By this wine we commemorate the Whitefriars of old; fortified with spirit, the spirit of admiration for their services to charity and good learning, and sweetened by sympathy for those who, broken by fortune, dwell in Alsatia. It is left for me, as Prior of the Day, to add the cordial: a cordial welcome to the guests of the Brotherhood assembled at our board. Gentlemen and ladies, I bid a hearty welcome to you all, and invite you to join with the brothers of a gracious Order in drinking to the prosperity of The Whitefriars Club.
Towards the end of 1867, a dozen or so journalists who had been dining and discoursing regularly at Spiers and Pond’s Ludgate Hill Station restaurant, decided that they were in essence, an exclusive dining club. The realisation brought with it a desire for exclusivity, for a room apart, where food, drink and conversation could be enjoyed in privacy. This led to the inaugural dinner being held at Radley's Hotel in New Bridge Street, on 21st February, 1868.
The name of the Club comes from the ancient ecclesiastical precinct of the Whitefriars, contained within an area bounded by Fleet Street, New Bridge Street, and the Temple and, on the southern side, the Thames. It was once occupied by the Carmelite monks. The area was sometimes known as Alsatia, after Alsace, the ‘debatable land’ between Germany and France. This soon led to the members calling each other 'Friar', which is still today the correct manner of address.
Towards the end of 1871 the Club moved its regular meetings to the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street and, in 1873, elected the larger-than-life character, Crawford Wilson, as its first president. He was ousted after six years due to a revolt against his autocratic style of management, but not before the members passed a unanimous resolution that in the history of the Club, Crawford should be acknowledged as the founder.
There also began to emerge at this time a flavour of ritual, formal toasts in honour of literature, of art and of music, of science and all invoking the prosperity of the Club from which has evolved the club toast, which is still proposed at every dinner by the ‘Prior of the Day’.
Over the years, this nomadic Club has had many ‘homes’, including: Anderton’s Hotel, The Cock Tavern, the Savile Club, the Arts Club, the Athenaeum, and the Royal Overseas League. During the period just before the Second World War, both lunches and dinners were being held in the famous ‘dictionary garret’ of Dr. Johnson’s house in Gough Square. In 1968, the Club celebrated its centenary at the Waldorf Hotel, where precisely one hundred members and guests sat down to dine. From Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty the Queen graciously sent a letter of congratulations.
The Whitefriars Club has evolved from being just members of the fourth estate, and now includes many eminent lawyers, politicians, and publishers, as well as people in the theatre, films and the armed services. Ladies are welcome as members, but still called 'Friars'!.
The success of the Club has been due to the enthusiasm of the Friars and the simplicity of the rules, being basically to enjoy good food and wine in congenial company with a high standard of speakers, who speak for the honour and never for money, safe that what they say will remain confidential under the Chatham House Rule.