Most Garrick club members favour admitting women, poll reveals

The slow-moving campaign to force the Garrick, one of London’s last remaining gentlemen’s clubs, to admit women has notched a partial victory with an internal poll revealing that a majority of members are in favour of dropping the men-only rule.

This is the second significant development in the space of a year in the remarkably languid battle for gender equality at the club, which counts among its members the former supreme court judges Lord Neuberger and Lord Sumption, actors Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Fry, and Michael Gove, a cabinet minister.

Earlier this year, members learned that a senior barrister had updated his advice from when he previously told the club in 2011 that its rules prohibited the admission of female members. Michael Beloff KC later gave the club revised legal advice concluding there was no justification for excluding women.

In a postal vote, organised to canvass members’ views in the wake of this changed legal advice, 51% of those members who participated indicated that they were in favour of admitting women, while 44% were opposed. In total, 76% of the club’s membership took part in the ballot; 53 people (4%) said they were still undecided.

The proportion of members in favour of admitting women has risen by just half a percentage point over the eight years since the last poll in 2015, when 50.5% of members voted in favour of women at an annual general meeting; this fell short of the two-thirds majority required for a rule change. However, members campaigning for women to be allowed to join noted that the proportion of those opposed to a change had dropped from 48% to 44%, and said the result was an important advance.

These members argue that given Beloff’s revised legal opinion, it would be undemocratic to prevent members from nominating women to join.

The club’s chair, Christopher Coker, emailed members with the polling result last Friday, writing: “This has been a most helpful exercise and the general committee is extremely grateful to you all for your response. Quite clearly you are all engaged with the club and you care about it a great deal.” He did not say how the club’s organising committee proposed to respond to the poll.

If members do decide to attempt to nominate women, by writing candidates’ names on cards, which fellow members can then sign if they support the nomination, they can expect a worsening of the already fractious atmosphere within the club on the question of women.

When Joanna Lumley was proposed as a member in 2011, prompting the club to take legal advice on the issue, “ugly, rude things were written on the [nomination] card, expletives, and comments that said ‘who do they think they are?’ and ‘women aren’t allowed here and never will be’”, one member recalled.

The Garrick is one of a handful of remaining men-only gentlemen’s clubs, including White’s (which does not allow women on the premises, with the exception of cleaning staff and the queen), the East India Club (which recruits members from boarding schools), the Travellers Club, and Boodle’s (where women are allowed as guests, but are discouraged from entering through the front door).

Newer members are not always more progressive on this issue. Seth Alexander Thévoz, the author of Behind Closed Doors, a study of London clubs, said: “The younger members in historic clubs can be among the most traditionalist, joining because they want a sort of Victorian cosplay, whereas it’s often the older members who can be rather more liberal.”

The large number of senior lawyers who are Garrick members has caused persistent unease within the profession. At the time of the last vote, the human rights lawyer Dinah Rose KC said: “If you’re a judge, publicly committed to the principle of equality, it is incompatible with that, to be a member of that type of club.”

The Garrick did not respond to a request for a comment.