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The Athenaeum

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 1969
Held at: Athenaeum
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Full title: The Athenaeum
Date(s): 1824-2015
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 80 linear metres
Name of creator(s): The Athenaeum | 1824


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Athenaeum was founded in 1824 at the instigation of John Wilson Croker, Secretary of the Admiralty, as "a Club for literary and scientific men and followers of the fine arts..." "...In order to keep our Club what it is intended to be, ... we must lay down, clearly and positively, as our first rule, that no one shall be eligible into it, except Gentlemen who have either published some literary or professional work, or a paper in the Philosophical transactions... Bishops [and] Judges, who are, par état, literary men, altho' they may not have published any literary work [will be included]." [John Wilson Croker letters to Sir Humphry Davy, 1823] The first secretary was Michael Faraday and the first Chairman Sir Humphry Davy. John Wilson Croker continued to be influential in the development of the Club.

The first Committee meeting took place on 16 February 1824 in the rooms of the Royal Society. The next nine meetings were held in the home of Joseph Jekyll at 22 New Street, Spring Gardens. In May 1824 the Club moved into rented premises at 12 Waterloo Place. On the recommendation of John Nash, it commissioned the 24 year old Decimus Burton to design a clubhouse, originally intended for a site nearer the present Trafalgar Square. By 1827, the designs and plans for a house in the Grecian style were approved and the tender of the builders accepted. The house was built on a portion of the courtyard of the demolished Carlton House on lease from the Crown and opened in 1830. It was one of the earliest buildings to be lit by gas and, in 1886, the clubhouse became one of the first buildings to be lit by electricity. The premises were extended by the addition of a top storey designed by T E Collcut in 1899 and completed in 1901. This was remodelled to provide accommodation for Members in 1928. The magnificent premises have been carefully maintained and some of the mahogany furniture designed for the Club by Decimus Burton is still in use today.

Number 6 Carlton Gardens, which had been built by John Nash, was leased from the Crown Estate Commissioners in 1936 to provide Members with somewhere to take lady guests. It was known as the Ladies' Annexe. By the 1950s its use was declining. The lease expired in 1961 and the Crown Estate Commissioners refused to renew it. The building was demolished soon after. A new Ladies' Annexe was created in the basement of the Athenaeum with a separate entrance from the street and opened in 1962. From 1972 lady guests had access to the same areas of the Club as male guests. Ladies were invited to become Members of the Club from 2001.

At the first meeting of the Club held on 16 February 1824, the membership limit was set at four hundred. This was steadily increased and by December 1824 was set at one thousand. The cost of the magnificent premises had resulted in a deficit of some £20,000 and two hundred Supernumerary Members were elected in 1830 to restore the finances. By 1838 the Club was again in straitened circumstances after undertaking expensive remedial action because of the damage caused by the gas lighting. To alleviate the situation, one hundred and sixty Supernumerary Members were admitted to ordinary membership. An additional forty candidates were brought forward from the waiting list for election by Committee. These "forty thieves", as they became known, were selected from "Individuals known for their Scientific or Literary attainments, Artists of eminence in any class of the fine Arts, and Noblemen and Gentlemen distinguished as liberal Patrons of Science, Literature, or the Arts." They included Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the time candidates waited to come up for election was increasing until some candidates had been waiting as long as thirty years. By the time of the First World War, the numbers waiting had significantly reduced. The present complement is two thousand members.

Over the nearly two hundred years since its foundation the Athenaeum has maintained its standard of high attainment and distinction in the membership. More than fifty members have been awarded the Nobel Prize, including at least one in each category. Amongst the professions well represented in the Club are: academia of all disciplines; art; the church; the civil service; engineering; law; medicine; music; science; and literature; with a small number of professionals from business and politics. The wide interests of the Club's membership are reflected in the Athenaeum Library, the finest club library in London. From the outset Members were encouraged to donate works to the Library and many of the Library's 70,000 volumes are donations. The Archive is substantially intact from the foundation of the Club in 1824. The Library and Archive are managed by the Library Committee.

The Club is governed by the Trustees and a General Committee of Members. The day to day running is managed by an Executive Committee which was established in 1889. There are also standing sub-committees for: Audit; the Library; Investment; Music; Talk Dinners; Wine; and Works of Art.


Scope and content/abstract:

The Archive has a rich collection of early building, financial and library records together with unbroken sequences of committee minutes, annual reports and membership records from foundation to present day. As well as information about the formation and development of the Club and the Club building, the Archive gives an insight into the election of Members; Members' experiences of dining in the Club; staff and their relationship with the Athenaeum; how major changes to the Club came about; and how events outside the Athenaeum have affected the Club. There are records relating to the celebration of Royal events and the viewing of Royal processions from the Club. Records for other special events, such as the Order of Merit Dinner held in 1902, have also been kept. Deserving of special mention is the collection of letters from staff serving in the First World War.

Among the building records are Decimus Burton's original drawings showing designs for the interior of the Club. There are also later architectural drawings by Decimus Burton, Charles Barry and T E Collcutt. The Archive holds inventories dating back to 1830.

The Herbert Spencer papers, which are owned by the Club, are on deposit with the University of London at Senate House Library, where they may be consulted by scholars.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

In 2005 and 2006 a cataloguing project was carried out and much archive material was catalogued using the Library database. Since 2007 the Club has employed a qualified Archivist and the archive entries on the Library database have increased both in number and depth of description.

The archive catalogue records individual records within a hierarchical structure, proceeding from the general to the specific. The complete Archive is known collectively as the fonds. Below this sit the sub-fonds, which are: Committee Records; Library Records; Membership Records: Secretary's Office Records; Financial Records; Building Records; Staff Records; Catering Records; and Records of Celebrations and Events. Below the sub-fonds sit runs of similar records such as: minute books; annual reports; library catalogues; membership lists; Secretary's letter books; inventories; pay records; and volumes of marked Coffee Room bills. Each run is known as a series. Individual records within a series are known as files. A file could be an individual minute book or a library catalogue, for example. Where necessary, files may be further sub-divided into items and items further sub-divided into pieces. Every record is given a unique description within the hierarchy.

The catalogue is accessible to Members of the Athenaeum only.

Conditions governing access:

The Archive exists primarily as a service to Members and research for Members takes priority. Non-member researchers may be allowed access to the Club's archive material subject to certain restrictions, for example those relating to privacy.

Write in the first instance to: Ms Jennie De Protani, Archivist, The Athenaeum, 107 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ER. Email:

Conditions governing reproduction:

Any form of reproduction (including photography) of archive material for personal use must be authorized in all instances by the Archivist. Reproduction for commercial use will incur a fee, and will be at the sole discretion of the Club Secretary. The Club will in all cases retain copyright of all forms of reproduced material.

Finding aids:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Created and kept in situ by the Athenaeum.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Publication note:

The Athenaeum, Club and Social Life in London 1824-1974, Heinemann, London: 1975; The Athenaeum and its Associations, F G Waugh, 1888, 1892, 1900; History of the Athenaeum, H Ward, The Athenaeum, London: 1926; The Athenaeum Collection, R Walker and H Tait, The Athenaeum, London: 2000; Armchair Athenians: Essays from Athenaeum Life, The Athenaeum, London: 2001.

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:

Date(s) of descriptions:

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