Turning the pages in Ilkley at Britain’s oldest Victorian book club

It might be the oldest surviving book club in Britain, and also the most exclusive – for as its president freely admits, new members tend to be admitted only after someone else has turned the last page.

John Hardy, president of Ilkley Book Club, possibly the oldest still in existence. Picture: Tony Johnson
John Hardy, president of Ilkley Book Club, possibly the oldest still in existence. Picture: Tony Johnson

Still governed by the arcane rules created by its Victorian founders, which mandated a membership limit of 25, it will shortly celebrate its 125th anniversary, with a dinner at a local restaurant.

Such get-togethers are unusual, for unlike its modern counterparts which gather monthly to discuss works of fiction distributed by the local library, the Ilkley Book Club convenes only twice a year – once for its AGM and then for a summer supper. Attendance at the former is expected, with fines imposed in the past for non-attendance.

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“It’s a quirky carry-on, but that’s the way it is,” said the president, John Hardy. “It’s always stayed at 25 members, so when someone dies or resigns, the others are asked to nominate a replacement. It’s dead men’s shoes, really.”

Past members of Ilkley Book Club. From left: Jim Lynch, Willis Hall, Tom Jackson and Robert Taylor.

Past members have included the Leeds playwright Willis Hall and the handlebar-moustached trade unionist Tom Jackson, who led the first national postal strike for a month and a half in 1971. Both spent their retirement years in Ilkley.

Convened in the Crescent Hotel at a time when the town’s grand villa residences and spa waters drew wealthy mill owners away from the pollution of Bradford, the club owes its continued existence largely to a single family of lawyers, the Wades – three generations of whom held the position of honorary secretary for 80 years.

“We know of a book club in Cumbria that predated ours, but that disappeared years ago,” Mr Hardy said. “The others from that era died out but we didn’t, somehow. We kept going even through the two world wars, presumably because the older members wouldn’t have been called up.”

Today’s quorum ranges in age from 30-something to 90, with no difficulty in maintaining numbers.

Its current roll includes the eminent civil servant Sir Rodney Brooke and the education pioneer, Sir John Lewis.

“The club continues in a gentle fashion, very little changed since its creation,” Mr Hardy said. “The annual reports given by its officers are word for word as they were written 150 years ago, save for the updating of any relevant figures in the accounts.”

The 27 rules laid down in the original constitution remain its guiding light. One mandated that books had to be written in English or French; another that they must “be of a proper and fit nature for reading of the club”.

Given their Victorian provenance, the rules made no provision for women, though Mr Hardy said attitudes softened somewhat in the late 1960s, when “a generous president entertained members to summer suppers at his home, and two or three of the members’ wives were invited to help with the preparations”.

Nor has the choice of reading material much changed with the times, he added. “Quite a lot of heavyweight stuff – with a novel creeping in every now and then.”

The titles are the choice of individual members, with each one then passed around. “You check with the club that a book hasn’t been ordered already, and at the end of the year they are auctioned off – frequently to the member who ordered it in the first place, for more than the published price. Then we get a bill from the bookshop.”

The closest the club has come to disrepute was in the 1930s, when a member committed what was then the cardinal sin of failing to turn up at the AGM.

When telephoned at home nearby, he arrived within minutes, correctly attired.

“It appeared that he always dressed for dinner, even though he lived alone,” said Mr Hardy.