Walk down almost any main street of central Melbourne and you’ll pass a building with an imposing frontage or doorway but otherwise no sign of identification.
To those in the know, they don’t need signage, because these people are members of institutions that, behind these anonymous portals, tell a rich tale of Victoria’s history, from just a few years after the colony’s founding to today.
They are the ladies’ and gentlemen’s clubs of Melbourne, and also several provincial cities in Victoria. They have negotiated the twists and turns of fashion and are still an important aspect of our cultural and business life. They remain significant institutions in the city’s society, to a far greater degree than is evident in, say, Sydney, where such clubs have struggled in recent years.
Once demonised as bastions of the rich and powerful, today complaints about some clubs revolve more around their single-gender membership lists. Members, however, see them as voluntary associations of people with shared values. While a number of significant clubs have disappeared, probably due to a decline in interest in the activities that inspired their foundation, many have survived and thrived.
In our DNA
It’s been observed that “clubs are in Melbourne’s DNA” because its people are naturally drawn to group activities, from theatre to races to Australian Rules Football. It is no coincidence that the Melbourne Football Club is the oldest ongoing club of any football code in the world. Melburnians also love tradition, and there’s probably no better place for that than in a club.
While today’s Melbourne clubs lean towards conservatism, in the 19th century several were anti-establishment. The Yorick Club was set up in 1868 by author Marcus Clarke and other literary types, usually journalists. They wanted something different, somewhere they could “cavort with freedom”. Its rituals were parodies of established British clubs, and philistines, the respectable and the stolid (and it should be noted, women) were expressly refused membership.
‘Wit and information’
Members saw themselves as fulfilling the role of the best kind of club, “based on the co-operative system of throwing together wit and information for the common benefit”.
However, while Melbourne was amply supplied with philistines, true literary men were in short supply. Clarke and other founders became dissatisfied with the way the membership was becoming diluted, so Clarke left the Yorick to found the Cave of Abdullah, named after the cave in the Bible where David hid from the Philistines.
But every club is a reflection of the period in which it was formed, and many met an interest that had not yet found its place. The RACV Club is a good example, formed in 1903 by a group of people keen to share an outlet for their interest in that new-age technology, the motor vehicle. This individual nature of Melbourne’s surviving great clubs has given to each of them a unique strength and place in the life of the city.
Here is the story of some of them:
The Melbourne Club
The Savage Club
The Lyceum Club
The Athenaeum Club and the Alexandra Club
The Australian Club
The Sandhurst Club, The Geelong Club
Future of clubs
A club for everyone