In March, I lunched at The East India Club in St James’s Square, London, England.
The club was founded in 1849 and is based in an ornate 17th century mansion, from a balcony of which King George IV (then Prince Regent) announced in 1815 to excited crowds of Londoners the news of the victory at Waterloo.
The walls of the high ceilinged dining room are hung with large oil paintings of British heroes, including Churchill, Montgomery and various rulers of India during the British Raj. As one enjoys the magnificent food and wines served by the club, imperious eyes gaze disapprovingly down on one.
After lunch, a friend invited me to join him at The Carlton Club, which is only a short walk away at 69 St James’s Street. This is another splendid 17th century mansion, used by various clubs for centuries and occupied by The Carlton Club since 1940, after it was bombed out of its original home in Pall Mall during the London Blitz. Founded in 1832, The Carlton has always been a political club with only supporters of Britain’s Conservative Party being eligible for membership. In 1990, the Club was bombed by the IRA, only thirty minutes after my host had left the building. Twenty people were injured, but no-one was killed and the Club was soon re-opened.
It was also in 1990 that the destination of the missing third tunnel from St James’s Palace nearby was discovered to be 69 St James’s Street. St James’s Palace is a very old Royal Palace and it was known that there were three tunnels which would allow the royals in olden times to exit the palace in secret. One tunnel went from the Palace to a building in Pall Mall, which is now a wine merchant but was once a brothel. The second tunnel went to The Stafford Hotel, which in those days was a coaching inn. Yet, until 1990, the destination of the third tunnel remained a mystery. In that year, when builders working in the basement of The Carlton Club at 69 St James’s Street demolished a wall, the basement became flooded with water and the destination of the third tunnel finally revealed itself. So we now know that, if the royals of those times needed a brothel, or horses on which to escape from the mob, or a night out with the boys at the club, they could secretly access these destinations by using these three tunnels. How the royals of today must envy their ancestors, when confronted by the massed ranks of the paparazzi at the end of a night out.
Finally, a conspicuous feature of The Carlton Club is its great staircase. It was ironic to see, hanging there at the head of the staircase, a large portrait of the Club’s current president, Margaret Thatcher. Full membership of the Carlton Club has never been available to ladies so, when she became Prime Minister in 1979, an exception for her was reluctantly granted. However, until another lady conservative becomes the British Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher is likely to remain the first, last and only female member of the Carlton Club.