Library for further exploring the history of the Leeds Club; one of these, The Leeds Club: A Brief History (Craig Owen Lewis), tells us that the following statement was recorded in notes from the inaugural meeting in 1849:

It was resolved that in the opinion of the meeting it is expedient to establish a Club in Leeds to be called The Union Club on the principle of those which now exist in some of the large towns in England.

The rationale behind the establishment is expanded on in a contemporaneous article in the Leeds Mercury:

Leeds Mercury, December 29, 1849

The Club, then, was formed to provide a space for ‘gentlemen’ to conduct their affairs away from the malign influence of the working-class, who were – it is claimed – likely to tempt such men into unsuitable behaviour. The “mutual surveillance” of other civilised persons (men) would provide the necessary restraining and “favourable influence,” once safely inside the walls of the Club.

That is to say: class and, particularly, the need to police the socially-correct boundaries between the “upper” and the so-called  ‘lower orders’ was at the heart of the Club and its guiding principles. This is, of course, reflected in the cost for annual subscription (prohibitively expensive), as well as the terms of membership, which can be found in the Central Library’s second source for exploring the Leeds Club: a selection from the Rules, Regulations, & Bye-Laws of The Leeds Club, with a List of Members (various years are available between 1863 and 1908).

The Rules for 1863 state clearly that “each candidate for admission shall be…[p]roposed by one Member and seconded by another.” A ballot was then taken by existing members, to decide the suitability of each candidate. This process, of course, ensured that membership of the Club was reserved for the ‘right’ sort of man; a class-based judgement made further explicit by the rule (XXVIII) that

Any Member who shall become Bankrupt, or take the benefit of any Act of Parliament for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors [shall] cease to be a Member of the Club, and shall forfeit all right or claim upon the Club and its property…

The ‘success’ (on their own terms, at least) of these regulations was such that, as Owen Lewis describes it, “the private members’ club ran for over 150 years and saw some of Leeds’ top movers and shakers meet and do business.”

The 1863 rule book confirms the truth of that statement in its list of members, which reads like a who’s who of the mid-Victorian Leeds elite: Clifford Allbutt, Edward Baines, M.P., Edward Baines, Jun., George Beecroft, Thomas Bischoff, Cuthbert Brodrick, George Corson, John Calverley, William Beckett Denison, Edwin Eddison, Andrew Fairbairn, John Gott, J.D. Heaton, William Hey, Hugo Charles Meynell Ingram, Christopher Kemplay, James Kitson, Hon. G.E. Lascelles, James Garth Marshall, Richard Nussey, John Hope Shaw, Robert Tennant, William St. James Wheelhouse – to name only a few.

What is perhaps most interesting about that list is the range of political views represented: members – Baines (Junior), Fairbairn and Wheelhouse – would contest the 1868 Parliamentary Election for Leeds for the Liberals (Baines and Fairbairn) and the Tories (Wheelhouse), for example.

Cartoon from the 1868 Parliamentary Election for Leeds, showing the candidates – including Fairbairn, Baines Junior and Wheelhouse. Part of the 19th-century Political Cartoon Collection at the Central Library.

The Club seems, then, to have been a self-contained place of privilege that allowed self-identifying members of the Leeds elite to form and strengthen networks of power (both in business and in politics), for mutual benefit – while excluding any men whose background or beliefs marked them as a threat to the established social order; notable by their absence from the Membership (in any year) are former Chartists and Radical Liberal candidates (in 1868 and 1874 respectively), Robert Meek Carter and Dr. Frederick Lees. .

While it would be an interpretive leap, from the limited evidence available, to state that shared membership of the Club by both Liberals and Tories resulted in any kind of conscious manipulation of the election process, it does seem likely that association via the Club would have resulted in (or reinforced) an implicit recognition that members had more in common with each other than with other social groups; something no doubt reflected in their framing of, and approach to, questions of social, political and economic distribution on the local (and national) level.

Sketch of the Club exterior, from Denis Mason Jones, Life Times of the Leeds Club. (c) Denis Mason Jones

The actual, concrete effects of these networks are, of course, unknowable – but it is reasonable to assume that the conversations and arrangements made behind the closed doors of the Club have played a major part in the history of Leeds over the 150-year lifespan of the Club. Indeed, we see the same process still playing out as recently as the 1970s, in the third major source available at the Central Library: a slim pamphlet edited by Denis Mason Jones – Life and Times of The Leeds Club: The First 150 Years (1999). Here, D.M. Dell, writing in 1995, remembers that

When I came to Leeds in 1976 as DTI Regional Director, my predecessor, John McEnery, told me that, if members would have me, I should join the Leeds Club. He said that lunching at the Club would introduce me to all the leading lights of Leeds life…[m]any of those who were leaders in the professions and business in Leeds could be found lunching in the Club every day if they did not have some other definite appointment.

To which scene of privilege we might ask: who is entitled to define a “leading light” – and which voices and perspectives are excluded from such networks of power in doing so? No doubt most readers of this article will make their own assumptions; though, to be fair to the Club, it did, by the 1990s, admit “ladies” as members.

All of the books and other resources referenced here can be accessed in the Local and Family History department of the Central Library. 

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