The fascinating past of the Pizza Express in York that was once a Victorian gentlemen's club

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The news that Pizza Express may be in financial trouble has led to an outpouring of nostalgic goodwill towards the restaurant chain.

Supporters of the brand have pointed out that it's renowned for trading from and restoring some of the most beautiful historic buildings on Britain's streets - premises which could end up being vacated if the company were to close under-performing sites.

River House, on the right, is home to York's flagship Pizza Express

River House, on the right, is home to York's flagship Pizza Express

One of these landmark buildings is their main York city centre branch, on Museum Street just before Lendal Bridge. Pizza Express occupies part of River House, a Grade II-listed building with a distinguished past.

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River House was built in 1869 for a gentlemen's club with a booming membership. Victorian York was a fashionable city frequented by the landed gentry, many of whom had interests in the local racing scene and other sporting pursuits.

They were catered for by The Yorkshire Club, a private establishment where members could enjoy refreshment, accommodation and social conviviality while visiting York.

Clubs usually offered a dining room, bar, library and study, billiards room, bedrooms and parlours for gaming. They were a 'home from home' with numerous staff and comforts. Women were not allowed to join the majority of clubs, but could occasionally be admitted as guests. Some clubs were aligned to particular institutions or interests, but outside of London they tended to be more general in scope.

The club's old waterfront area is now the Lendal Boatyard pleasure boat dock

The club's old waterfront area is now the Lendal Boatyard pleasure boat dock

Clubs thrived in the 19th century as more men gained the vote and the Industrial Revolution generated wealth for those from modest social backgrounds. Self-made industrialists would not be welcome in the most prestigious establishments, but often set up their own clubs instead.

The Yorkshire Club was founded in 1839 and the original premises were at 5 St Leonard's Place, a townhouse on a handsome Regency terrace opposite York Theatre Royal that is now used as offices.

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By 1856, they had merged with the Yorkshire Union Hunt Club, which was dedicated to equestrian and field sports.

In 1859, members protested at plans to build offices for the guardians of the Poor Laws, which provided assistance for those living in poverty, on St Leonard's Place. The gentlemen argued that proximity to poor people visiting the offices would expose them to disease, and that they should be confined to slum districts of the city. The area was home to other 'genteel' establishments, such as the theatre, library and De Grey Rooms.

Bolstered by this amalgamation, membership began to expand and soon the club had outgrown their St Leonard's Place home.

They commissioned a purpose-built clubhouse, and chose a site beside the River Ouse that was close to many of the homes where their patrons lived.

River House had a private waterfront area that is now Lendal Boatyard, a dock for a pleasure boat operator that runs river cruises.

Gentlemen's clubs became less fashionable in the latter half of the 20th century and membership declined, especially in regional cities outside the 'clubland' of St James's in London. Provincial clubs tended to attract businessmen and minor gentry rather than the wealthiest aristocrats, and these smaller establishments fell victim to social and economic changes.

It's not known exactly when The Yorkshire Club folded.

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By 1980, River House was an office block, and was home to estate agents Savills. The firm later moved out, but its York staff returned to the building in 2017 following a major refurbishment by property developers Rushbond, who bought River House in the same year. Pizza Express have occupied their unit since the early 2000s.

Yorkshire still has some active gentlemen's clubs, including The Harrogate Club and The Bradford Club, although membership requirements are more relaxed than during their Victorian heyday. The Leeds Club survived until 2013, when it became an events and conference venue. It closed in 2017 and is now a restaurant. The Huddersfield Club and Halifax Club have also been consigned to history.