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Female lingerie tycoon, 39, launches legal fight to force Garrick Club to admit women

A female lingerie tycoon is taking legal action against the Garrick Club in a bid to get women admitted as members for the first time in its 189-year history.

Emily Bendell, 39, wants to join the iconic private member’s club in London – one of the oldest of its kind in the world – but cannot due to its ‘men only’ rule.

The businesswoman has now instructed lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick from ‘continuing to operate its discriminatory’ and ‘unlawful’ policy.

She argues that the Club treats women as ‘second-class citizens on the whim of a man’ and its rules violate the Equality Act 2010.

The 1,400 member club, which was founded in 1831 and whose past members have included Charles Dickens, HG Wells and JM Barrie, still stipulates in its rules that no women are allowed to join the prestigious society.

It is regarded as one of the last men-only bastions in the UK, although female guests are welcome as visitors in most parts of the Club.

Emily Bendell, 39, wants to join the Garrick Club in London but cannot due to its 'men only' rule

Emily Bendell, 39, wants to join the Garrick Club in London but cannot due to its ‘men only’ rule

The businesswoman has now instructed lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick Club (pictured) from 'continuing to operate its discriminatory' and 'unlawful' policy

The businesswoman has now instructed lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick Club (pictured) from ‘continuing to operate its discriminatory’ and ‘unlawful’ policy

In 2015, half its members voted in favour of allowing female members at its AGM – but it was still far short of the two-thirds majority needed for a rule change.

Now Ms Bendell, chief executive of lingerie brand Bluebella.com, has gone to solicitors Leigh Day and discrimination and equality barrister Jennifer Danvers, of Cloisters Chambers, to force the Club to overturn its ban on women members.

Her Letter Before Action states: ‘Ms Bendell is the Founder and CEO of Bluebella, a highly successful lingerie company. She is also a supporter and lover of the arts.

‘In light of her successful career and affinity with the arts she wishes to become a member of the Garrick Club. The Garrick Club is a private members club which provides services to its members and guests of its members.

Is the Garrick Club allowed to ban women from its membership? 

Ms Bendell argues that the Garrick Club’s men-only membership is ‘discriminatory’ and breaches the Equality Act 2010, and is seeking an injunction to prevent such behaviour.

Section 29 of the Act prohibits service providers, and persons exercising public functions, from doing anything that constitutes discrimination, harassment or victimisation. 

Though it is illegal for service-providers to discriminate against men or women depending on their sex, private members’ clubs are allowed to discriminate against male or female members based on their sex. 

Discrimination can be permitted in circumstances where the discriminatory conduct can be shown to be a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’. For example, single sex clubs and associations, and clubs and associations aimed solely at people with other protected characteristics (other than clubs and associations who restrict membership based on colour) are permitted. However, clubs and associations with mixed membership must treat all members and guests (and potential ones) fairly. 

Private members’ clubs cannot discriminate against their employees based on their gender. 

‘In order to become a member, an individual has to be proposed by two members and further supported by at least fifteen members before being put forward for ballot.

‘Only men are able to become members of the Garrick Club and make full use of the services that it provides. The Garrick Club advertises on its website that it is ‘open to gentleman members only’.

‘Male members are allowed to bring female guests into the club, but women are not able to pay for themselves when they attend, become members themselves, book the facilities that men can book, access certain parts of the club at all, or access exclusive member events.

‘In essence, women are only able to access the Club’s services as second-class citizens on the whim of a man who has to both invite and pay for them.’

The letter points out that in barring female members, the Garrick is acting in breach of the Equality Act 2010, adding: ‘The Garrick Club is concerned with the provision of services to a section of the public, including: the provision of overnight accommodation; the provision of private and other dining facilities; the provision of bars; and, access to a lounge and computer room.

‘Accordingly, the Garrick Club is bound, under s.29 Equality Act 2010, not to discriminate against a person requiring or seeking to use its services by not providing that person with the service or in relation to the terms on which that service is offered.’

The letter goes on to point out that the Garrick’s current gender policy is an act of direct discrimination towards women.

It states: ‘By (a) stating that use of the Garrick Club is restricted to ‘gentlemen members only’, (b) only allowing men to become members and use all of the services it offers, and, (c) treating women who attend the club differently to men (for example, by not allowing them to pay for themselves), the Garrick Club treats women less favourably than it treats men.

‘By advertising that it is for ‘gentlemen only’ and only allowing men to become members, the Club has treated Ms Bendell, who wishes to become a member of the club and to be able to access and use its services, less favourably than it has treated or would treat a man who wished to do the same.

‘Ms Bendell will be seeking a declaration that the Garrick Club is acting unlawfully under the Equality Act 2010 and an injunction preventing the Garrick Club from continuing to operate its discriminatory policy.’

The businesswoman has now instructed lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick from 'continuing to operate its discriminatory' and 'unlawful' policy

The businesswoman has now instructed lawyers to seek an injunction preventing the Garrick from ‘continuing to operate its discriminatory’ and ‘unlawful’ policy

The Garrick Club's divisive ban on female members is an issue that has previously split the club's high-profile membership. In 2015 current members including actors Damian Lewis, Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Fry said they were in favour of women

The Garrick Club’s divisive ban on female members is an issue that has previously split the club’s high-profile membership. In 2015 current members including actors Damian Lewis, Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Fry said they were in favour of women

Ms Bendell wants the Garrick Club to give a full response within the next 28 days that it intends to change its policy.

The Garrick Club’s divisive ban on female members is an issue that has previously split the club’s high-profile membership.

In 2015 current members including actors Damian Lewis, Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Fry said they were in favour of women. They were joined in this endeavour by Michael Gove, Ken Clarke, Trevor McDonald, Melvyn Bragg and Jeremy Paxman.

But those in favour of admitting women failed to get the required 66 per cent of votes. Three former Conservative MPs and 11 QCs were among those who said they would vote to continue to exclude women members.

At the time Supreme Court Judge Baroness Hale protested about the Club’s continued exclusion of women saying: ‘I regard it as quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about,’ arguing that judges ‘should be committed to the principle of equality for all.’

The Club said at the time it would revisit the vote again in five years, but no such vote has been proposed so far in 2020. 

Its original selection criterion decreed that ‘it would be better that ten objectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted.’

The Garrick is one of just a handful of clubs that still refuse to admit female members. The others include White’s, Boodle’s and Pratt’s.

The Club has declined to comment. 

A history of the Garrick Club, one of the oldest gentlemen’s club in the world, and its past members – from AA Milne and Charles Dickens to Michael Gove and Jeremy Paxman

The Garrick Club is one of the oldest gentlemen's clubs in the world. Founded in 1831, its past members include Charles Dickens, HG Wells, JM Barrie, AA Milne, Kingsley Amis, Charles Charles Kean, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Laurence Olivier

The Garrick Club is one of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs in the world. Founded in 1831, its past members include Charles Dickens, HG Wells, JM Barrie, AA Milne, Kingsley Amis, Charles Charles Kean, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Laurence Olivier

The Club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick (pictured), whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama

The Club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick (pictured), whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama

The Garrick Club is one of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs in the world. 

Founded in 1831, its past members include Charles Dickens, HG Wells, JM Barrie, AA Milne, Kingsley Amis, Charles Charles Kean, Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Arthur Sullivan, and Laurence Olivier.

The Club was founded at a meeting in the Committee Room at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Present were strolling player James Winston, playwright Samuel James Arnold, hero of the Napoleonic Wars General Sir Andrew Barnard and timber merchant Francis Mills. It was decided to write down a number of names in order to invite them to be original members of the Garrick Club.

The avowed purpose of the Club was to ‘tend to the regeneration of the Drama’. It was to be a place where ‘actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms’ at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society.

The avowed purpose of the Club was to 'tend to the regeneration of the Drama'. It was to be a place where 'actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms' at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The avowed purpose of the Club was to ‘tend to the regeneration of the Drama’. It was to be a place where ‘actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms’ at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The Club was named in honour of the actor David Garrick, whose acting and management at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the previous century, had by the 1830s come to represent a golden age of British drama.

Less than six months later the members had been recruited and a Club House found and equipped on King Street in Covent Garden. In 1832 it was reported that the novelist and journalist Thomas Gaspey was the first member to enter at 11am, and that ‘Mr Beazley gave the first order, (a mutton chop) at ½ past 12.’

The list of those who took up original membership runs like a Who’s Who of the Green Room for 1832: actors such as John Braham, Charles Kemble, William Macready, Charles Mathews and his son Charles James; the playwrights James Planché, Theodore Hook and Thomas Talfourd; scene-painters including Clarkson Frederick Stanfield and Thomas Grieve.

Even the patron, the Duke of Sussex, had an element of the theatrical about him, being a well-known mesmerist. To this can be added numerous Barons, Counts, Dukes, Earls and Lords, soldiers, parliamentarians and judges.

Edmund Yates, a friend of Dickens, published remarks on William Makepeace Thackeray that were offensive and could only have been heard in the Club. Yates was peevishly championed by Dickens and the disaffection between him and Thackeray lasted until just before the latter’s death. 

The Club’s popularity at the beginning of the 1860s created an overcrowding of its original clubhouse. Slum clearance being undertaken just round the corner provided the opportunity to move into a brand-new purpose-built home on what became known as Garrick Street. The move was completed in 1864 and the Club remains in this building today.

All new candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot, the original assurance of the committee being ‘that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted’. This exclusive nature of the club was highlighted when reporter Jeremy Paxman applied to join but was initially blackballed, though he was later admitted, an experience he shares with Henry Irving who despite being the first actor to receive a knighthood had himself been blackballed in 1873.

As of 2016, the club has around 1,400 members (with a seven-year waiting list) including many actors and men of letters in the UK. New candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot

As of 2016, the club has around 1,400 members (with a seven-year waiting list) including many actors and men of letters in the UK. New candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot

The avowed purpose of the Club was to 'tend to the regeneration of the Drama'. It was to be a place where 'actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms' at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The avowed purpose of the Club was to ‘tend to the regeneration of the Drama’. It was to be a place where ‘actors and men of refinement could meet on equal terms’ at a time when actors were not generally considered to be respectable members of society

The Club remains ‘for gentlemen only’ – restricted to male members – although women guests are welcome as visitors in most parts of the Club. 

Several past attempts to open the club to women members have failed to attain the necessary two-thirds majority, though the most recent poll, in mid-2015, did garner a majority vote of 50.5 per cent.

Baroness Hale, when President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, protested about the club’s continued exclusion of women and the acquiescence of its members in that policy. 

She said: ‘I regard it as quite shocking that so many of my colleagues belong to the Garrick, but they don’t see what all the fuss is about,’ arguing that judges ‘should be committed to the principle of equality for all.’

In reaction to the latest vote, Dinah Rose QC, a leading barrister specializing in human rights and public law, urged leading legal professionals including members of the Supreme Court, to ‘reconsider’ their membership in the club.

The Club holds a remarkable collection of art works representing the history of the British theatre. There are over 1000 paintings, drawings and sculptures, a selection of theatrical memorabilia, and thousands of prints and photographs.

The collection originated with the actor Charles Mathews; they were once displayed by him in a gallery at his home, Ivy Cottage, in Highgate, north London. Mathews managed to secure a large number of pictures from the collection of Thomas Harris, who had been manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and which included paintings by the likes of Johann Zoffany, Francis Hayman and Gainsborough Dupont. He also actively commissioned artists such as Samuel De Wilde to paint all the popular stars of the stage at that time (there are 196 works by De Wilde in the collection).

In 1956 the rights to AA Milne's Pooh books were left to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club

In 1956 the rights to AA Milne’s Pooh books were left to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club

Mathews had hoped to sell the collection to the Club and it appears that lengthy negotiations were entered into without any result. It was eventually purchased by a wealthy stockbroker and donated to the Club, having already hung on its walls for several years.

The collection continued to grow with many being presented by artist members, such as Clarkson Frederick Stanfield and David Roberts, who with fellow scene painter Louis Haghe painted a series of large canvases especially for the Smoking Room at the old Clubhouse. Roberts’ Temple at Baalbec remains today one of the most important paintings by that artist. Sir John Everett Millais is represented by one of his most important portraits, that of Henry Irving which he painted and presented to the Club in 1884.

The picture collection continued to expand throughout the twentieth century with artists such as Edward Seago and Feliks Topolski both represented.

In 1956 the rights to AA Milne’s Pooh books were left to four beneficiaries: his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club.

As of 2016, the club has around 1,400 members (with a seven-year waiting list) including many actors and men of letters in the UK. New candidates must be proposed by an existing member before election in a secret ballot.

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