A great address and an amazing clubhouse. A historical club – with very few members, sadly being ruined by jeans-wearing Americans who do not understand the clubland culture. Let the NLC serve as a warning against any other club planning to relax its dress code.
- Full name: National Liberal Club
- Location: 1 Whitehall Place
- Type: Originally a political club, now social. Very exclusive, non-commercial private members’ club
- Formed: 1882
- Membership requirements: Proposed and seconded by at least two current members. Short waiting list.
Probably the most stunning interior of all the traditional Gentlemen’s clubs in London – but visitors are usually duly impressed long before walking through the front door. Not only does the club have the most impressive address of all London clubs – 1 Whitehall Place – but the building itself, design by Alfred Waterhouse (who also designed the Natural History Museum), stands like a royal palace just off the embankment. Overlooking the Thames and the London Eye, the lucky members of the National Liberal Club not only are able to enjoy their summer drinks on one of London’s best terraces, but also have the best view in the city of the New Year’s firework.
Through the front doors, you enter the Main Hall. Strict porters are there to gently guide away the curious and the American tourists who have mistaken the club for the neighbouring Royal Horseguards Hotel. But if you are lucky enough to be allowed further in, you will enter the rotunda with the largest free-standing marble staircase in Europe. An absolute magnificent piece of design, it replaces the old staircase after it was damaged during the war.
As you wander around the club, though, you cannot help but notice the tilework that covers walls, ceilings and columns throughout the building. It is certainly impressive, but the colours and style of the tiles have sometimes led to comments likening certain parts of the clubhouse to a very large and heavily decorated public lavatory. The 1st Earl of Birkenhead, who was once told off for regularly stopping by the club to use the men’s room without being a member, in a story much enjoyed and repeated in the club, simply replied “Good God! Is it a club too?”
Jokes aside, the interior of the National Liberal Club is splendid, though perhaps a bit faded. The Smoking Room, which now serves as a members’ sitting room, is stunning – as is the Dining Room, the Bar and the many club’s function rooms. As you walk around the enormous clubhouse it is hard to believe that the club originally was in fact substantially bigger yet, having been forced to sell off parts of the building to the next-door hotel during those dark clubland years of the 60s and early 70s.
The National Liberal Club today is open for both political members, of the liberal persuasion naturally, and non-political members. This was not a desperate attempt to attract more members, though. The finances looked briefly up, but is again back in red with a membership of only 1200 or so. Apparently, allowing jeans and t-shirts (see below) has backfired and many long-time members have left for more traditional clubs, such as the Reform.
If what you’re after is an ultra-traditional club with dark leather sofas, old paintings and a large smoking room, this used to be as good as it gets. Sadly, a few years ago, the NLC introduced a very relaxed come-as-you-please dress-code. The policy was pushed through against fierce opposition from some of the old-style members; many of the old guard have since resigned.
Since the changes, the NLC has accepted many jeans-wearing members who you’d otherwise suspect belonged to commercial establishments such as Home House or Onda. As a result, its reputation in clubland has plummeted and in 2023 the Oxford & Cambridge Club terminated its reciprocal agreement with NLC. As one committee member said: “It was never about the dress-code. It’s about the character of the people you want as your fellow members. If you can’t be bothered to put a tie on, you probably don’t care much for your club.”