On 22nd July 1857 a meeting of some of the great and the good of Wimbledon took place to consider the building of a Reading Room in the village. The Rev. R.L. Adams, the perpetual curate of Wimbledon, was in the chair. This was the beginning of the project which eventually led to the creation of the Village Club “to afford to the inhabitants, and more especially the working and middle classes of Wimbledon and its vicinity, opportunities of intellectual and moral improvement, and rational and social enjoyment, through the medium of a reading room and library, lectures and classes”
In its early days the club had two classes of membership. Ordinary Members were defined in the Bye Laws as “artisans or labourers, or of such limited pecuniary means as entitles them to the benefit of the Institution at the lower rate of payment”. Women “similarly circumstanced as to station in life or pecuniary means” were also allowed to be ordinary members. They paid 1s 6d per quarter or 8d per month. Anyone (“without respect to age sex or condition in life”) could become an honorary member by paying an annual subscription of at least 10s or making a donation of at least £5. The facilities of the club seem to have been available equally to both classes of membership, though the atmosphere was perhaps not perfectly democratic: the only alcoholic drink available at the club until 1880 was Claret.
Perhaps for this reason, Honorary Members seem to have been much more numerous than Ordinary Members in the early days. The founders had wished the club to offer its members opportunities of enjoyment “sufficiently attractive to counterbalance the allurements of the public house”, but it seems that the “lecturets”, penny readings and chat meetings organised for members were insufficiently compelling.
In 1880, following the submission of a lengthy report by the Refreshments Subcommittee, it was decided that the Refreshment Room should be open from 5 to 10pm every day except Sunday, and that beer, wines and tobacco should be on sale. This decision seems to have led to a great increase in the numbers of ordinary members, but it was viewed by some as a betrayal of the ideals of the founders, who had had not imagined that the opportunities offered by the club would include beer at 1d for a half pint.
One of things the founders had envisaged was that a museum should be among the facilities of the club, and in the early twentieth century this project was revived. The John Evelyn Club (later the Wimbledon Society) was offered the opportunity to create a museum on the Club premises. The Museum (originally called the Wimbledon Museum of the John Evelyn Club), opened its door on the First Floor of the Building and has in 1916, and has been there ever since.
At some point in the twentieth century, the club became a men only institution, and in 1978, the Inland Revenue questioned its charitable status, describing it as a “men only drinking club”. The Charity Commissioners were called in to investigate and in 1986 they proposed a new scheme for running the organisation, with a new Board of Charity Trustees.
Nowadays the building is run by the Wimbledon Village Hall Trust, which takes scrupulous care of the physical fabric of the building, and lets out the Hall, the Norman Plastow Gallery and the Lingfield Room for community purposes. The club (with the rights of Lady Members securely restored) is more popular than ever. The museum will be refurbished in 2021. We hope the building will continue to provide opportunities for “rational and social enjoyment” for many decades to come.
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