Judi Dench and Siân Philips: The first women admitted to London’s historic Garrick Club

Barring entry to ‘terrible bores,’ this private club boasts the membership of prominent figures in British society, from politicians to actors, and even King Charles. After 193 years as a men’s only establishment, 60% of its members voted to include women in May

Garrick Club de Londres Judi Dench y Siân Philips
Judi Dench and Siân Philips.Getty

Actresses Judi Dench, 89, and Siân Philips, 91, have been approved as the first female members of London’s historic Garrick Club, according to The Guardian. Their admission was announced during the club’s annual general meeting on Monday evening, July 1. Until now, no woman had been allowed to enter the Garrick, founded in 1831, unless accompanied by a man.

The vote to include women was taken in May. Sixty percent of the club’s members voted in favor of changing a rule that had been maintained despite multiple controversies. In a previous vote held in November 2023, 51% of the membership voted in favor of admitting women, while 44% voted against, defeating the proposal: according to the Garrick’s strict set of regulations, a two-thirds majority is required to trigger any change in the rules.

In February 2024, Colin Brough, a retired theatrical producer and club member for more than 40 years, was expelled after sending a series of emails to other members in which he disagreed with the November 2023 vote. In the email, he expressed the view that women should be admitted “immediately” and complained about a “Putin-like” leadership regime, calling some of its members “misogynists.” On March 18, 2024, The Guardian published the list of the club members for the first time in its history, which included dozens of prominent lawyers, directors of cultural institutions, politicians, lords, actors such as Brian Cox, Stephen Fry, Hugh Bonneville and Benedict Cumberbatch, and even King Charles III. The publication of the list provoked a wave of indignation in the UK at the large number of influential and powerful figures belonging to a club still determined to exclude women.

“The club’s position on women does not seem to have made it any less attractive to a string of the most senior figures in the government, Whitehall, the arts and the law,” wrote Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman in March 2024. “Simon Case, the head of the civil service, joined the Garrick in 2019, the same year that Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, became a member. Richard Moore, the head of MI6, joined in 2016.

“The Garrick is often viewed as a harmless, benign curiosity, a final, lonely slice of an England that forgot to modernise, its never-ending squabbles over female members offering an amusing peepshow into Britain’s declining patriarchal elite as it utters its final gasps,” Gentleman observed, adding, “This characterisation is not reflected in the powerful names drawn from the club’s membership list revealed by The Guardian.”

Garrick Club
The entrance to the Garrick Club. Peter Dazeley (Getty Images)

Judi Dench and Siân Philips have not been the only female candidates to join the club. Since the new rule was passed in May, several women in leadership positions in British society were nominated as potential members. Prominent among them were Cambridge professor and popular historian Mary Beard, former UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and news anchor Cathy Newman. However, the complex admission process can take between two and five years, which, as revealed by The Guardian, generated concern among several members as it would mean that the membership of the first woman in the club would not become effective until 2026. To include the two actresses, the Garrick has pulled an old article from its strict rule book which deems that “the general committee may, in its discretion, elect four members each year in consideration of their eminence or public distinction.” This means that, by the end of the year, the club’s 1,500-member roster could include four women.

Located in the very heart of the West End, where the majority of the city’s most prestigious theaters can be found, the Garrick Club was created in the early 19th century by a group of “literary gentlemen” under the patronage of King William IV’s brother, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, with the intention of becoming a place where “actors and men of refinement and education could meet on equal terms.” Actors, playwrights, theater directors and even patrons began to meet and share artistic and cultural interests, but also influential personalities from other fields: “The Club was named after the great 18th-century actor David Garrick. Attracted by the combination of the traditions of the 18th-century literary society with the advantages of a well-run dining and social club, the first members of the Garrick were a sophisticated and cosmopolitan group that included 24 peers of the realm as well as writers, actors, musicians and publishers,” as they explain on their website.

Garrick Club
The Garrick Club dining room in 1897, a drawing by Edward Walford.Print Collector

All new candidates must be proposed by an existing member for election on a secret ballot. One of the club’s maxim’s is that dull characters be avoided: “It would be better that 10 unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted.” Membership costs £1,600 a year. Inside, the building is divided into billiard rooms, reading rooms, private and communal dining rooms and a bar, where alcoholic beverages are served between 7 am and 1 am, but between 7 am and 10 am only in combination with food, according to the bylaws.

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