THE HISTORY OF THE SYLVAN DEBATING CLUB
By T. Livingstone Baily
Published by the Field Press (1930) Ltd., and printed by Hudson & Kearns, Ltd. MCMXXXI
THE HISTORY OF THE SYLVAN DEBATING CLUB
The Sylvan Debating Club or Society as originally named, is one which its present members have every reason to believe will exist for all times. Founded by a body of men who desired the opportunity of giving vent in speech to their opinions on every subject interesting to man, it fortunately held a spell over its early members which has been passed on to those who now control its affairs.
Debating clubs and local parliaments come and go, but the Sylvan Club, founded as it was in 1868, has stood the wear and stress of time and the Great War, and it now stands as strong as ever with a long history behind it and a membership of good numbers, all animated by what has come to be known as the true Sylvan spirit.
The looker-on might wonder what interest can be attached to a debating club of, as numbers go, comparatively few individuals, but the influence of the men who have learnt the way to express themselves aloud standing on their feet through their membership of the Sylvan Club, has caused the name of Club, by their experience and powers of public expression, to become known in every part of the world. The membership, commencing at a moderate six, at the end of the second year was fifty, and since has averaged well over a hundred, who have been speakers, not merely listeners. Members have found the Club so wonderfully sympathetic and helpful that in a few years a raw recruit, too nervous to say a dozen words but with the powers of expression lying dormant, blossoms into an orator. The spirit, therefore, has been carried on, and a few of the present members of nearly forty years membership, who had the good fortune to come into contact with some of the founders, consider that the Club is worthy of a short history, written by one of the oldest active members, before it is too late. The writer, filled with the dominant spirit of the Club – that is, of freedom of debate, feels that he can within a reasonable limit give a resume of the history, its beneficial happiness the names of the chief founders and main supporters, and its most brilliant members. It is hoped that such a history will attract fresh blood and at the same time help those who now control its destinies to keep alive the ideals of the founders.
The inception of the Club was discussed on top of one of the Green Atlas buses which ran from the City through Baker Street and the Abbey Road to the Princess of Wales Hotel in St. John’s Wood. A conversation took place between Mr. Alfred Harmsworth and one of the other Founders and resulted in the first Meeting being held at the aforementioned Hotel on January 6th, 1868. The following were present:
J. T. Lucas
T. Yeo and
W. E. Batt
Mr Harmsworth accepted the position of Secretary and Treasurer. The subscription was to be 5/-. At the second meeting on January 15th three more joined the first six, Tildeslty, [Henry J] Hunter and Frederick Wood. At this meeting, at Mr. Harmsworth’s request, Mr. Hunter took over the Secretaryship. At the third meeting four new members joined, including Mr. Robert Manuel, another life-long supporter of the Club and one of its most able debaters. Monday was decided upon for the day to meet. At the fourth meeting the subject was decided upon, and Mr. Washington E. Haycock joined, and was a member for the next fifty years.
On February 10th Mr. Arthur Lucas, who was one of the keenest members for nearly half a century, presided, and the attendance of visitors is mentioned. On February 20th the first Dinner took place, the company entertained by its own members with songs and recitations, not breaking up until midnight. On March 15th it was decided to elect members by ballot, and on March 30th Mr. Hunter Dod was appointed Assistant Secretary. Two notable members joined, Mr. W. M. Smellie and Mr. J. de Nops. The latter ultimately became Secretary and held the office for some years.
On May 11th, 1868, the members met at a Supper, sixteen attending, Mr. Yeo presiding and Mr. Harmsworth acting as Vice President.
There appears to be no definite record of the election of the first President, but in the minutes of this meeting Mr. T. Yeo’s name is given as President, though he did not preside at a Dinner held on December 14th of the same year, when Dr. J. Chester took the chair. On October 5th the first financial statement was made by Mr. Harmsworth and, there being a surplus, the 5/- subscription was continued.
On October 12th, 1868, Mr. Jealous, the Editor of the Hampstead and Highgate Express, a very close friend of the Secretary, Mr. Harmsworth, was elected an Honorary Member.
On November 9th it was resolved that candidates should be nominated a week before election.
About this time a monthly meeting was called for social intercourse only.
On September 23rd, 1869, Captain Sir T. Finlay, K.B., was elected President, but died after holding the office for one month.
Up to the end of 1869 the history of the Club has been given in somewhat minute detail, but to keep this short account within reasonable limits it will be necessary to travel faster.
On February 23rd, 1870, an important move was made, the home of the Club being moved to the Eyre Arms, Wellington Road (lately pulled down to make place for a large block of flats). At the same time Mr. Haycock became Secretary and Mr. Alfred Harmsworth was elected Vice-President, Mr. W. J. Smellie Treasurer and Secretary of the Council. This special office has not been renewed since.
On October 20th, 1870, Charles Greville Prideaux, Q.C., F.R.A.S., Recorder of Helston, was elected President, and held the Chair until 1892.
In 1871 the first rules were printed and the name of Mr. Augustin Prideaux, a son of Mr. Prideaux, the first President, appears as a visitor, and was a member of the Club for nearly sixty years. The reporting of the debates was also discussed.
In 1872 a theological debate was held, such subjects having since been banned. Mr. Charles Stoddart, a great debater, joined this year, also Mr. Augustine Birrell, afterwards Member of Parliament, Chief Secretary for Ireland and essayist. Another outstanding figure, regular attendant and keen debater who joined at that time was Mr. Stewart; Mr. Weekes and Mr. Seymour Lucas, R.A., also joined.
In 1874 Mr. Robert Manuel became Assistant Secretary.
In October, 1875, the Club moved to the Hotel at Lord’s Cricket Ground, and early in 1876 the first member of the Club to be elected a Member of Parliament, Mr. Maurice Brook, joined; Mr. Joseph Bennett the well-known war correspondent, was also elected a member.
During 1876-77 the attendance continued to be remarkably good, forty to fifty members and visitors attending every week. In fact so large was the regular attendance, that in February, 1878, a proposal was brought forward to limit the membership, but it was not carried, although it was decided that the nomination of candidates should be made two weeks before election. Mr. Russell Cole was elected at this time, acting as Treasurer for some years.
In 1880 there was a decrease in attendance. Mr. Daniel Grant was elected to Parliament, and in May of this year the name of Mr. Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) appears as a visitor.
In 1882 Mr. Granville Smith, who became one of the outstanding figures in the Club, first appears as a visitor. Mr. Granville Smith was a wonderful Sylvan. Though he had a thousand and one interests, was Member of the Westminster City Council and at one time mayor, he found time to attend most regularly, and was undoubtedly one of the finest exponents of spoken English of any who have yet been members. He was generous to his opponents and remarkably kind to young and inexperienced members. He showed the utmost keenness in the Club affairs to the last (1929), and when an actual invalid managed to come when his attendance was specially desired, particularly on those few occasions when a mild crisis appeared to be possible. He was one of the men who kept the Club alive during the Great War.
In 1882 Mr. Harold Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere) first attended as a visitor, soon afterwards becoming a very active member and Hon. Treasurer after his brother Lord Northcliffe, to be followed by the present Treasurer, Mr. Cecil Harmsworth.
In December, 1883, the first smoking concert was held, and early in 1884 a subject selection committee was elected and became for some years an important feature of the Club until up to just before the War, but in 1925 it was dissolved, which has been thought by many members to be a mistake.
In 1884 Sir Sherston Baker, Bart., who became President in 1892, following upon Mr. Prideaux’s death, attending first as a visitor. He filled the Chair until 1901. Sir Sherston was an admirable speaker, judicious, dignified, absolutely fair to everyone, and helpful to all newcomers and inexperienced speakers.
On December 21st, 1884, at the annual smoking concerts which had taken the place of the annual dinners, one hundred and forty-four members and visitors attended. About this time the present Hon. Treasurer, Mr Cecil Harmsworth, first attended as a visitor.
It has been assumed by many present members that the attendance of lady visitors was an innovation after the War, but in the spring of 1885 they were admitted, and at first quite a number favoured the Club with their presence. This innovation, however, was not a success and was abandoned after a few months’ trial. At the end of 1866 Mr. Waller Howard, who was Secretary for many years, was elected. He was a conscientious member and a most reliable Secretary. In May, 1888, Mr Haydock resigned after a membership and secretaryship of nearly twenty-one years. He later rejoined the Club, and was always one of its most brilliant members.
On the majority of the Club in 1889 eight members and eight visitors attended a banquet, a testimonial being made to Mr. Robert Manuel.
At the end of the same year Mr. Hildebrand Harmsworth joined the Club, and, just after, Mr. Robert Manuel was elected Vice-President on the death of the Founder, Mr. Alfred Harmsworth.
In 1890 the attendance had dropped badly, falling some evenings to six members. On May 2nd there was delay in the proceedings waiting for a quorum. Up to 1890, in the absence of the President, a Chairman was elected from the members, and at the end of this year it was resolved that the President had the office at his pleasure.
On October 3rd, 1892, Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) presented a loving cup as a memorial to his father. Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Prideaux were also presented to the Club.
Early in 1893 it was arranged that newspaper reporters should attend. In the same year the first issue of the present weekly cards took place, to become a well-known feature of the Club.
In 1895 the move took place to St. James’s Restaurant, Regent Street. During 1895-1896 the attendance was not good, and the Club was undoubtedly kept alive by the attendance of six Harmsworth and six Baily brothers – all members of the Club.
On May 28th, 1896, only fifteen members and one visitor attended the annual dinner. Such information shows that the Sylvan Club has been through difficult times and has sometimes been kept alive by the enthusiasm and loyalty of a few members. In January, 1897, Mr. Leicester Harmsworth (now Sir Leicester) and Mr. McArthur were elected joint Secretaries and Mr. Alfred Harmsworth Hon. Treasurer, which position he held until his death. A little later a portrait of the Founder (Mr. Alfred Harmsworth) (illustrated as the frontispiece) was presented to the Club. During 1897-1898 the attendances improved a little, and in 1899 an attendance book was instituted to save the Secretaries the work of keeping a record of the attendances in the minute book.
At the annual banquet in 1901 the Duke of Norfolk was the guest of the evening and made an impressive speech.
In 1902 a resolution was passed that the President should hold office for one year old. Mr. Washington Haycock was elected President, having rejoined the Club some years previously, being followed by Mr. Frederick Wood and during this year another Harmsworth, Mr Vyvyan, was elected.
In 1904 the Club had to leave the St. James’s Restaurant owing to the demolition of the premises, including the world-famed St. James’s Hall, and moved to Long’s Hotel, Bond Street, at the corner of Clifford Street, and later, for a few months, met at the Inns of Court Hotel.
In 1909 the Club moved to the Tavistock Hotel, where it stayed until the War.
Many of the older members and some of the more recent have very much wished that the Club could again return to the original setting of the manner of meeting, viz., a long table with the members seated round and, if the attendance was good, the later ones sitting behind. Tankards of beer and glasses of whisky during the evening perhaps helped the flow of oratory. When the Club had to vacate the Tavistock this custom lapsed. Efforts have been made to revive it, but the difficulty is that habits have changed and the Sylvan Club is not looked upon as a very paying proposition by any hotel proprietor. The room in the Tavistock was an ideal one, though the position of the Hotel in the centre of Covent Garden was not exactly salubrious. In a spacious, lofty room with a great table and the portraits of the founders and old supporters of the Club on the walls, debates took place, equal to those held at “Jimmys,” and no doubt comparable with those held in the early days in the sylvan retreat of St. John’s Wood. At all these Hostels a Club dinner was held before the meeting which no doubt helped the social side of the Club. The present meeting place in Southampton Row is excellent in many ways, but a return to the old style of surroundings deserves and receives from time to time the consideration of the Club.
In December, 1915, Mr Cecil Harmsworth invited the Club to meet at Dr. Johnson’s house, and this was its home until 1920. The upper floor of this fine old historical dwelling-house was ideal and the attendances, including those on the Ladies’ Nights, became so large that, on professional advice that the old building might collapse, the Club had to seek fresh premises.
In November, 1917, Mr. Washington Haycock died, and in the following year, on January 7th, 1918, the Jubilee of the Club, a Banquet was held at the Connaught Rooms, presided over by Major Barry O’Brien, on leave from Hospital, the guest of the evening being Lord Northcliffe, who addressed the members on the American Situation. The Secretaryship of the Club, which had been held for some years by Mr. Bertram Young, but who then joined His Majesty’s forces, was taken over by Mr. C. E. Williams. Mr. Young and Mr. Granville Smith had assisted largely in keeping the Club alive during the War years under great difficulties. On some occasions meetings during the War were confined to spirited discussions on the vital subjects of that trying period. Soon after the Armistice, in November, 1918, that indomitable fighter, Mr. Granville Smith, presided when it was decided to hold certain meetings up to January, 1919, and then to resume the ordinary meetings of the Club.
Amongst those who gave their lives in their Country’s service were Raymond Lytton and C. E. Hertslett. Lytton was a most regular attendant and capable speaker with a lovable personality. He left a number of Books to the Club.
Major Percy Burton was the President 1914-20, and directly after the War the Club became very much alive after starting at Johnson’s House on April 7th, 1919. Near the end of this year Mr. Robert Manuel died – one of the real Sylvans who absolutely revered the Club.
The Club showed great activity: the Press were invited to attend: a propaganda committee was appointed: keen interest was shown in Parliamentary Candidates of the Club and a History of the Club was suggested. In 1920 the election of lady members was again proposed, but the motion was defeated. It was decided, however, to invite them as visitors on a specially appointed Monday each month. At the first Ladies’ Night eight-five members and visitors attended.
On February 28th, 1921, Mr. Arthur Lucas, one of the founders, died. A very fine personality, a man of handsome and distinguished appearance, who attended the debates for fifty-four years.
On having to leave Johnson’s House in 1921 the Club met for a few evenings at the 1900 Club, St. James’s Street, and then moved to its present meeting place at 4, Southampton Row.
From the preceding pages one can, with a little imagination, realise that the Club has had its ups and downs, but except for very short periods it has shown plenty of vitality.
Perhaps it would be well to mention now the names of those who were instrumental in placing the Club on the sound foundation that has kept it alive for many years, ensuring its certain future. The most striking personality is Mr. Alfred Harmsworth, barrister-at-law, who was Secretary and Treasurer and then Vice-President but, curiously, never President; he was a witty and eloquent speaker and always devoted to the interests of the Club. He was supported by his sons who attended first in their teens, and who have ever since loyally supported the Club, though by reason of political and great business interests they have been prevented from attending as much as they have no doubt desired, and in consequence they have never become Presidents. Alfred, the eldest son, later Sir Alfred and then Lord Northcliffe, always took the greatest interest in the Club: he became Hon. Treasurer in 1897 and held this office until his death in 1923. Harold (Lord Rothermere) was a most keen attendant for many years, especially when the Club met at St. James’s Restaurant, and followed his brother as Hon. Treasurer. He gave £200 to the Club in 1924. The other sons who have been or are members, are the late Sir Hildebrand Harmsworth, Sir Leicester Harmsworth, Vyvyan Harmsworth and St. John Harmsworth. Cecil Harmsworth is now the Hon. Treasurer, and it is hoped that one of the grandsons of the founder may yet adorn the Chair.
The next is Mr. Arthur Lucas, a member for over fifty years, a clear thoughtful speaker. Mr. Frederick Wood, a fluent and trenchant debater was also a regular attendant for over half a century. He was famed in the Club for his remarkable powers of memory and for his wide knowledge of European history. Mr Robert Manuel, a stickler for the rules, Secretary for twenty years, and a member for over fifty. Then Mr. Washington Haycock, Secretary with Mr. Manuel, and a most assiduous member. Mr Prideaux, the third President, who held the position until his death, was followed by Sir Sherston Baker. Mr. Waller Howard was a man who loved the Club and gave man years of valuable time as Secretary. Mr. C. de Nops, a brilliant speaker, was elected in 1889 and later was Secretary for three years.
J. T. Herbert Baily, elected 1892, was extremely keen, and during a drop in the attendance in 1895/6 and a year or so later, with his five brothers, Clarke, Arnold, T. Livingstone (1895), Robin and Wilson, assisted the Harmsworth family in keeping the Club alive. On one occasion the writer recollects five Harmsworths and five Bailys attending out of twelve present. Mr. Herbert Baily, who was Secretary for some years, introduced a large number of members and took the deepest interest in the Club until his death in 1914. Judge T. E. Haydon was elected in 1894, one of the most finished speakers the Club has ever had, with a perfect command of English, and a delight to listen to. He is still, as far as his judicial duties permit, an active member.
Then we come to Mr. Granville Smith, 1895, previously referred to. Though a man with many other interests he loved the Sylvan Club, and up to a few months of his death regularly attended.
Mr. Gorst Clay, 1897, a barrister, brilliant speaker and ardent supporter, was killed on the Italian Alps, a severe loss to the Club and to all his friends. Mr. Earnshaw Wake, 1904 Treasurer and President, died, unfortunately for the Club, in 1926. Mr. Gillett was Secretary for many years from 1904.
Hundreds of men have joined the Club, many most brilliant, but a large number for a few years only. Many learn to speak and have taken up Parliamentary or municipal work. Space prevents the mentioning of all those one would like to, but the following names should be given.
Mr. Harwood Panting, journalist, member for thirty years and sometime President; Mr. Bannister Fletcher; Mr. Augustin Prideaux (son of Mr. Prideaux, third President); Captain Reinecker, 1895; Mr. M. McAnally, of the War Office and Air Force (Assistant Secretary); Mr. Kennedy Jones, M.P., journalist; Mr. E. L. Hartley, 1899, a most finished debater; Mr. J. Leman Hare, 1899, a most lovable man with uncommon views on many subjects; Mr. C. J. Higginson, 1902, another admirable speaker; Mr. F. J. Spranger, 1902, a strong Liberal and a fine debater; Mr. Bertram W. Young, 1903, Secretary and then President, a sound speaker, carrying conviction with all his speeches; Mr. Charles W. Hayward, 1902, a great Latin student and most reasoned speaker, whose death in 1929 was a great loss to the Club; Mr. Percy Burton, 1906, and later President just after the War; Mr. Barry O’Brien, 1909, President 1920-1921, a brilliant Irish member; Mr. E. P. Hewitt, K.C.; Dr. Philip Sylvan, 1909; Colonel Kerr; and Mr. Claud William Mullins. The latter during his few years of membership livened up many debates by his absolute fearlessness.
Then we have other active members of many years standing who have made their mark. Mr. Francis Deverell, Mr. A. H. Sidney Woolf, Mr. Archibald Hair, Dr. Fielding Ould, Dr. Martin, Mr. Bloomfield, Mr. Benjamin Grad (who with his knowledge of European affairs, both political and literary, has greatly assisted in the debates of the Club), Mr. E. E. Bluett, Mr. Herbert C. Holder, Captain Nicholas (Honorary Secretary for the last three-and-a-half years, who unfortunately has had to resign just as we have gone to press, by reason of moving to Wales), Mr. Aubrey Read (an indefatigable Assistant Secretary for the last nine years), and lastly, the writer of this history, who joined the Club in 1895. Not the oldest attendant member, but one of the most regular and one who has the greatest reverence and love for the Club. After thirty-five years’ experience his advice is that for real intellectual enjoyment, for the satisfaction of the mind, and to keep in touch with the world’s doings, political, social and literary, such a Club serves a most useful purpose, and if this short account of a fine old, yet still flourishing, society induces even a few of those who do not yet know the Club to take part in its evenings the writer will be more than satisfied.
|Sir Thos. Finlay, Bart., J.P.
|Charles Greville Prideaux, Q.C., F.R.A.S., Recorder of Bristol
|Sir Sherston Baker
|Washington Edmonds Haycock
|R. W. Granville Smith
|Judge T. E. Haydon
|J. Harwood Panting
|F. J. Spranger
|F. G. Price
|T. Livingstone Baily
|A. H. Sydney Woolf
|R. Fielding Ould, M.D.
|H. C. Holder
|Bertram W. Young
|George Martin, L1. D.
|E. E. Bluett
- In 1906, notwithstanding the rule passed in 1902 that no President should hold office for more than one year, in the absence of any other duly nominated candidate. Mr. Manuel declared himself duly elected for another year.
Here ends ‘The History of the Sylvan Debating Club,’ by T. Livingston Baily: Price Three shillings and sixpence. Printed by Hudson & Kearns, Ltd., for the Field Press (1930) Ltd. at The Field House, Bream’s Buildings, London, E.C.4. Finished in April, 1931.
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