Saturday, 22 September 2007

Was There A Real Victorian Diogenes Club?

The idea the Diogenes Club was a Whitehall front organization was first expressed explicitly in the 1970 film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. It is otherwise a reader’s inference from its odd description in the original Holmes stories. There, the Club is supposedly just a refuge for unsociable gentlemen to come and read the latest newspapers and magazines (which no doubt were carefully ironed to remove creases from previous handling). This at once seems rather a thin premise for a club - other clubs had reading rooms with similar no-talking rules. And how would you order drinks, or the meals of which Sherlock’s sybaritic brother Mycroft was so fond? (In one of the Granada TV adaptations, he tells Sherlock and Watson the Club does oysters rather well.)

Victorian gentlemen’s clubs were famous for being a “home away from home” where men could dine, play whist, socialise with other men (no women allowed) and even stay overnight. This led to them being popular with travellers who could actually use it as a private hotel between trips. In the Victorian era, such institutions became important as it became common for gentlemen to have business or other reasons to travel to distant parts of empire, or explore beyond known frontiers. The Royal Geographical Society began life in 1819 as a dining club where world travels could be discussed over coffee, port and snuff. It soon received its royal charter from Victoria, and backed a lengthy, high-profile, and contentious series of expeditions to discover the source of the Nile as recorded on Ptolemy’s maps.
Nile explorers Burton and Speke, from the film Mountains Of The Moon
The maps were based on the account of Diogenes the 1st-C Greek trader who explored this part of Africa - see earlier entry here. The source was supposedly amidst the ‘Mountains Of The Moon’ which got their name from their pale colour. (“Snow-capped mountains and glaciers on the Equator! By gad, sir!”) The expeditions excited public interest in far-off places, and made its most-travelled members, explorers like Burton and Speke [pictured], into popular romantic heroes, and launched the Victorian ‘scramble for Africa’.

By this time clubs specifically catering to world travellers had been formed. The Reform Club, set up for Liberal politicians and later (when the Liberals declined), dominated by senior civil servants, was the first to offer members bedrooms. The Reform Club is best-known to the public for its role in Around The World In 80 Days. The 1956 film was scripted by SJ Perelman, a distinguished American humorist who had been paid by a magazine in 1947 to follow Fogg’s round-the-world route. It actually satirises the stuffy, no-talking atmosphere of such clubs. To set the scene at the Club, we see a ginger cat flitting silently by along a far wall. A member points and complains (I’m quoting from memory here) “Must we have that infernal creature thundering about the place stamping its paws?” For the rest of the film, club members follow Fogg’s travels by comparing accounts in The Times versus the Daily Telegraph.

Like the Reform Club, the Travellers’ Club was a palatial building designed by Sir Charles Barry, the man who had designed the new House of Commons in 1834, and classical trimmings were used for prestige. Though it did not take on a ‘Classical’ name like the Athenaeum (and of course the fictional Diogenes Club), its heraldic ‘device’ was Ulysses, whose head adorned the building’s facades. The Travellers’ Club Library (original home of the London Library) was decorated with marble trimmings taken from a Greek island Temple of Apollo by a founder-member. Travellers’ Club membership numbers were limited, and only those who had travelled at least 500 miles (on the map) from London were eligible to join, those having the most ‘club miles’ being explorers and other regular travellers to Britain’s far-flung Colonial frontiers, namely officials from the Colonial Office. The Travellers’ Club was also used for international meetings of diplomats and politicians.

Thus was set the scene for the use of these clubs for purposes other than reading and eating oysters. Conan Doyle would know this world, being a member of the prestigious Reform Club, while the Travellers’ Club stood next door to it on Pall Mall, between it and the Athenaeum. Conan Doyle also became a member of a more adventurous organisation whose members explored, mapped, patrolled, intrigued and fought for the interests of Empire, on its remoter frontiers. (More on this next time.)
Sir Richard Francis Burton spies out the land, in a still from the film Mountains Of The Moon

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