The Club has a long history of intellectual debate and social engagement. It was founded in 1824 at the instigation of John Wilson Croker [pictured right], indefatigable Secretary of the Admiralty, as "a Club for literary and scientific men and followers of the fine arts".
From the very beginning its membership (all men in those days) brought together fellows of the learned societies of the day, politicians, clergy (from Archbishops to parish priests) and others, many of whom (whatever their own profession) were fascinated by the scientific and technological discoveries of their day and wished to see how this new knowledge could be used for the benefit and improvement of society.
The Club’s first Secretary was a young Michael Faraday, then researching electromagnetism and electrochemistry and soon to publish the 'Law of Induction' named after him. The first Club Chairman was Sir Humphry Davy, son of a Cornish woodcarver who had risen to become one of the leading lights of chemical research and is remembered today especially for his 'Davy lamp'.
John Wilson Croker, nevertheless, remained influential in the development of the Club for the rest of his life, balancing his interests in 'his' Club with his administrative and literary work, where his firm sense of structure in this case led him to compare the modern Romantic poets very unfavourably with the masters of form in 18th century verse.
The Club’s first Committee meeting took place on 16 February 1824 in the rooms of the Royal Society. The next nine meetings were held in the home of Joseph Jekyll at 22 New Street, Spring Gardens. In May 1824, the Club moved into rented premises at 12 Waterloo Place. Six years later, it opened its new Clubhouse just along Waterloo Place on Pall Mall.
At the first meeting of the Club, on 16 February 1824, the membership limit was set at 400. This was steadily increased and, by December 1824, was set at 1,000. But the cost of the magnificent premises had resulted in a deficit of some £20,000 and 200 supernumerary members were elected in 1830 to restore the finances. By 1838, the Club was again in straitened circumstances after undertaking expensive remedial action because of the damage caused by the gas lighting.
To alleviate the financial pressure, 160 supernumerary members were admitted to ordinary membership. An additional 40 candidates were brought forward from the waiting list for election by Committee. These 'forty thieves', as they became known, were selected from “Individuals known for their Scientific or Literary attainments, Artists of eminence in any class of the fine Arts, and Noblemen and Gentlemen distinguished as liberal Patrons of Science, Literature, or the Arts”. They included Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the time candidates waited to come up for election was increasing until some candidates had been waiting as long as 30 years. By the time of the First World War, the numbers waiting had significantly reduced. The present complement is 2,000 members.
For more information on the Club, see Professor Michael Wheeler’s The Athenaeum: more than just another London club (Yale, 2020) and Armchair Athenians: essays from The Athenaeum (2001), edited by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. For a facsimile of an early list of Club members and other details, see An alphabetical list of the members, with the rules and regulations, of the Athenæum (1826).