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The Brainiest Club in the World

Michael Wheeler—

When John Wilson Croker, First Secretary to the Admiralty, wrote to Sir Humphry Davy, the leading British scientist of the day, on March 12, 1823, he continued an earlier conversation with him: “I will take this opportunity of repeating the proposition I have before made to you about a Club for literary and scientific men, and followers of the fine arts.” The founder of the Athenæum had in mind a club that was literary in the sense of being related to the world of learning and of books, a world in which both he and Davy were at home, as were the judges, bishops, and cabinet ministers who were also to be admitted. Himself a true-blue Tory, Croker ensured that a majority of Whigs served on the inaugural committee, and that members of this new kind of non-partisan club, with its close connections to the learned societies, were elected on the basis of their achievements rather than birth. From its origins in the years before the First Reform Act through to its current existence in the twenty-first century, the Athenæum has adhered to the values that shape the liberal arts and sciences: it has always been hospitable to competing or indeed conflicting ideas, for example.  In 1928 it was described in the Graphic as “the brainiest club in the world.” It certainly was a hundred years earlier, and prob­ably still is today.  

The idea of electing members to a non-partisan literary club on the basis of their achievements rather than their family background may seem natural to us, but in 1824 the Athenæum broke the mold. And Croker’s micro-managing approach to leadership ensured that the inaugural committee kept up to the mark when choosing the first thousand (or “original”) members. For some reason he missed the first meeting of the committee, truly the birthday of the club, held in the apartments of the Royal Society on February 16, 1824.  Some of the 82 elections made that day clearly failed to meet Croker’s criteria as “individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments.” These criteria were reiterated in the minutes of the second meeting, held at Joseph Jekyll’s house, when Croker seems to have brought the committee to heel on his first appearance: “It appearing that several persons who do not strictly come under the above description have had notice of their admission. Resolved that they are Members of the Club, but that their admission shall form no Precedent for any departure from the Regulations of the Club.” (The minutes were taken by Michael Faraday, honorary secretary, who had been bounced into the job by his mentor, Sir Humphry.) 

In order to set the right tone for this new club, the constitution dictated that three of the inaugural Trustees were to be the presidents of the leading learned societies—the Royal Society, the Royal Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, all then housed in Somerset House. Towards the end of 1824 the ceiling of a thousand members was reached, so other potential candidates had to join a waiting list. But how was the club to ensure that the first candidates were of the right sort? At a meeting on November 2, 1824 the committee “Resolved that from the commencement of the sittings of the Royal Society until the rising of Parliament a conversazione be held every Monday evening at nine o’ clock.” Fine-tuning was required at subsequent meetings to make these occasions more attractive to members and to strengthen still further the club’s connection with the learned societies: tea was to be served at the club’s expense and the three presidents were to be “privileged to introduce five visitors each at the Monday evening parties.” So the committee found a means of introducing strong candidates to the club who might later fill any vacancies. The scheme has Croker’s fingerprints all over it.  

Fast forward to 1959 and we find C.P. Snow, a member of the club famed for the interaction of the sciences and the arts, delivering the controversial lecture in Cambridge that was subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, in which he lamented the scientific illiteracy of a generation which still privileged Classics and the humanities in its education system and cultural hierarchy. Following a spirited response from F.R. Leavis, Snow reconsidered his position in a book published in 1963, where he wrote more optimistically about the potential of a mediating third culture. 

The “two cultures” debate was characteristic of a decade defined by a series of polarities and divisions, ranging from the Cold War to the tension between a new youth culture in Britain and an older generation scarred by the Second World War. Richard Crossman MP, also a member of the Athenæum, wrote of the 1960s: “How separate we keep ourselves in Britain. There is the legal world, the doctors’ world, the artistic world, the dramatic world, the political world. We are tremendously sepa­rate.” In that period of rapid sociological change, Harold Perkin argued, profes­sionalism “contrived to restructure society on a different principle from class as traditionally understood, in a new vertical structure of rival career hierarchies, a fragmented society of competing elites in which a single dominant elite or ruling class was hard to find.” Here is a clue to the survival and later reinven­tion of the Athenæum, which could claim to be an informally constructed elite that was tied to no single profession or indeed either of the two “warring factions” of professions (public and private sectors), and that fostered social and intellectual exchange between them. The Athenæum had always provided a meeting place for professionals from all of Crossman’s worlds, and continued to do so in the 1960s and 1970s, when the club was said to be populated with the “meritocracy.”  

Over the last twenty-five years or so, the Athenæum has indeed reinvented itself. Yet it has remained true to its founder’s original principles. As in earlier generations, most dome-headed Athenians are highly educated specialists whose expertise has some impact in the public domain.  Clubbable, they tend to be introverts with social skills. Influential men and women, drawn from a wide range of professional fields, are still attracted to an institution which nurtures civilized conversation and compan­ionship, traditional standards of dress code and etiquette, and access to a great library and high-quality cultural and social events. Plus ça change.  

Michael Wheeler was director of the project to build the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University and is now a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton. Among his books are Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians and Ruskin’s God.

Further Reading:

Also, check out this video of Michael Wheeler and Sir Michael Palin discussing The Athenaeum.

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