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With the passing of the Great Reform Bill in 1832 and the general election of December 1834, many reformers felt the need for “an Association or Club (call it what you will) in London to counter the machinations of the Tory [party's] Carlton Club”. This suggestion of Lord Durham’s was taken up by Sir William Molesworth who announced in February 1835 that “As another means of attacking the Tories, a Liberal Club is to be formed, of which the more liberal Whigs, Radicals, etc., will be members … It will be like the Athenaeum – a good dining club. The great object is to get the Reformers of the country to join it, so that it may be a place of meeting for them when they come to town”.
With this object in mind, Molesworth and six other Radicals met secretly at a hotel in New Palace Yard, Westminster, on 2 February 1836. They settled on the name Reform Club and appointed a provisional committee, “taking the best of the Radicals and no Whigs”, and issued circulars announcing their decisions. This fait accompli infuriated the Whigs. Angry exchanges ensued. Finally, a compromise was hammered out and a new provisional committee drawn up consisting of both Whigs and Radicals. This committee met for the first time at the house of Edward Ellice, a leader of the Whigs, in Carlton House Terrace, on 8 February 1836.
The new club opened its doors on 24th May 1836 at Dysart House, 104 Pall Mall, next door to the Carlton Club. Its membership had already reached one thousand, including nearly 250 MPs. The Committee set about commissioning a new clubhouse at immense expense, from the architect Charles Barry, a task that was completed, to spectacular effect, five years later. Special attention was paid to the kitchens, which were designed to the specifications of the brilliant and charismatic chef Alexis Soyer.
As well as being a social club for Reformers, the Club acted as the nerve centre and headquarters of the fledgling Liberal Party. General election campaigns were planned there, party meetings held, news exchanged, plots hatched. From the start, the Club was, like the Party, an uneasy coalition of disparate politics. On the one side, the Whigs were generally content with the 1832 reforms and reluctant to concede more, while on the other, the Radicals, such as Cobden and Bright, were actively campaigning for further reforms, and not just to the electoral system. Later in the century, other political divisions opened up in the Club, notably between those on the side of Gladstone who favoured Irish Home Rule, and those who clustered around the Unionist camp of Lord Hartington. These changes in the Liberal consensus led gradually to the Club ceasing to have any political function and by the 1920s, it had evolved into an exclusively social club.
Since the early 1980s, the membership has increased considerably, and the Reform Club’s social calendar has become extremely busy and varied, largely due to the numerous special interest societies that have developed and flourished. In 1981, long before any of the other traditional clubs, the Reform changed its rules to allow ladies to become members.
Although the Reform Club has long ceased to require its members to be loyal to the Liberal Party, it continues to maintain its liberal and progressive traditions.
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Last modified 4 March, 2016
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