Garrick row over women members reignites after legal expert changes his mind

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A longstanding dispute over membership of one of London’s most exclusive clubs has reignited after a lawyer who said that women could be excluded from the Garrick Club changed his mind.

The gentlemen’s club approached Michael Beloff KC in 2011 for advice on whether the wording of its rules meant that women could join, and agreed to abide by his decision.

At the time he advised the club that the rules barred women. However an email sent to members on Thursday said Beloff had reversed his conclusion and “informed the club by writing a revised opinion for transmission to the chair”.

Beloff said that, after considering the Law of Property Act 1925, it was now his opinion that the word “he” in the club’s rules should be read to include “she”. Because of this, there was no obstacle in the club’s rules to women’s admission, he said.

However the club, which is situated in the heart of London’s West End, has insisted to its members that the barrister’s revised position would not automatically lead to a change of its bar on woman members.

For more than a decade the Garrick has been embroiled in debates about whether it should revise the ban, which has been in place since its founding.

The Garrick was set up in 1831 as a place where “actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms”. Literary figures including Charles Dickens, AA Milne and Kingsley Amis have been members, as well as numerous artists, politicians and businessmen.

A series of efforts to change the membership rules to allow women to join, including petitions and legal challenges, have failed.

Emily Bendell, chief executive of the luxury lingerie maker Bluebella, who has been leading the fight for women’s membership, said that while the change in Beloff’s position was positive, she was not entirely satisfied.

“If this change can be effected through some change in interpretation of a pronoun I would still welcome the change but it’s very bizarre to me that this is the process of challenging the status quo,” she said.

The club told members that Beloff’s change of view “in no way reflects the opinion of the club, nor was it authorised for distribution”.

It added that the club’s general committee had decided unanimously not to adopt Beloff’s suggestion. “Opinions are exactly that: opinions,” it said.

The club and Beloff did not respond to requests seeking further comment.

The Garrick is among several London private members’ clubs that do not allow women, including Boodles, the Beefsteak Club, the Travellers Club and Whites.

This year another of London’s historic gentlemen’s clubs, 166-year-old Pratt’s, opted to allow women for the first time by admitting Conservative cabinet minister and former women’s and equalities minister Amber Rudd.

The Athenaeum began to admit women in 2002.

The Garrick is set to discuss the issue in October and will put any rule change proposal to a vote at an annual meeting in 2024. It will need a two-thirds majority to pass.

The last vote was held in 2015. Members then voted to admit women by a 50.5 per cent majority, below the two-thirds threshold.

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