“Union” Clubs & the Origin of the Social Club

Union Club History #8

This is the ninth in a series of historical bulletins which sketch the origins and history of the Union Club, by members Douglas Franklin and Martin Segger.  They draw from the research for our nomination document seeking national heritage commemoration.

“Union” Clubs & the Origin of the Social Club

The Union Club of British Columbia combines elements of its numerous ancestor institutions. Founded within the tradition of the early eighteenth century coffee houses, the idea of the social club emerged in London, England, after the end of the Napoleonic wars with the foundation of the United Services Club (1815), the Travelers’ (1819), the Union Club (1822) and the Athenaeum (1824).  Two main features characterized the club: luxurious premises offering a range of services from dining facilities to libraries, and well-defined procedures for the selection of members.  Until the late nineteenth century, they were essentially a male preserve.  The Union Club of British Columbia admitted women as full members in 1994 and was one of the first of its kind in Canada to do so.

The first Union Club, in London England, was a coalition of interests supporting the highly controversial issue of union between Britain and Ireland.  The imposing 1824/7 club house on Trafalgar Square, whose architect was Sir Robert Smirke (better known for his design of the British Museum), was acquired by the Dominion Government of Canada in 1923. It is known today as Canada House.  There are Union Clubs in Malta (1826), Costa Rica (1923) and a number in the United States. The Union Club, New York (1863), was essentially a social club, but the Union League Club, also in New York (1863), was founded “to preserve the Union” and raised funds to erect both the Statue of Liberty and Lincoln Monument in Union Square, and also the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Union Club of Boston was founded to defend the union in the American Civil War (1861-65).  The Union Club of San Francisco (1854) merged with the Pacific Club (1852) to form the Pacific Union Club in 1889.  The members of the Union Club of Cleveland (1872) aspired to stimulate “broader culture and worthier growth”.  The Union Club of British Columbia shared these kinds of social purposes but in its founding had a very definite political agenda.

Club culture in Canada began in Montreal with the founding of the English-speaking St. James Club in 1857.  French speakers formed the Club St. Denis in 1874. Jews, excluded from both, formed their own Montreal club in 1880, the Montefiore Club. The Halifax Club was founded in 1862.   The Rideau Club, initiated by three of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, John A. Macdonald, D’Arcy McGee and George Etienne Cartier, was a political meeting point. The Union Club in Saint John N.B., formed through the amalgamation of two businessmen’s groups, still occupies its original 1890 building.  The Manitoba Club, Winnipeg (1884), predated the Vancouver Club (1889), Ranchmen’s Club, Calgary (1891), the Saskatoon Club (1907). Vancouver’s Terminal City Club (1892) celebrated the city’s location at the end of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Ironically, the founding of The Union Club of British Columbia in 1879 was to promote the building of the railway, and thus preservation of the Canadian “union”.

Next article: The Idea of “Union” Clubs

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