How the Harrogate Club reinvented itself for the 21st century
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 April 2019
Joan Russell Photography
An exclusive private members' club in Harrogate is now inclusive, modern and progressive. Tony Greenway finds out more.
What do you think of when you hear the words gentlemen’s club? Do you imagine a crusty, monocle-wearing colonel reading the Financial Times in a wing-backed chair by the fireplace, then nodding off after too much lunch-time steak and kidney pudding? Do you visualise chandeliers, deep pile carpets, oil paintings and wood panels? And there is complete hush, save for the thwack of billiard balls, the tick-tock of a grandfather clock and the clink of glasses as a wrinkled retainer serves brandy to the — strictly male — clientele?
At one point, The Harrogate Club would have lived up to all of those elite stereotypes and more besides. Founded in 1857 in the old lounge of Gascoigne’s Hotel, this prestigious private members’ club moved to its current, purpose-built premises on Victoria Avenue in 1886. It’s something of a Harrogate institution, but doesn’t like to shout about itself, admitting on its website that it’s one of the town’s best kept secrets. ‘Everybody here likes that,’ says club president, Andrew McMillan. ‘It gives it a bit of mystery. People who come here for the first time say: “We’ve lived in Harrogate all our lives and never knew this place existed”.’
For those in the know, however, the club has always been a place of luxurious refuge and relaxation. Back in the day, various male pillars of Yorkshire society joined its exclusive ranks including industrialist Sir Titus Salt — mayor of Bradford and builder of Salts Mill and Saltaire village — was a frequent visitor; engineer and industrialist Samson Fox (great grandfather to the Fox acting dynasty) joined in 1882; and architect Cuthbert Brodrick — designer of the Leeds Corn Exchange — was a visiting member. Naturally, non-Yorkshiremen were welcome, too. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s name crops up in membership books and guest books; Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild was a member (or reciprocal member, at any rate); and it’s even thought, but not confirmed, that JRR Tolkien may also have been a visitor. That’s an impressive, if exclusively male, pedigree.
These days, the club has reinvented itself so, while it’s still exclusive, it’s also progressive. Andrew is — and this would give any crusty colonels the vapours — an American, who has been a member since 2006. ‘It was very different when I first came here,’ he admits. ‘I would often walk past and wonder what happens in that building. So I knocked on the door. As an American, there’s nostalgia for this type of thing. A deep history. It just appealed to me, even though it was pretty rough and ready then. But I just knew it could be something really special.’
Now the club has close to 200 members from all over the UK and of all ages (the youngest is 23, the eldest is in their 90s). They’re from all parts of society, of different ethnicities and both genders. To be fair, the club was admitting women to its ranks before Andrew joined but, incredibly, he believes it would only have revoked its ‘men only’ policy in the 1990s or early 2000s.
‘I can remember when women weren’t allowed to set foot in the door,’ says Fiona Movley, who joined last year. ‘I first walked into the club 35 years ago with my late father, who was a member. He wanted to show me where he’d been coming every Thursday night and took me to see the snooker room. As a teenager, I remember being so in awe of the building. But nobody knew I was there that night, it was late, about 11pm.’ If anyone had found out, she admits, there might have been uproar. ‘My father said: “You must not tell anyone!”’ laughs Fiona. ‘My mother later told me that ladies could only go to the club once a year to a special cocktail dinner.’
Times have definitely changed. In fact, Andrew and his committee are keen to expand female membership. Of course, because of the history of such places, it’s not always obvious to women that they can be members. ‘A gentleman passed away and his wife became really upset, because she thought she would never see her network of friends at the club again,’ remembers Andrew. ‘I told her she can be a member in your own right. And she was so relieved she started crying. It made me feel that we have to make sure people understand this is not a gentleman’s club any more.’
And quite apart from the fact that admitting women is morally the right thing to do, it’s also a case of ‘adapt or die’. ‘Some of the clubs in London are really struggling because they aren’t willing to adapt,’ says Andrew. ‘No one really wants to go to a place that is stuffy and full of old white men.’ So the The Harrogate Club is taking a more progressive route. Yes, members still enjoy its exclusivity but those who want elitism, sexism and classism sprinkled on top, are going to be disappointed because it’s not on the agenda.
The club has also introduced some small but significant cosmetic changes. ‘Some clubs want you to leave your laptop at the front door,’ notes Andrew. ‘But we don’t discourage laptop use here. We also say if you’re going to take a phone call, just be courteous and take it in the hall, or whatever. We don’t have a strict dress code unless it’s a particular event, because if you’re a guy who works in the city, you might not want to go to your club in a jacket and tie. You want to relax.’ Developments like this allow a club to thrive and rejuvenate, insists Andrew. That said, this is a social club, not a commercial one so the handing out of business cards is not allowed (although business is talked about in casual conversation between colleagues).
The club also offers free Wi-Fi, which might sound like a small and completely expected innovation in 2019 but, maybe, to some of the more traditional regulars, it’s like announcing that fruit machines have been installed in the members’ lounge (they haven’t been, of course). Yet older generations also have email accounts, laptops, phones and tablets, and many of them like embracing new ideas. And that includes Wi-Fi. ‘Sometimes when you think you’ll find resistance, you often don’t,’ says Andrew, who admits that some members may not have liked all the changes, initially. ‘But people have told me it’s amazing what we have done.’
Andrew doesn’t take sole credit for these transformations, of course. There’s a loyal team behind him and everyone (including himself) is a volunteer. ‘But we love what’s happening here, which is what drives me and everybody on the committee to make this a place that people want to scramble to get into.’
Apart from an impressively painstaking and wide-ranging refurbishment programme to the upper floors (the entire ground floor is next in line for the same treatment), the club now runs live acoustic music nights and with big names, too, including Snake Davis Trio, Lilac’s Daughter, Charlotte Carpenter, Billie Marten and York-born Beth McCarthy, who appeared on The Voice.
‘When you look at the audience (who come to these nights), it’s a complete range of ages,’ says Fiona, who visited The Harrogate Club for an event in summer 2018, realised big changes were happening and decided to join. Now she’s one of the membership committee and loving every minute. ‘It’s a historic building that’s being brought into current times so that it serves the younger generation,’ she says. ‘I find that really exciting. Just think, the forefathers of Harrogate decided to build this building and run it as a club and, today, it’s still being run as a club. That’s remarkable.’