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Paul Sparkes: ‘An all-male sanctum’

No. 187-189 Water Street, St. John’s (shown as it is today) was formally recognized in 1989 as a Municipal Heritage Building for both historical reasons, site of the City Club, for one, and for aesthetic reasons. It was built immediately after the fire of 1892. The Club occupied the two upper floors.
No. 187-189 Water Street, St. John’s (shown as it is today) was formally recognized in 1989 as a Municipal Heritage Building for both historical reasons, site of the City Club, for one, and for aesthetic reasons. It was built immediately after the fire of 1892. The Club occupied the two upper floors. - Submitted

“The game of Pool shall take precedence of Billiards and Pyramids ... a person damaging the cloth shall pay a fine of Five Dollars ... the Steward shall have the custody of the plate, cutlery, china and all property of the club ... all spirits may be sold only by the glass ... and all spirits shall be consumed upon the premises” ...

Just a few rules, randomly selected from the constitution and rules book of the City Club, a refuge for the city’s well-heeled and well-behaved, or, as Paul O’Neill termed it in his “The Oldest City”, 2003, “an all-male sanctum.”

O’Neill goes on to relate that in selecting a member, the club employed the blackball test (actually a bean) which when slipped into the pot “by some anonymous enemy who was a member, was enough to cause a rejection.” I don’t think O’Neill is quite right in saying “some anonymous enemy.” A member might well have known just cause for an applicant to be refused. They would not necessarily have been enemies. 

The little constitution and rules book of the City Club, St. John’s. Inside? Presidents and other dignitaries, members, and plenty of ‘Thou shalt nots’. The Club Steward had charge of the chinaware.
The little constitution and rules book of the City Club, St. John’s. Inside? Presidents and other dignitaries, members, and plenty of ‘Thou shalt nots’. The Club Steward had charge of the chinaware.

The City Club lasted for the better part of a century, as it was formed in 1883 and phased-out in 1972. Although the rules I am reading are from a 1955 version of the club’s handbook they do sound rather like mid-Victorian high society. Well, actually, you might say they are a mix of restriction and freedom. For the freedom part, consider this: “The Bar shall be open for the sale of spirits, beer and wine from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.” And there was a dignified handling of what might surely have been a ready source of trouble, especially in the club’s earliest days, “Religious questions of every kind shall be absolutely excluded from open discussion in the Club.” And, what must have been especially difficult to enforce (again, particularly in the earlier years) “the Club shall be non-political.”

Peer acceptance

The City Club’s raison d’etre could not have been more simply stated, or perhaps it could not have been elaborated upon either! “Foundation: This club is founded for the purpose of affording to its Members all the advantages of a High-class Club.” It was, of course, a refuge from the turmoil of business. And you do not have to read much Newfoundland history to get a picture of commercial turmoil here; think about the Great Fire of 1892, the Bank Crash of 1894, the sealing disasters of 1914 ... the coming of the Depression in the late 1920s. A dignified, welcoming place where you were unassailable, with a bar, dining services, games tables and even a small library (from which you could not borrow more than one book at a time or the Steward would be on your case) — this was The City Club. While the word “crash” would not have been welcomed in the old days, today we might view The City Club as “a place to crash.”
Beyond that, the club did not actually do much. I have never heard of any great philanthropic initiative on its part. Belonging to it must have been reason enough to join! It gave a member the stamp of peer approval. Yes, prospective members and guests were scrutinized, but it could be argued that this was not so much invasive and judgmental as it was assurance for existing members that the sanctity of their cathedral would not be compromised.

Member list Who’s Who

You tend to get the impression that anyone NOT applying for membership in the good old days did not think much of his standing in St. John’s. Conversely, one cannot help wondering about any who applied and were not accepted. That would have been an unkindly cut.

Paul O’Neill says that with the emergence of service clubs after the period of the Second World War, membership at The City Club began its decline: “Even abolition of the blackball system didn’t help and by the late 1960s the handwriting was on the wall.” Service clubs, of course, provided a chance for altruism and general networking was good for business. I don’t know what the membership numbers were like in other years, but in 1955 there were 256.

The “all-male” designation would not have stood the test of time. But even as it was for men only, for most of its career there would have been precious few women in business here. The City Club did, however, hold “Ladies’ Nights” and on such occasions the kitchen remained in service longer than usual – up to 8:30 p.m.

In 1955, Club President was Edward E. Knight; James MacNab was first vice-president; Claude Hall, second vice; R.C. Knight, secretary-treasurer while the board consisted of C.R. Bell, David Baird, J.C. Baird, T.A. Hickman, K.D. Landrigan, R.A. Murphy, F.G. Thistle and G. Scammell.

A quick glance at more of the rules, or parts thereof, will help build for you a more complete picture of our City Club. “Privileged members” would include “any stranger of distinguished rank or position who might be temporarily resident in, or visiting St. John’s ... if a member wanted to introduce a friend as a visitor to the club, he would have to write for permission to do so; but as well, visitors residing within St. John’s may be introduced on a daily basis without the foregoing provision with several provisos, including “no member shall be permitted to introduce to the club the same individual (resident of St. John’s) as a guest more than six times in any one year.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  paul.sparkes@thetelegram.com.

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