Open to ideas but not ladies

Alan Coombes meets those behind Scarborough’s historic club with a strict code, including all-male membership.

Alan Staniforth looks through the records of the Forty Club. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

One evening a little earlier this year at the Red Leas Hotel on Scarborough’s South Cliff, mayor Andy Backhouse was enjoying a meal as guest of the town’s Forty Club. He enjoyed the good food and pleasant atmosphere, but then came the payback. Toby Smith, the club secretary, confronted the mayor with a question.

The same thing happens each year and it’s just one of many traditions held by the club formed more than a century ago.

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“In the winter of 1899 a group of Scarborough businessmen and gentlemen got together for a social evening at the Balmoral Hotel. After a while they formed it into a club which met for a drink, a cigar and a discussion on world affairs,” says Alan Staniforth, who with 50 years under his belt is the Forty Club’s longest-serving member.

An archive picture from the records of the 40 Club, a debating society which meets in Scarborough.

The minutes of those early meetings register the club’s objectives more formally as: “The intellectual advancement and entertainment of its members.”

The Forty Club prides itself on proper procedure. The first half hour is the business end of the meeting: minutes, an agenda, a book sale. At precisely 8pm, one member takes the floor to present a paper on a subject of his choosing. During this time no-one is allowed to interrupt. After 30 minutes the debate is then thrown open to club members until 9.10 pm when the speaker is given 20 minutes to reply. According to the archives at one meeting in 1911, a member “placed upon a table components from ‘the motor car’ which he claimed would revolutionise transport.”

The club motto – “we may not all think alike but we all alike agree to think” – is a very important one. Bequeathed the club by a Unitarian Minister in the 1960s, it is emblazoned on all official papers of the 40 Club whose name invites as much intrigue as its traditions.

“Most people who don’t know us assume that it’s to do with a member’s age, but that’s only partly true. Henry Vasey, who was the club’s prime mover, was actually 40 when it formed, but so many of the town’s gentlemen wanted in that it was decided that 40 would be the membership limit, although that rule was soon set aside because of its popularity.”

Nowadays attracting new members is not so easy. The Forty Club is a gentlemen-only club and while there have been several attempts to change the constitution to allow women membership, all have proved unsuccessful.

Alan recalls: “I remember an occasion in the 1960s when the paper being delivered was ‘Marriage is an outdated institution’. We met in the library in those days, seated at a long table, smokers on one side, non-smokers on the other. There was a knock at the door and in walked a woman. The Scarborough Evening News had sent along a female reporter to cover what they considered ‘an interesting topic’.”

The woman in question was sent out while a frantic discussion was held as to whether she should be allowed to enter this bastion of maleness. In the end, the desire for publicity outweighed any feelings of impropriety. She was invited in.

While the question of female members revisits the AGM regularly, it seems unlikely to change anytime soon. What has altered is the background of members. A century ago the club was made up of Scarborough’s bourgeoisie – businessmen, councillors and a number of mayors. In fact, the Forty Club was seen as a breeding ground for future mayors.

“These days,” says Alan. “Members come from a much more diverse background which is good because it makes for a more diverse opinion in our meetings.”

However, asked whether the Forty Club will still be going in another 100 years, he admits that it is difficult to attract new blood. “I’d like to think so but doubt it. Television and the internet mean people are not so keen to discuss topics like we do. People, I think, used to like talking among themselves in a formal situation rather more than they do today.”

One of the most common factors leading to men joining the club is the prospect of having to speak in public. One member, Geoff Jones, admits his main reason for joining was the forthcoming weddings of his two daughters. He would have to give speeches and knew that he needed to develop his skills.

Current President Ray Clarke posted his thoughts on the matter. “Addressing an audience is not some indefinable gift, rather it is about recognising one’s own abilities, having knowledge of the subject and a willingness to share that knowledge with others.”

Which brings us back to the mayor and that testing question. Committee member Mark Vesey says: “Many people in the town are disillusioned with Scarborough council and we wanted to learn something of the mayor’s thoughts on how the council can win back people’s trust.” Younger voters have been let down at local and national levels and the Forty Club fears for the future of democracy. What did the Mayor of Scarborough see as the way to combat such unhealthy apathy?

Andy Backhouse’s answer did not displease members. Although his office had prepared a lengthy and diplomatic text, he opted to answer from the heart. That was food and drink to a club that places a high value on the personal honesty and integrity of its members.