In 1883 Miss Gertrude Jackson of Girton College, Cambridge, called a meeting of friends and colleagues to discuss the idea of forming a club for university women in London. By 1886 over 200 women had shown interest and the University Club for Ladies, as it was then called, found rooms in New Bond Street and formally declared itself open.
For the next thirty-five years the Club was obliged to move several times, as it gained more members and outgrew its premises. At Maddox Street, gentlemen guests were ‘rigorously excluded’ – not, it was hurriedly explained, ‘through any hatred of the sex but simply through want of space’.
At George Street the Club was able to offer bedrooms to members for the first time, and a smoking room was provided. Much of the Committee’s time was spent on the selection of food and wine and it seems the Club whisky went down particularly well. It sold for threepence an inch and one of the Secretary’s duties was to mark out the bottles carefully.
The Club finally found its permanent home in 1921, when the members bought the freehold of 2 Audley Square from the Russell family for £22,500. The change from rented accommodation to ownership of a prestigious property was a watershed for the Club, marking the increased status of women brought about by the Great War.
The handsome red brick and sandstone house that is 2 Audley Square was designed by TH Wyatt for Lord Arthur Russell, who in 1876 remodelled much of the earlier Georgian house belonging to his mother. Many of the earlier Georgian features still remain in the interior. It had already been a meeting place for distinguished women before the Club took it over. Lord Arthur Russell’s wife was a society hostess whose guests included the explorer Gertrude Bell, Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf.
According to a letter in the Spectator following Lady Arthur Russell’s death in 1910, the salon she kept at 2 Audley Square became ‘the focus for some of the best talk and pleasantest evenings that the London world had to offer’ – and the University Women’s Club has ensured that that reputation has continued to this day.
One of the attractive features of the Club throughout its history has been the diversity of its membership and the great range of occupations it represents. In spite of its name, it has never been a club to insist on formal academic requirements. Today its aim remains to provide a welcoming environment and some of the best conversation and company for graduate, professional and business women of all ages.