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The 1900 Club and the Conservative Party: An Inside Look at the Secretive ‘Dining Club That Does More Than Dine’

A recently unearthed booklet on The 1900 Club sheds some light on the history of the organisation and its ties to the Conservative Party

Photo: Matthew Richardson/Alamy

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From the inception of White’s in the 1600s – considered to be the oldest gentleman’s clubs in London – the exclusive clubland circuit has for centuries acted as a refuge for the wealthy and powerful. 

From celebrities and royals looking to escape paparazzi, to politicians who’d prefer to conduct business outside of the Commons and away from the scrutiny of prying journalists, these venues have been instrumental in providing a refuge for the elite. 

Some within this network – such as the Carlton Club or the United and Cecil – have explicit political goals, and are a key part of the Conservative fundraising ecosystem, in which donors can buy access to politicians for the price of a membership fee or where young hopeful MPs can network with party bigwigs. 

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Many of these donating dining clubs – registered as ‘unincorporated associations’ – give exclusively to the Conservatives, and are often linked to individuals who oversee the internal fundraising efforts of the party’s campaigning machine. They give generously to marginal seats with the express intention of boosting party prospects in specific areas, in a relationship that dates back, in some instances, more than 100 years. 

One such entity, The 1900 Club, has emerged as a significant force over the past year, after a period of inactivity since 2017. It donated £77,000 to the Conservatives, £25,000 of which was given since 2023, divided amongst nine ‘battleground’ seats. 

While very little information on The 1900 Club exists, a recently unearthed booklet, seen by Byline Times, sheds some light on the history of this opaque organisation, its purpose, and its longstanding relationship with the Conservatives. 

The 1986 document was written by club deputy chair and member of 54 years, Ronald Warlow (who stood as a Conservative against Labour MP Henry White in the 1945 General Election in North East Derbyshire), in response to the as then ‘rising Tory generation’ lacking a clear understanding of the club’s purpose. It is an instructional brief history for up-and-coming young Conservatives.

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The document describes the club as a successor to previous members’ collectives born out of shared goals: the October Club, the Halsbury Club, and the Carlton. The 1900 Club is described cryptically by Warlow as the “dining club that does more than dine”.

The booklet details how, just before the close of the last session of Parliament in 1906, a group of Conservatives decided to meet and dine together periodically, among friends, with the condition that they were either sitting Conservative MPs or peers in the Parliament of 1900, or Conservative 1906 prospective parliamentary candidates.

The inaugural dinner was held at London’s Savoy Hotel on 25 June 1906. 

The pamphlet outlines early efforts to influence the outcome of elections in certain seats, explaining that “at the first two by-elections, Cockermouth and Bodmin, the Unionist candidate proved successful and the club’s assistance certainly played some part in these and latter successes”. It goes on to say the club “soon established itself as a political force of considerable influence”.

“From the beginning of its existence,” Warlow went on to state, “the club received much friendliness from the Committee of the Carlton Club”. The booklet describes dinners between the two memberships and how, at its lavish biennial get-togethers, 1900 Club members would mingle with important guests and ring up an exorbitant bill – one such bash cost £4,000 – in 1907 (according to Officialdata.org, that would be worth more than £616,000 today).

After a time, the overlap in members between The Carlton and The 1900 Club meant that monthly dinners started being held at The Carlton for the newer club’s membership. It was around this period that the club began establishing connections with the larger network of institutions through which easy routes to power were created.

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Warlow explained: “Sometime around 1908, the Club removed its premises to 5 Pickering Place (a quiet-cul-de-sac behind Lock’s in St James’s). We learn from the club records that it was about this time that the membership was extended to Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates, as well as Colonial Premiers. Thus Broadened, the Club became an extremely popular meeting place for Conservatives, both inside and outside Parliament.”

This was later expanded further, offering event invitations to ex-ministers and “other prominent Unionist politicians for discussions with Club members” – something which still goes on to this day. “All Tory MPs were eligible for membership”, the booklet notes. 

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The club has had prime ministers and senior politicians on its governing body – figures such as Arthur Balfour, Joseph Chamberlain, Walter Long, and more recently Margaret Thatcher (president of the club and Prime Minister at the time of the brochure’s writing). 

The 1900 Club is described as being “active” between the two World Wars, being addressed by ministers, prominent Conservatives, or other high-profile individuals, with the chairman customarily assuring the speaker that “what he said could be said in confidence which would not be breached outside the confines of the Club premises”.

The Club was used by Winston Churchill, who utilised its welcoming membership to “campaign with clarity and vigour against the National Government on the India Bill and appeasement”, and among the guests at its events, personalities have included Sir Archibald Boyd-Carpenter, Alan Lennox-Boyd, Guy Kindersley, Eric Long, and the Duchess of Atholl. 

In notes for a 1946 meet to discuss the advancement of the club, the leaflet details how dozens of members who stood for election went on to win, saying “at the General Election of February 1950, no less than 54 of its 318 members (of whom 38 were peers and so ineligible for the House of Commons) stood as Conservative candidates, and of these 44 were elected”. 

And it describes how, during the post-war Labour Governments, The 1900 Club began to attract young Conservative members. As early as 1976, a young Thatcher was guest of honour at its annual dinner. 

The document concludes by describing how The 1900 Club has a “new lease of life”, determined to fulfil its core objectives, helpfully laid out as:

  1. To afford a means of social and political intercourse between members of the Conservative Party.
  2. To hold meetings to ascertain the views of prominent politicians and to debate current political topics.
  3. To promote, and further generally, the interests of the Conservative Party.

“The Committee is preparing plans,” it states, “to become a more effective political force, for example in elections.”

The fine dining club circuit is a Conservative phenomenon, though most major parties receive various forms of funding from unincorporated associations.

Research by the Good Law Project reveals that, since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, £5.3 million has been donated from UAs, with the lion’s share going to the Conservatives. 

Unincorporated associations are entities that two or more people can establish, with a light-touch to regulation that allows details of the individual donors within them to remain anonymous, opening up the potential for UAs to act as vessels for impermissible donors.

While UAs can be permissible donors, those that give money to them do not need to be. And while political parties must declare donations to the Electoral Commission, UAs do not need to register with the Commission to declare a donation at all – unless they donate £37,500 in a single payment or across a calendar year. 

Rose Whiffen, senior research officer at Transparency International, told Byline Times: “Unincorporated associations, particularly those that are also dining clubs, are shrouded in secrecy. There are scant details about who funds them and we know some offer donors the opportunity to meet senior politicians behind closed doors. The continuing secrecy around these donor clubs highlights the urgent need for substantive political finance reform.”

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The 1900 Club still meets with senior politicians, and hosts annual lectures for different groups within the Conservative camp, and is linked to the Tufton Street collection of think tanks.

At an event in 2017, Conservative Robert Halfon, then chair of the Education Select Committee, gave a speech to the membership on “The Future of Conservatism”, which was hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies. 

The club chair is Conservative peer and former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Baron Howard Flight, who sat on the advisory board of the Centre for Policy Studies, as well as the Institute for Economic Affairs, until 17 April this year. The registered address of the club, 6 Barton Street, London, is owned by Flight and his wife, Lady Christabel. 

Halfon told the club: “I am here, not just because of my long friendship with Howard Flight – he is even a patron of Harlow Conservatives, but because I feel I am amongst friends.”

Baron Howard Flight did not respond to a request for comment.


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