The East India Club: Imperial Artefact19 minute read

The ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies’, better known as The East India Company (EIC hereafter), was granted The Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 entitling select London business elites the monopoly power to trade with the East (EIC, 2015; Landow, 2013). What ensued was not merely a controlled trading network, but also the expansion and implementation of London rule and custom associated by the pursuit of power by a few greedy businessmen (Landow, 2013). To guide the reader, the definition of politics in this study will focus on the “practice and distribution of power and resources, as well as the interrelationships between communities” (Painter and Jeffrey, 2009). Using this definition this essay will show that imperialistic notions of hierarchy, exclusivity and the control of power exercised by the EIC still dominates contemporary politics in London and how the framework they created has been maintained by imperial artefacts, such as The East India Club and other gentlemen’s clubs in St. James’s. This paper will first provide a brief background to the club by presenting how the club’s elite members use power, class and gender structures, established by the imperial company. It will then show how more contemporary club members have maintained the legacy of hierarchy and division and how this culture can still be seen throughout the control of contemporary London. By exploring the politics of class and gender division this essay will also examine how deep-rooted the imperial legacy of exclusivity and hierarchy is and how these philosophies can also be seen in contemporary architecture and even sport.

The elite members of the EIC developed a passion for wealth and power in their exploits causing them to create a new bifurcated political system overseas. In the mid-1760s, after the battle of Plassey, the company eventually saw their focus shift from their trading monopoly and mercantile wealth creation to that of a ruling imperial power; this pursuit of absolute power led the company to also engage in politics, governance and policymaking (Stern, 2009; Dalrymple, 2015; Snow, 2014a). Bengal became the first large territory that the EIC ruled, although prior to this the region was governed using a model of familiar relations between the ruler and ruled based on face-to-face interactions “in which rulers needed to constantly gauge the people’s affection to them” (Wilson, 2008). This familiar relationship between political leaders and subjects was not too dissimilar from the type of rule in mid-eighteenth century Britain. However, the EIC implemented a new form of governance in Bengal that treated its subjects as strangers for the first time (Wilson, 2008). Lord Wellesley, the governor of Calcutta, Bengal, emphasised this by minimising the time he spent in public space, “God forbid that he would actually have to travel through the country and look out on the plight of the Indians over whom he ruled” (Snow, 2014b). This new style of administration was the creation of Robert Clive, ruling from a boardroom in London, where he sought to generalise the population of Bengal as a single type of subject (Dalrymple, 2015; Wilson, 2008; Nechtman, 2006). Bernard Williams (1973) described this as ‘government house utilitarianism’ which refers to the political philosophy of the elite ruling an idealised and abstract definition of public welfare not shared by the masses. This shows how the EIC elites, centred in London, altered the existing power structures in Bengal to create the culture of a bifurcated state, a hierarchical and imperial system of government with an elite class and their subjects.

The EIC elites also helped to establish this political modernity in Britain via the formation of the East India Club in London. During the eighteenth century, members of the company and other colonial elites created as many as 25,000 clubs and societies throughout the Empire (Scribner, 2013). These male-dominated clubs, characterised as elitist organisations, closed to the public and limited in number, became a dominant form of gentlemen’s social exclusivity (Ingram and Basanez, 2014). Elite merchants could “debate cosmopolitan matters…, sip exotic beverages such as coffee, tea, chocolate, wine, and above all distinguish themselves as separate, superior” (Scribner, 2013). Rather than appear as polite cosmopolitans as Scribner (2013) suggests that they attempted to do, these gentlemen did more to protect their upper class status, using Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, than become “citizens of the world”. This can also be assumed to have been the intention of the EIC merchants, known as nabobs in this period, in forming the East India Club in London, in 1849, on their return from duty (East India Club, 2015; Nechtman, 2006). Serving as a microcosm of the bifurcated government that they installed in Bengal, the club created an exclusive environment of elites with shared political and cultural motives. It created a private space for these elites to establish their administrational views in London. This is further emphasised by the club’s Clive Room which celebrates the company’s leader, Robert Clive, who created the Bengal administration (Nechtman, 2006). Many members, like Clive, used their newfound wealth to purchase seats in parliament, diffusing their new style of governance into London culture and also its political system (Dalrymple, 2015; Nechtman, 2006). However, Clive purchased his seat in 1760, long before the club was founded, suggesting that the club was not directly responsible for imposing the EIC style of governance into London. Despite this, Wilson (2008, emphasis added) asserts that the political system in London was changed by the EIC merchants, using their general categories of class to administer populations. A strong correlation between the number of members of parliament and club members emerged; emphasised as the politics of the mid-nineteenth century is often referred to as “club government” and other St. James’s clubs became “institutionalised headquarters of party politics” in the period (Blake, 1972; Forrest, 1982; Rendell, 1999). Ingram and Basanez (2014) and Walton (2000: 66) describe that on their return many like-minded, travelling, gentlemen, would organize societies inspired by the political experiences seen in their territories. The East India Club can thus be seen to have been established to help enforce and entrench their notions of national superiority back in London’s political system (Rendell, 1999; Walton, 2000:66). So whilst the club may not have been initially responsible for the EIC encroachment on parliament, it does show that many of its members were. Thus it is clear that the EIC merchants used the club as a means to transpose their culture of hierarchy and a bifurcated style of governance onto politics in Westminster.

Since its formation the club, and others in St. James’s, has maintained class division to ensure that the culture of exclusivity and hierarchy is still relevant in contemporary politics. Research on the membership of these clubs is relatively sparse as they reject publicity, to maintain their exclusive social order, however there is enough to comment on their elite members in contemporary London (Peacock and Selvarajah, 2000). Patrons of the East India Club include royalty, titled aristocracy, politicians and business leaders, whilst Prince William and his father are notable members of White’s, the oldest and most exclusive gentlemen’s club in London (Wheeler, 2003; Milne-Smith, 2006; Rendell, 1999). As the governors of London and Britain these figures show just how elite the membership of the East India Club and the gentlemen’s clubs of St. James’s is. These clubs continue to guarantee that this culture of social exclusivity is maintained. In Forrest’s (1982) biography of the East India Club he notes that new members are either recruited by family members or must receive letters from both a proposer and a seconder, from within the club, which must state “fully the position of the candidate socially and otherwise”. After the East India Club’s merger with the Public Schools Club, in 1972, any 17-year-old public schoolboy can also be nominated with a letter from their headmaster (East India Club, 2015; Peacock and Selvarajah, 2000). This form of membership protects the social networks of these establishments ensuring that only like-minded gentlemen can join or those with enough wealth to afford the £36,000 fees per year for public schooling (Eton College, 2015; Harrow School, 2015). Anthony Lejeune, a well known journalist on the clubs of St. James’s, stresses the importance of these familiarised networks of public school friends in protecting this privileged social class from those outside their own systems (Wheeler, 2003; Milne-Smith, 2006; McCracken, 2014). This form of “fratriarchal” membership not only maintains Clive’s imperial privileged class, but also ensures that the culture of exclusivity and social order continues in contemporary politics within London (Rendell, 1999). The leaders of London’s politics and business as members also shows that they legitimise this class polarisation and presents their need to protect entry to their circles of power (Milne-Smith, 2006). This creation of what Squires (1994) describes as a “private sphere” safeguards the member’s status and wealth, that their male ancestors gained from their imperial conquests, from the public sphere; the subjects deemed inferior in class and not worthy to engage in the exclusive boy’s club of London’s politics (Ingram and Basanez, 2014).

The East India Club not only protects the culture of class hierarchy in contemporary London but also maintains patriarchal mechanisms and the male control over space. The club’s website states that “in accordance with its constitution, membership of the East India is available only to gentlemen” (East India Club, 2015). Peacock and Selvarajah’s (2000) research also reveals that from the 50 or so clubs in contemporary London, only one admits women as full members, whilst six others permit only a limited use of their facilities (Saunders, 1990). This shows that these clubs continue to maintain a culture of exclusion in contemporary London, based not only, on class but also on gender (Peacock and Selvarajah, 2000). Milne-Smith (2006) presents that gender segregation was a means to undermine the control a wife had in a man’s business by keeping her at home and conducting business and receiving letters at his club. This privacy and secrecy excludes women from power circles and maintains patriarchal stereotypes of a woman’s role in society (Squires, 1994; Rendell, 1999; Wilson, 2011). The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 “specifically forbids recruitment by gender”, however this does not apply to private clubs (Waugh, 1995). When the East India Club formed there were no female members in the Houses of Parliament at all, and despite the passing of the Equal Franchise Act in 1928, allowing women equal voting right to men, just 16 female members of parliament (MPs) were elected in the general election of 1929 (Parliament, 2015). This male dominated political landscape continues into contemporary politics where just over one in five MPs are women (Parliament, 2015). Considering the political nature of the club’s members it does suggest that by denying women entry to these exclusive clubs it also prevents them access to these male networks of power. This is stressed by the actions of the Carlton Club, where members must be Conservative Party supporters, but only granted Margaret Thatcher limited rights of an associate member, despite her position as Prime Minister (Peacock and Selvarajah, 2000). This presents a male dominance over space, preventing women from engaging in the club’s elite pluralism and preventing them from entering into their social and political allegiances (Rendell, 1999). This again shows how the East India and other clubs of St. James’s continues this culture of hierarchy in gender and class. It also shows how club members who are also MPs, have the ability to alter this dominance over networks and space, but instead maintain and legitimise this imperial legacy into contemporary London politics.

This exclusion of groups and domination of space in clubs can also be seen in defensible architecture and the design of public spaces in London, showing how engrained this culture is in contemporary politics. Milne-Smith (2006) highlights how the porter at the entrance to the clubs of St. James’s exclude the unwelcomed, acting as a “barrier to the outside world” and marking the territory of the private, drawing a boundary with the public (Squires, 1994). Guests are allowed admission into these clubs, with members, although these guests are also managed by a set of rules and the “redefinition of public spaces” (Rendell, 1999; Milne- Smith, 2006). Certain clubs would regulate the rooms that members could admit guests and also how outsiders could access these spaces. In one case, guests were only permitted in ‘The Strangers’ Room’ and would enter via a lavatory (Milne-Smith, 2006). Rendell (1999) describes that this “allocation of spaces within clubs to specific groups of men gave club members the opportunity to define their masculine identity though the occupation and control of different spaces”. This evidence shows that even to their guests, club members are keen to assert a culture of hierarchy, using architecture and the control of spaces to exclude the public and guests from particular areas. The entire “clubland” area of St. James’s can even be seen as exclusionary, showcasing an enclave of private clubs and providing services to an exclusive class. Anna Minton (2012) also presents this exclusionary culture in whole areas of contemporary London design, highlighting the stark boundaries between pockets of Canary Wharf’s increasing affluence and the Isle of Dog’s deprivation. Minton describes how policymakers and developers use defensible architecture to create “quasi-public” spaces to attract a particular type or class of person whilst ousting others. Architects have an arsenal of tools from stainless steel anti-homeless spikes to the slanted concrete Camden bench to prevent loiterers, skateboarders and to ultimately deter particular groups from areas for the benefit of London’s elite (Quinn, 2014). Whilst these tools of urban design may be to reduce crime and social groups, it does show the willingness of policymakers and architects to displace and deter entire groups. These contemporary architectural designs present a strong similarity with the class superiority created by men in their private clubs, excluding on class and social desirability (Scribner, 2013). This is not to say that London’s exclusive club members are directly responsible for the use of defensible architecture in contemporary London’s “public” spaces. But it does present how privileged groups use this engrained imperial culture of exclusion to exercise their power by manipulating the architectural designs of contemporary London’s public places.

Elitism in sports also presents how the East India Club and its imperial values has engrained a culture of hierarchy into contemporary London’s sporting and university politics. Many of the clubs that the EIC established abroad were primarily sporting, establishing the sports that colonial administrators had learned at British Public Schools (Aplin, 2012). The activities such as cricket, rugby and yachting that emerged in Singapore in the early nineteenth century can be traced back to the pastimes of the privileged, whilst the sport of rugby was actually created at the public school of Rugby (Aplin, 2012). EIC administrators used these sports for fitness, social engagement and also to install a culture of exclusivity and elitism. Aplin (2003) presents that the 1% of EIC settlers excluded the Singaporean population as well as British women from their sports. This sporting exclusivity was continued by the members of the East India Club, by hosting the meetings of the International Rugby Board and the English Rugby Football Union in the club’s “Rugby Room” (Forrest, 1982; East India Club, 2015). Meeting in the club’s exclusive room demonstrates the sport’s elitism and its association with the upper classes. This culture continues in contemporary sports. Recent research presents how only 39% of players in Rugby Union’s top leagues attended state schools compared to the 94% of players in top league Football, whilst 20 from England’s 31- man squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup attended fee-paying schools (Ofsted, 2014; Dirs, 2015). The association of the club, public schools and rugby presents how the culture of ranking and hierarchy has survived from its imperial creation and further shows how engrained and entwined it is throughout contemporary culture. This is perfectly highlighted by the London School of Economics Men’s Rugby Club, who were banned in 2014 for canvasing elitism over other universities and using sexism and misogyny to attract new members. This presents another similarity with the East India Club as the university team attempted to interest like-minded members to its masculine, elitist and exclusive club; emphasised by the club blaming its own “negative club culture” (Walker, Weale and Young- Powell, 2014).

This essay has shown that a new form of governance was created in London and imposed during the EIC’s rule, a system built on hierarchy and the exclusivity of an elite group from its subjects. This imperial form of politics and power relations returned to London and has been maintained by the East India Club and its members by encroaching on parliament and rooting itself within contemporary culture, from architecture to sport, shaping the British public (Stern, 2009). It is important to note that the nabobs were initially rejected by the incumbent aristocracy. They were threatened by the nabob’s new money and social connections gained from the EICs opening of world trade and how they begun to change the political face of London (Nechtman, 2006). What will be interesting is whether the new information age or Friedman’s (2005) “Globalisation 3.0” will propel new people, or current subjects, into this elite group. Movements against acts of elitism and sexism also appear to be gaining momentum, as can be seen in the banning of the LSE Rugby Club. Recently elected, Labour leader, Jeremey Corbyn’s new format for Prime Minister’s Questions is another example, submitting crowdsourced questions to the PM from over 40,000 members of the public, opening parliament to “its subjects” (Watt, Mason and Perraudin, 2015). The question now is whether these movements have enough mobilisation and the available networks to alter London’s politics; these networks may after all still be closed off in exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Thus the East India Club is an artefact of lasting imperial culture, symbolising hierarchy, patriarchy and exclusion. As long as policymakers continue to be members, contemporary London’s politics will remain influenced by a culture of exclusive hierarchy.


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Gentlemens club map
A map of St. James’s and the distribution of private clubs. Taken from:
Milne-Smith, Amy. (2006) A Flight to Domesticity? Making a Home in the Gentlemen’s Clubs of London, 1880–1914. The Journal of British Studies, 45, pp 796-818 doi:10.1086/505958
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