“The National Liberal Club (NLC) is a London private members’ club, open to both men and women. It was established by William Ewart Gladstone in 1882 to provide club facilities for Liberal Party campaigners among the newly enlarged electorate following the Third Reform Act in 1884, and was envisioned as a more accessible version of a traditional London club.
The club’s Italianate building on the Embankment of the river Thames is the second-largest club-house built in London. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, it was completed in 1887. Its facilities include a dining room, a bar, function rooms, a billiards room, a smoking room, a library and an outdoor riverside terrace. It is located at Whitehall Place, close to the Houses of Parliament, the Thames Embankment and Trafalgar Square.
The club’s calendar includes an Annual Whitebait Supper, where members depart by river from Embankment Pier, downstream to The Trafalgar, the Greenwich tavern which Gladstone used to take his cabinet ministers to by boat; as well as the Political and Economic Circle, which was founded by Gladstone in the 1890s.
Designed by leading Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse using the Renaissance Revival architecture style, the clubhouse was constructed at a cost of some £165,950; a substantial sum in 1884, worth a little over £15 million in 2014. An earlier design by architect John Carr was rejected by members.
The NLC was described by Munsey’s Magazine in 1902 as possessing, “The most imposing clubhouse in the British metropolis”, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest clubhouse ever built; only the subsequent Royal Automobile Club building from 1910 was larger. The NLC’s building once hosted its own branch of the Post Office, something which the Royal Automobile Club still does. Waterhouse’s design blended French, Gothic and Italianate elements, with heavy use of Victorian Leeds Burmantofts Pottery tilework manufactured by Wilcox and Co. The clubhouse is built around load-bearing steelwork concealed throughout the structure, including steel columns inside the tiled pillars found throughout the club. (It was this resilient structure which enabled the building to survive a direct hit in the Blitz.) Waterhouse’s work extended to designing the club’s furnishings, down to the Dining Room chairs.
It was the first London building to incorporate a lift, and the first to be entirely lit throughout by electric lighting. To provide its electricity, the Whitehall Supply Co. Ltd. was incorporated in 1887, being based underneath the club’s raised terrace. By the time the supply opened in 1888, it had been bought by the expanding Metropolitan Electricity Supply Co. NLC members were so enamoured with the modern wonder of electric lighting that the original chandeliers featured bare light bulbs, whose distinctive hue was much prized at the time.
The club’s wine cellar was converted from a trench dug in 1865, intended to be the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway, stretching from Scotland Yard to Waterloo station, which planned to carry freight that would have been powered by air pressure; digging was abandoned in 1868, and when the company wound up in 1882, the National Liberal Club adapted the tunnel to its present use.
Over the years, numerous Liberal and Liberal Democrat MPs have lived at the club, including David Lloyd George in the 1890s, Cyril Smith in the 1970s and Menzies Campbell in the late 1980s.
The club has had a number of members who were notable authors, including Rupert Brooke, G. K. Chesterton, Jerome K. Jerome, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Dylan Thomas, H. G. Wells and Leonard Woolf; several of whom featured the club in some of their works of literature…”