The Royal Navy Club
The Royal Navy Club consists of Flag Officers, Commodores, Captains and Commanders of the Royal Navy who are or have been qualified to exercise command at sea. It is a dining and charitable club and possesses no real estate.
The Club traces its origins to two separate clubs, formed in 1765 & 1785, which amalgamated in 1889. Research in 1847 revealed a document that showed a Naval Club had been founded in 1674 in the reign of Charles II. No other evidence of the continued existence of such a club has been found however. Further researches in 1925 covered the affairs of both the 1765 and the 1785 clubs from their formation up to their amalgamation. This work was published as the Club’s Historical Memoirs, a copy of which is held by the Secretary. Early records are archived in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
The 1765 Club
The first entry in the Committee Minutes Book reads: “At a meeting at Captain Keith’s on Monday the 4th of February 1765, it was resolved by the under mentioned gentlemen to set on foot a society of their brother officers at the St Alban’s Tavern on this day sevenight.
Captn George Tonyn
Captn Sir John Strachan
Captn John Carter Allen
Captn Basil Keith
Captn Michl Clements
Captn John Luttrell
Captn Rd Onslow
Captn Hyde Parker Junr”
These eight Captains are recognised as Founders of the Club and 4th February as Founders’ Day.
The next meeting took place accordingly at St Alban’s Tavern on 11th February and was attended by a further fifteen Captains. The title The Navy Society was adopted and it was decided that meetings should be held once a fortnight from the beginning of November to the end of April. Regulations for the conduct of dinners and the election of members were agreed.
Subsequent meetings were held at a succession of London taverns. These were The Castle 1766, Shakespeare’s Head 1768, Crown and Anchor 1806, Piazza Coffee House in Covent Garden 1826, Thatched House, St James’s Street, 1850, and Willis’s Rooms, King Street, St James’s, from 1862 until the amalgamation in 1889. The tavern keepers were clearly much involved in the administration of dinners and to some extent in the custody of funds. The records indicate that these were not lodged with a Bank until 1793 when Coutts Bank was engaged. In 1768 difficulties in collecting expenses led to the introduction of an annual subscription of one Guinea – which remained unchanged for two hundred years until, in 1969, it was raised to two Guineas.
Membership topped 100 by 1768 and 200 by 1780. In 1815 it reached 422 and remained fairly steady thereafter until 1889 when it was 455. A record of numbers attending dinners between 1830 and 1846 shows an average of 30. A revision of the Society’s Rules in 1824 established 12 dinners a year including anniversaries of famous victories in addition to Founders’ Day, the Sovereign’s birthday and a dinner for the Board of Admiralty. In 1829 the name of the Society was changed to The Royal Naval Club of 1765, a more specific title to avoid confusion.
There can be little doubt that a high proportion of the most famous Admirals of the 19th century were members. Captain H Nelson was elected in 1784 and other well known names include Collingwood, Howe, Hood, Kempenfelt and St Vincent.
The 1785 Club
Records of the early years of this club are somewhat lacking and the precise reasons for forming a second naval club, with dinners and customs so markedly similar to the existing club, remain obscure although political party affiliations have been suggested as the principal reason. (The Historical Memoirs explore certain other possibilities.)
The title of the new club was The Navy Club of 1785. Its first meeting took place at the Star and Garter tavern in the City on 2nd February 1785. The Rules stated that dinners would be held at the Star and Garter every other Wednesday during the Sitting of Parliament, that the subscription would be one Guinea and that membership would be limited to 150. This last resulted in a long waiting list for admission. This, and the fact that the 1785 club paid far more for its dinners, indicated the main differences between the two clubs. From the outset a high proportion of members also belonged to the 1765 club. Prince William Henry, later King William IV, was a member of both, as were Nelson and Jervis.
In 1800 meetings were moved to the Thatched House tavern and continued there until 1862. As a result of this long association, the club came to be known as “the Thatched House Club” and was commonly spoken of in these terms. From 1862 until 1889 both clubs held their meetings at Willis’s Rooms. By 1881the membership rose to 197, the initial restriction having been eased.
Early in 1888 it became obvious to both clubs that union would be in their best interests. More than two thirds of the 1785 club belonged also to the 1785 club. They shared the same Secretary in the person of Mr Henry J Kelly, Paymaster RN. Overtures were accordingly made to the 1765 club which resulted in the appointment of a Joint Committee whose favourable report was followed by General Meetings of the two clubs. Identical resolutions approved the union and Articles of Agreement were passed unanimously, to take effect on 1st January 1889. The title of the united clubs was agreed upon as The Royal Navy Club of 1765 and 1785 (United 1889).
The United Club
The Rules drawn up for the United Club did not differ in substance from those previously in force for the Royal Naval Club of 1765.
Meetings each year would commence with Founders’Day, succeeding meetings taking place on dates selected by the Committee for the commemoration of any naval victory, always including Trafalgar. The Sovereign’s birthday would be celebrated and a dinner given for the First Lord of the Admiralty. These directions remain unchanged in the Club’s Rules today. Eight dinners were held annually except during the First and Second World Wars when the Club was kept alive with meetings on a much restricted basis. After the First World War the number was reduced to six and remained at this until 1976 when it was reduced to five and then, in 1982, to four. These reductions may be attributed to the steep rise in costs in the 1970s and 1980s and a need to avoid sharp and frequent increases in the subscription while preserving a reasonable level of members’ dinner charges through subsidisation from Club funds. At the same time travel and accommodation costs and the tempo of work experienced by members on the Active List have reduced demand for more frequent dinners.
After the amalgamation the Club moved from Willis’s Rooms to the Hotel Metropole where dinners were held until 1920. Subsequent venues were the Grosvenor Hotel, Victoria Station and the Hotel Victoria, Northumberland Avenue. From 1946 to 1976 the Connaught Rooms, Kingsway, accommodated the Club and their staff contributed much to the detailed administration of dinners.
Up to 1969 all dinners had been held in London. In that year the Committee decided that the June dinner each year should be held at Portsmouth. The first was held in the Royal Naval Barracks attracting 143 members and filling the Wardroom Mess to capacity. Subsequent Portsmouth dinners have been held in April in HMS DAEDALUS, DOLPHIN, DRYAD, EXCELLENT, NELSON and the Old Naval Academy.
The question of having a Guest Night had been under discussion for some years. From the earliest days only the President, and for a time the Vice President, had been entitled to invite one guest. A substantial majority of the membership voted in favour of a Guest Night in a referendum held in 1976. Subsequently dinner programmes included one Guest Night annually, initially at the Naval & Military Club then at Whitbread’s Brewery. In recent years all except the Founders’ Day dinner have become established as Guest Nights.
A dinner to celebrate The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 was held in DRYAD. AF The Earl Mountbatten of Burma presided and HRH The Prince of Wales was the guest. At the preceding Committee meeting, Commander The Prince of Wales had been elected to membership of the Club. The Club has twice had the honour of entertaining the Sovereign: HM King George VI in the Painted Hall at Greenwich in 1950 and HM The Queen in 1965 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Club’s foundation when 665 members dined with her at the Connaught Rooms.
In 1889 the membership was 455. It reached a peak of 1,299 in 1966 after which it fell steadily to 859 in 2001 since when it has risen to 910, some 44% being on the Active List.