London's Best Private Members Clubs

Words by
Seth Alexander Thévoz

6th October 2022

London has been the global capital of private members’ clubs for centuries. In the past 30 years, the most traditional have been joined by 60 new clubs. SPHERE uncovers the history of London's Private Members' Clubs, and lists the clubs - old and new - to know now.

While a lot of fuss is made today about the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ clubs, in reality there is no clear distinction.

The earliest, raucous clubs of 18th-century London met a very human need — to bring together like-minded people. Round-the-clock, boozy, high-stakes gambling by candlelight, in clubs such as White’s, Boodle’s and Brooks’s, gave these early clubs a unique image. With the 19th century, clubs became louder, and more established — and these are often the stately, temple-like buildings that we think of when clubs are mentioned.

There were grand interiors, like those of the Reform Club and the Athenaeum, and also strict codes of conduct. Clubs grew more diverse than is often realised, reflecting the wide ethnic and social mix of Victorian London, while over 50 women’s clubs and mixed-sex clubs had popped up by the 1900s.

These clubs became awe-inspiring establishments, and invaluable places for professionals to network. But they were not always associated with fun in the way the earliest clubs had been.

The Reform Club Strangers' Room

The Strangers' Room at The Reform Club In London

London’s newer clubs are explicitly geared to networking and are focused around London’s most profitable industries — the City of London for bankers, Soho and Covent Garden for the creative arts, and Mayfair for hedge funds and the secretive ‘business intelligence’ trade. The location of these clubs makes them perfect for a discreet, off-the-record chat over a drink.

A turning point came with the Groucho Club in 1985. The Groucho opened when London’s existing big-name historic clubs were ailing, hit by soaring inflation, rising staff costs, and an ageing membership who were quite literally dying.

By the 1960s and 1970s they felt more like old people’s homes. Against this, the Groucho was loud, brash and media-friendly, and it never slept, from its early-morning croissant breakfasts to its late-night martinis where bad behaviour was almost encouraged, just as long as a sense of fun remained.

Damien Hirst famously cycled down the stairs. Celebrity members like Stephen Fry (who helped write its rules) lent fizz and character. The Groucho has gone through several incarnations, and changed owners three times — it was sold this year for £40 million.

Waiting lists spiralled, and before long, it was joined by other, buzzy new creative clubs in Soho, like the Union Club in 1993. Newer clubs have even trespassed into the traditional domain of ‘old’ clubs. Pall Mall has been the centre of traditional clubland for two centuries. Since 2015 it has hosted the new club 67 Pall Mall, a paradise for the discerning wine-drinker — if you want to find the cream of the wine industry propping up the bar after a very long lunch, merry with cost-price vintage Burgundies, this is your place.

Some of these places have tried to stretch the very meaning of a club. The House of St Barnabas, launched in 2013, converted a former homeless shelter into a club — its profits are funnelled into supporting many more beds and training programmes than the original shelter could support.

A cosy corner at Home House in Portman Square

Home House club, Portman Square

A cosy corner at Home House, Portman Square

While many of the new clubs were run as businesses, some of London’s biggest trend-setters were drawn from a small, close circle of family and friends. This was fully in keeping with the way early London clubs reflected the personalities of their founders — 17th-century White’s after its Italian founders Mr and Mrs Bianco, and 18th-century Brooks’s after its founder William Brooks.

The proverbial grandaddy of London’s ‘new’ clubs was the late Sir John Aspinall, who launched the original Clermont Club on Berkeley Square in 1962; a fashionable casino where titled aristocrats rubbed shoulders with ‘new money’ — the latter making the club hugely profitable. It drew famous financiers, such as Tiny Rowland and Sir James Goldsmith.

A typically effusive display at Annabel's Club

A Private Room at Annabel's, Berkeley Square

A private dining room at Annabel's Berkeley Square

From 1963, the basement of the Clermont housed Annabel’s. A prestigious members-only nightclub where ‘more is more’, Annabel’s was the brainchild of the late impresario Mark Birley, now famously owned by Richard Caring. Birley named Annabel’s after his aristocratic wife — then conducting a well-publicised affair with Sir James Goldsmith, whom she would go on to marry.

Lady Annabel’s children, with both Birley and Goldsmith, would go on to run major new London clubs. Mark Birley developed a taste for running stylish new clubs — he went on to design Mark’s Club in the seventies, the Bath & Racquets Club in the eighties, and the Walbrook Club in 2000. Each was characterised by a cosy, intimate feel. When Mark’s Club was felt to be getting too big, the entire club was wound up and then relaunched in the same premises, with several hundred members removed from the ‘new’ club.

While the Birley group grew, the Birley family was riven with various Dallas-style rivalries. Robin Birley literally grew up in the clubs of his father Mark, but he found himself disinherited over a family feud. Instead of seeking to run his father’s clubs, Robin Birley vowed to set up his own clubs. The most famous is 5 Hertford Street, launched a decade ago off Mayfair’s Shepherd Market. It has its own basement nightclub for members, Loulou’s, which is very reminiscent of the original Annabel’s.

With its Rifat Ozbek-designed Aladdin’s Cave rooms, 5 Hertford Street is still one the hottest place in town — if the walls could talk on the smoking terrace - but its soaring waiting list inspired Birley to set up a spin-off club, Oswald’s.

The 22 Hotel

The 22 Hotel, Grosvenor Square

Oswald’s Club is based on Mayfair’s Albemarle Street and is now the only gateway to membership of 5 Hertford Street — the latter no longer accepts direct applications and would-be members have to join Oswald’s to qualify.

Despite this family touch, most new clubs have modernised their business practices. This reflects a range of new tastes around luxury lifestyles, including up-to-date business facilities, 24-hour concierges, and the growth of franchises.

Soho House, one of the success stories of 1990s clubland, is the poster child of club franchises. The original Soho House opened in 1995, it  now has 38 branches worldwide. Home House, which modernised a huge Adam-built Georgian house on Marylebone’s Portman Square, recently took over the defunct New Cavendish Club and relaunched it as a spin-off club, Home Grown.

Even Dover Street’s historic Arts Club, founded in 1863 by authors including Dickens and Trollope, has set up its first overseas branch, in Dubai.

While the Covid-19 pandemic hit clubs badly, there are signs that they are bouncing back. Post-pandemic openings include Maison Estelle, the Pavilion, and the Twenty Two.

Have new clubs gone too far? Probably not. The biggest challenge for new clubs remains their ‘middle window’. For the first three years or so after they launch, clubs can remain among the latest, buzziest places in town. Once they are 50 years old, they are established, with a known brand. Between those two points is the ‘middle window’, when they are neither the latest thing nor an establishment. The most successful clubs work fast to build an identity — and become acknowledged as The Room Where It Happens.

Seth Alexander Thévoz is the author of Behind Closed Doors: the Secret Life of London Private Members’ Clubs (£25, Robinson)


The Reform Club 

Founded in 1836 as the political headquarters of the Liberal Party. Today the Reform is politically neutral, yet remains true to its founding principles

67 Pall Mall

The 67 Pall Mall Group is a collection of Members’ Clubs devoted to fine wine.

The Oriental Club

The Oriental Club is an iconic Central London hub for those who have lived, worked or travelled in the East. The club is currently celebrating its 200 year anniversary with a host of Bicentenary events. 

Marks Club

This beautiful Mayfair townhouse is a home from home for members with its attentive detail, cosy corners, and timeless elegance away from the hustle and bustle.

Clermont Club

Traditional club, reimagined as a chic casino.

National Liberal Club

The National Liberal Club offers its members and guests an oasis of calm elegance in the heart of Westminster. All that’s required for entry is a Liberal approach to life and politics. 

Bath & Racquets Club

A private member’s squash and sports club from Mark Birley that differs qualitatively from the mass of health clubs in London.

The Garrick

Founded in 1831, this club is the beloved location of thespians and theatre professionals and boasts an unrivaled collection of theatrical manuscripts, drawings and paintings. 



Still the ultimate arts and media private club, in Soho. 

5 Hertford Street

Party and networking central in Mayfair

Home House

Three Georgian townhouses with everything from hotel rooms, a gym, fantastic social spaces and an excellent itinerary of events. 

Maison Estelle

This latest Mayfair private club has no website, camera phone lenses are covered upon entry, and membership is by word of mouth only.  


The hottest spot for those seeking a modern, luxurious and refined setting for business and pleasure in the heart of the City and Knightsbridge 

Twenty Two

The hottest private club in London now is bolted on to The 22 hotel in Grosvenor Square. Membership by invitation, or if you’re a guest of the hotel. Recent visitors include Jeff Bezos and Kendall Jenner. 


Behind Closed Doors by Seth Alexander Thévoz, from all good booksellers

Behind Closed Doors by Seth Alexander Thévoz
Behind Closed Doors: The Secret Life of London's Private Members' Clubs