Garrick could admit women after barrister U-turns on club rules
Michael Beloff KC judged in 2011 that reference to ‘he’ excluded women but has now concluded opposite
Sat 16 Sep 2023 18.24 BST
One of London’s last remaining gentlemen’s clubs, the Garrick, may be edging towards admitting women after a barrister performed a U-turn on a previous legal judgment ruling that they were ineligible for membership.
Michael Beloff KC first concluded that women could not be proposed under the club’s rules after Joanna Lumley was denied membership in 2011. He ruled then that although the rules do not explicitly preclude women from joining, they state that “no candidate shall be eligible unless he be proposed by one member and seconded by another”.
The use of the masculine article led Beloff to conclude that the rule could be interpreted as referring to men only, while he also said the club’s objectives also refer to “gentlemanly accomplishment and scholarship”.
But the rule could now be scrapped in the club, which was founded in 1831 and counts Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir Kingsley Amis among its members, after the KC wrote a new legal opinion, concluding the opposite.
Beloff prepared a new legal opinion in November last year, the Times reports, stating that there was “now a cogent argument” that the Law of Property Act 1925 means “he” and “she” can be used interchangeably in contracts.
“If so, there is no legal obstacle to the proposal of a woman for membership of the club by one member, seconded by another; nor, if she obtains the support required under the rules, any legal obstacle to her admission as a member of the club,” the newspaper quotes Beloff as writing. He reportedly warned that the club was “likely to provoke an expensive lawsuit” if it continued to exclude women from membership.
Although the opinion was delivered in November, many members only became aware of it recently, as the committee had not shared the news of Beloff’s revised judgment, the Times reports. Club members will share their views on women joining in a survey next month.
Emily Bendell, the chief executive and founder of a successful underwear brand, launched legal action against the club in 2020, arguing that its men-only membership rules are a breach of equality legislation, while Cherie Booth KC joined a campaign to force the club to admit women the following year.
Members including Stephen Fry, Damian Lewis and Hugh Bonneville have said they were in favour of extending membership to women, as has Michael Gove, the former justice secretary Ken Clarke, and broadcasters Sir Trevor McDonald, Melvyn Bragg and Jeremy Paxman. Three former Conservative MPs and 11 KCs were among those who said they would vote to continue to exclude female members.
The club, which was founded in 1831, last voted on whether to include women in 2015, when a majority of 50.5% voted in favour of introducing female membership. However, the introduction of a new rule at the Garrick requires a two-thirds majority.
The Garrick has been contacted for comment.
The Garrick Club was founded at a meeting in the Committee Room at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on Wednesday 17 August 1831. Present were James Winston (a former strolling player, manager and important theatre antiquarian), Samuel James Arnold (a playwright and theatre manager), Samuel Beazley (an architect and playwright), General Sir Andrew Barnard (an army officer and hero of the Napoleonic Wars), and Francis Mills (a timber merchant and railway speculator). It was decided to write down a number of names in order to invite them to be original members of the Garrick Club.
The avowed purpose of the club was to "tend to the regeneration of the Drama". It was to be a place where “actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms” at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society.
The club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick, whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama. Less than six months later the members had been recruited and a Club House found and equipped on King Street in Covent Garden. On 1 February 1832, it was reported that the novelist and journalist Thomas Gaspey was the first member to enter at 11am, and that “Mr Beazley gave the first order, (a mutton chop) at ½ past 12.”
The list of those who took up original membership runs like a Who’s Who of the Green Room for 1832: actors such as John Braham, Charles Kemble, William Macready, Charles Mathews and his son Charles James; the playwrights James Planché, Theodore Hook and Thomas Talfourd; scene-painters including Clarkson Frederick Stanfield and Thomas Grieve. Even the patron, the Duke of Sussex, had an element of the theatrical about him, being a well-known mesmerist. To this can be added numerous Barons, Counts, Dukes, Earls and Lords, soldiers, parliamentarians and judges.
The membership would later include Charles Kean, Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Arthur Sullivan, J. M. Barrie, Arthur Wing Pinero, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. From the literary world came writers such as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, H. G. Wells, A. A. Milne (who on his death in 1956 bequeathed the club a quarter of the royalties from his children’s books),and Kingsley Amis. The visual arts has been represented by painters such as John Everett Millais, Lord Leighton and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The club’s popularity at the beginning of the 1860s created overcrowding of its original clubhouse. Slum clearance being undertaken just round the corner provided the opportunity to move into a brand-new purpose-built home on what became known as Garrick Street. The move was completed in 1864 and the club remains in this building today.
All new candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot, the original assurance of the committee being “that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted”. This exclusive nature of the club was highlighted when reporter Jeremy Paxman applied to join but was initially blackballed, though he was later admitted, an experience he shares with Henry Irving who despite being the first actor to receive a knighthood had himself been blackballed in 1873.
When the club was founded in 1831 Rule 1 of the Garrick Club Rules and Regulations called for the "formation of a theatrical Library, with works on costume". At a General Meeting on 15 October 1831, the barrister John Adolphus suggested that members should present their duplicate dramatic works to the club, and that these should go some way towards forming a Library. A very valuable collection has thus come together over the years, and its special collections are particularly strong on eighteenth and nineteenth-century theatre.
James Winston, the first Secretary and Librarian of the club, was one of the principal early benefactors and his gifts included minutes from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, as well as his own Theatric Tourist. These presentations formed the nucleus of a Library which now holds well over 10,000 items, including plays, manuscripts, prints (bound into numerous extra-illustrated volumes), and many photographs.