Open Essay

Class, Race and the Colonial Clubs of India

David Gilmour is a British historian and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature
Page 1 of 1

Members Only

The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience | David Gilmour | Allen Lane | 640 pages | Rs 759

FOR MANY PEOPLE, nothing is more emblematic of British India than images of ‘the Club’. It might be Forster’s fictional club, as filmed by David Lean in A Passage to India, with men and women at a meeting becoming strident and irrational, reacting to an obscure incident in a cave as if it had been a murder, and making foolish suggestions about calling out the troops, ‘clearing the bazaars’ and sending the women and children to the Hills. Yet Forster himself had never witnessed such a scene; nor had anyone else; such meetings would not take place at a club. A truer alternative image—one much photographed and described—would be more leisured and more serene. Men and women are sitting in cane chairs on a verandah, while servants in turbans and cummerbunds are serving them iced drinks; they might be watching fellow members playing croquet, and they can hear the sounds of other members hitting tennis balls; soon the band will begin to play. Inside the clubhouse men are sitting in armchairs reading newspapers and magazines; from across the passage the sound of billiard balls can be heard.

The Club was the social centre of the civil station and the cantonment, more important for officials than for army officers because they had no Mess in which to congregate. It was a place you went for leisure, exercise and conversation, where you could be serious or frivolous as you wished. It was a place where, as one Civilian recalled, ‘the annoyances of work’ were ‘removed’. If the judge and the magistrate had disagreed over a case in court, they could have a cigar and a peg afterwards and remain friends. Yet the Club was not an ancient institution, a legacy of the East India Company’s rule. In the great cities a few very grand clubs were founded before the Rebellion, but not in the mofussil until around 1870. Before that year the only meeting places in a station were the church and the coffee-shop (if they had them); after that date clubs proliferated so fast that almost every station had one within a decade.

What the newspaper editor Stanley Reed called ‘the aristocracy of the clubs of India’—the Bengal, the Madras and the Byculla of Bombay—were established in, respectively, 1827, 1831 and 1833, in the same period as the principal clubs of Pall Mall in London. The Bengal Club was needed, according to its first president, Colonel Finch, because ‘nothing like a respectable hotel or coffee-house... existed’ in Calcutta. It began its existence at premises in Tank Square (subsequently Dalhousie Square) before moving to Macaulay’s old home on Chowringee and later to another address on the same street, where its grandest incarnation was opened in 1911. This clubhouse was both monumental and impractical. What its historians referred to as its “add-a-bit” method of construction led to ‘a number of curious eccentricities’, and it was only when ‘the building was nearing completion that it was discovered there was no stairway to the first floor’ from the ground floor. Although the situation was saved by the addition—as an ‘after-thought’—of a ‘magnificent marble staircase at the back of the Hall’, the maintenance costs of this strange and enormous building were always high. As for membership, the club favoured seniority—whether of officials or businessmen—to an extent that, according to its historians, ‘imposed a somewhat stately and ponderous if not pompous atmosphere’. One American who visited it during the Second World War described it as ‘a Dook’s Palace and the Dook’s lying dead upstairs’, while another, who saw members asleep in the reading room after lunch, remarked ‘won’erful, just won’erful, but in the States we bury our dead’.

Perhaps these observations reached the ears of the club’s president, who in 1947 recommended the building’s demolition on the grounds that it was an ‘anachronism...ill-conceived and constructed for modern conditions of Club life’. The vast Chowringee block was not in fact knocked down until 1970, when most of the site was sold and the club re-established itself in a smaller building on a parcel of its property on Russell Street. In 2018, with of course an Indian membership, it was still there.

What the Bengal Club's historians referred to as its “add-a-bit” method of construction led to ‘a number of curious eccentricities’ and it was only when ‘the building was nearing completion that it was discovered there was no stairway to the first floor’ from the ground floor

If the Bengal Club was one of the most absurd buildings of British India, its fellow ‘aristocrat’, the Madras Club, nicknamed the ‘Ace of Clubs’, was one of the most beautiful, porticoed and Palladianized and so large, a Civilian joked, that ‘you can lose yourself in it three or four times of it are still believed to be unexplored!’ It was reputed to have the hottest of curries, the most elegant of servants and the longest bar in Asia. One member’s terrible verse eulogized ‘India’s longest bar that links/Spicy yarn with icy drinks’. However jolly the club was, it was also intensely hierarchical. Junior members were expected to congregate at one end of the bar and not to move up unless invited to drink with a senior. Women were not allowed in the bar at all—they had to remain in the ladies’ annexe known as the moorghikhana (‘hen run’)—except on Armistice Day in 1918 when they were kidnapped from the annexe and made to serve celebratory drinks.

The Madras Club’s refusal to admit women prompted the founding in 1890 of an almost equally beautiful club, the Adyar, with an octagonal cupola and riverine gardens, which people were encouraged to join ‘to escape the austerities of the Madras Club’. Long after Independence, the two clubs were forced to merge and base themselves in the Adyar buildings. As the younger one had very belatedly accepted Indian members in 1960, the stalwarts of the Madras too had to make this concession.

The clubs in the civil stations were not of course like those in the ‘aristocracy’. Some of them were very small indeed. At the subdivisional headquarters of Sirajganj in Bengal the Club was—as the SDO there lamented—‘a tin shed of two rooms, one for bridge and one for billiards’. At Sargodha in the Punjab it was, as a griffin enthused in 1927, ‘a very nice little’ place with bridge, billiards and grass tennis courts; yet the membership was so small, he soon realized, that it was sometimes impossible to rustle up a four for bridge or tennis. In large stations there were naturally more amenities, including a swimming pool and often a golf course. Such places might also have gymkhana clubs, even more oriented towards sports, and more friendly too to wives and children. Many clubs might limit themselves to the basics (tennis-drinks-bridge-dinner-billiards), but others developed and diversified. At Maymyo, the main hill station of Burma, the Club had not only a large lounge for ladies but also a lawn with seesaws and sandpits.

The Madras Club’s refusal to admit women prompted the founding in 1890 of an almost equally beautiful club, The Adyar, with an octagonal cupola and riverine gardens, which people were encouraged to join ‘to escape the austerities of the Madras Club’

In the cities a wealthy man with the right connections might join several clubs. In Rangoon he might have the Pegu as his social club and join the gymkhana for sport, the Country Club for riding and the Boat Club for rowing or drinking on the verandah overlooking the Royal Lakes. Even greater variety would be found in Calcutta. A senior Civilian such as Walter Gurner might be a member of the two main ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ (the Bengal and the United Services Club) and also the Saturday Club (where he could take his family to swim, dance and have dinner) and the Tollygunge Club a few miles away, which was popular for Sunday breakfasts and possessed one of the most attractive golf courses in India.

Yet the point of establishing so many clubs was not to enable privileged individuals to enjoy the variety but to encourage people from a particular social or ethnic group to stick together and not try to join other groups. Railway men should be content with their railway club; Anglo-Indians should stay in the establishments meant for them. In 1941 at Digboi, the town where the Assam Oil Company had a refinery, there were four clubs for the company’s employees: the Digboi Club for the British, the India Club for the Indians, the Assam Valley Light Horse Club for the Anglo-Indians, and the Sports Club, where they could all meet (as long as they liked sport). Elsewhere the demarcations were usually more blurred, which led to complication and contention. Watching the goings-on from the sidelines, an Indian judge in the ICS observed that people put in a lot of effort trying to get into a different ‘club from the one to which their state of life has called them’, while the people of that particular club laboured very hard ‘to keep them out’.

Election to a club was a divisive issue. Candidates had to have a proposer and a seconder, they had to be vetted by the club committee, and, to be successful, they had to avoid being blackballed by existing members. Civilians, surgeons and army officers could not easily be blackballed; nor could churchmen. It was ‘below’ their level that the trouble began. One senior political officer resigned from his club in the 1880s when, according to his grandson, ‘he heard of a proposal to admit engineers and forest officers’. People and their clubs prided themselves on becoming less stuffy in the following century, but sometimes the change was merely apparent. The Saturday Club in Calcutta made much of its appeal to the young, with its informality and its dancing, yet on the question of membership it was as rigid and intolerant as anywhere. In the 1930s it was sufficiently ‘progressive’ to elect a (British) member of the Bengal Pilot Service, but when the man resigned and reapplied—a compulsory procedure for members when they married—he was blackballed. No reason was given, but a friend inside the club surmised that some of the members must have believed his new wife to be either Anglo-Indian or ‘country-bred’ or perhaps just English and rather ‘common’. Membership of the Saturday Club remained confined to Europeans until the 1950s.

THE BRITISH WHO wanted their club to be a preserve of their own based their case on a principle, a practical objection and a prejudice. Freedom of association was a fundamental right that meant the freedom to associate with whom you wished and to exclude others. This particular form of association was, moreover, democratic: it belonged to its members, who could make and change rules by a vote. The practical objection was more difficult to explain, especially to Indians. Its premise was that the British were a tiny minority in the land, many of their men worked long hours with the people of the country, and at the end of the day they needed a place where they could relax, ‘let their hair down’ and say whatever they wished to people of their own kind without worrying that they might be overheard. After a day in court a judge needed the freedom to rant about a pleader or a false witness without fearing that his remarks might be reported to a journalist or a Congress wallah. The third argument in the case was more of a tit-for-tat debating point: if an Indian gentleman refused to allow his wife to meet British people (because she was in purdah), why should he enjoy the privilege of meeting British ladies?

On his visit to Cochin in 1939 Lord Linlithgow insisted on playing tennis with Indian members of the Lotus Club at Ernakulum, a club opened for Britons and Indians of both sexes, and for all castes and creed

Clubs rarely had Indian members before the First World War, but they did not usually feel the need to proclaim their exclusivity. In Thacker’s Indian Directory of 1912, only two were open about it: the Tirhoot Planters Club, for which only ‘European men residing’ in Bihar were ‘eligible for election’, and the Coonor Club in the Nilgiris, which was reserved for ‘European gentlemen and ladies moving in general society’. This was a short-sighted policy of the Coonor Club, which had so few members that a group of Civilians had to play whist as ‘a trio’ because it was ‘so difficult to get people to make up a rubber’. But far-sightedness was seldom a quality for which club committees were famous. The Bengal Club might have survived without having to knock itself down if, with membership dwindling, it had accepted Indians as members after Independence; by the time it did allow them in (1959), most Indians who might have wished to join were members of other clubs.

Many places relaxed their membership rules between the world wars, partly because of the increasing numbers of Indians in the ICS and other services. Yet redoubts of exclusivity survived, especially in places where boxwallahs and planters could outvote more liberal-minded officials. The Peshawar Club, however, retained its restrictions not through its boxwallahs (of whom there were few on the frontier) but because it allowed its retired members in Britain to vote on club issues. Although Indian officers were finally allowed to drink at its famous horseshoe bar in 1939, the atmosphere apparently did not change. Nor did it change very much after it became part of Pakistan. When one former frontier officer revisited it in 1970, he found himself listening to ‘the same noises in the club, the plonk of tennis balls and shouts of “Good shot, old boy!” “Well played Bunty”—all in 1930s English . . . Pakistanis still using out-dated English slang and giving their children anglicized nicknames’.

British officials had been urging the admission of Indians to clubs long before 1939. As a junior magistrate in 1914, St John Philby had threatened to resign from the club at Lyallpur if the Indian he had proposed was blackballed; in the end he got his way. Men like Philby realized that the racial exclusivity of clubs was not only unfair and hurtful but also damaging to British rule. As the Bombay journalist Stanley Reed pointed out, it ‘isolated’ the British ‘from warm contacts with the intelligentsia of the land’ and caused a natural resentment among ‘educated Indians’. Young men who had embraced British culture and could quote Shakespeare in support of any argument were bewildered to find themselves unwelcome in clubs. As a young subdivisional officer in 1891, Harcourt Butler had to deal with a dejected Brahmin who, after four years in his ‘dear London’, had acquired ‘a really considerable knowledge of English literature’ and was now ‘more English than the English’. In London he had met two former viceroys, Northbrook and Ripon, and had even been elected to the Reform Club in Pall Mall, but he now learned that his candidacy for the club at Allahabad would be blackballed by the military. So ‘dreadfully hurt’ was he by this news that he ‘seriously contemplated becoming a bitter enemy of the British power’. Butler managed to soothe him and remained optimistic about his future candidacy if he would listen to some advice. What his Brahmin needed to learn was the difference between the art of conversation, which he lacked, and the style of public declamation. The British did not want bores of whatever race in their clubs.

In 1873 the Cosmopolitan Club was founded in Madras with the object of introducing Europeans to the city’s ‘principal residents and thereby’ giving them ‘some insight into Indian society’. Certain other clubs, such as the one at Indore, were obliged to admit Indians if these had made contributions to its construction. At Balasore in Orissa the club had to have a few Indian members because the local maharaja had provided the building rent free and offered to pay for all its repairs; it was he and not the British who insisted that the Indian membership should be limited to himself and the local rajas of Mowbanj (Mayurbhanj) and Nilgiri.

Schemes for creating clubs for British and Indian members needed the support of viceroys and governors if they were to succeed. As governor of Bombay (1913-18), Lord Willingdon was a zealous and effective promoter of the policy. After Stanley Reed told him that he could not force existing clubs such as the Byculla and the Yacht Club to alter their rules, he decided to set up a new one. Funded by donations from British residents and Indian princes, the Willingdon Sports Club opened its doors to British and Indian membership in November 1917. Thereafter viceroys and governors made a point of patronizing ‘mixed’ clubs: on his visit to Cochin in 1939 Lord Linlithgow insisted on playing tennis with Indian members of the Lotus Club at Ernakulum, a club opened for Britons and Indians of both sexes, and for all castes and creeds. If the smart clubs in Bombay and Calcutta refused to take the hint, country clubs in the mofussil were different: by 1936 half the members of the club at Vellore, west of Madras, were Indian. And it was easy to make twentieth- century clubs such as the Willingdon and the Gymkhana in Delhi colour-blind in the regulations. As latecomers to this world, women’s clubs also enjoyed that advantage. The Ladies’ Recreation Club in Madras was set up in 1911 with a double aim, not only ‘to promote social and friendly intercourse between European and Indian ladies’ but also between ‘Indian ladies of all classes and creeds’. Women’s clubs were careful to keep a balance between their office holders. At the Nilgiri Ladies’ Club in the 193os the patroness of this establishment was a local rani, the president was the Madras governor’s wife, the vice-presidents included Mrs Brackenbury and the Rani of Bobbili, and among the life members was the senior Maharani of Travancore.

(This is an edited excerpt from his new book The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience | Allen Lane | 640 pages | Rs 759)