The Militant Wing of the Garrick Club

The Garrick is today known for its actors and lawyers, but what of its military members?
The Garrick Club in 1864.
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There is an oft told story of an elderly Garrick member surveying the Club’s notice board. On spotting the summer reciprocal hospitality list he saw that the Guards Club had joined the usual list of clubs whose members the Garrick welcomed over the holidays. “Oh, dear! Oh, dear!” the elderly member murmured, “All those brutal faces….”

From the very existence of this story, one might conclude that the Garrick Club is not the natural home of the military. Indeed, there is a distinct absence in the bar and the Coffee Room of those highly polished toe caps, which still denote the military man, and there are just eight military titles in the 2011 List of Members.

But the membership of the Club was not always military-light. Indeed, at its earliest meeting, held in the Drury Lane Theatre on 17th August 1831, Major General Sir Francis Barnard, a Waterloo veteran, planned its foundation with Samuel Arnold, Samuel Beazley and Francis Mills.

The 7th Earl Cardigan

The list of past military members is, in fact, so long that there is space here to mention only some of the most interesting ones who include Henry Paget, aka Field Marshall the Marquess of Anglesey, who was the cavalry commander at Waterloo and famously lost his leg towards the end of the battle. Anglesey was a founder member but resigned in 1833. Somewhat surprisingly, Major General the Earl of Cardigan (of Charge of the Light Brigade fame), who was a notorious snob and womaniser, was also a founder member and probably a rather uncongenial one at that. Another Paget, this time from the seafaring branch of the family, was Admiral the Lord Alcester, who joined in 1848 and, by reason of his acute dress sense, was wittily known as the “Ocean Swell”.

Some of the early military members had connections with the arts. Lieutenant General Sir Edward Hamley was a friend of Thackeray and was said to have a hatred of bores and music at dinner. Major General Charles Brackenbury was both a soldier and a journalist, reporting the Austro-Prussian War for The Times. Captain Frederick Marryat RN, when not pacing the quarterdeck, wrote a three-volume novel that was such a success he resigned from the service and devoted the rest of his life to producing a stream of Victorian romances. And Rear Admiral the Lord Adolphus FitzClarence, one of the handsome but penniless bastard sons of King William IV and his mistress, the actress Mrs Dorothea Jordan, combined a love of the theatre with his duties as Commander of the Royal Yacht. However, despite being a founder member of the Club, he was removed from the membership in 1834 for non-payment of his subscription.

Amongst the Garrick’s cohort of “brass hats” there were officers of lesser rank. The unfortunate Captain Brabazon was elected a member in early 1860 and, within the year, joined Lord Elgin’s embassy to the Manchu Emperor, was captured by Imperial forces and quite literally lost his head at Pah-li-chao Bridge in revenge for the wounding by Allied fire of the Mandarin in command of the position. As far as I know, he is the only Garrick member to have been executed.

In more recent times, following the formation of the RAF in 1918, the Club’s records show a large flight of airmen, including Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, the actor Leslie Howard and the shortest lived member of the Club, Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary, the badly burned Battle of Britain fighter pilot and noted author, who was elected on the morning of 7th January 1943 and died on a training flight less than 24 hours later.

Sacrifice and gallantry are not in short supply either, as the memorials to the fallen of both World Wars testify in the porch. Past Garrick members account for no less than 6 VCs, including two awards of Britain’s highest decoration for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny, two in the Crimean War, one in World War One and the most recent in World War Two, a record that even the military clubs would find it hard to match.

More contemporary members include the late Lieutenant Colonel Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell, who was a consummate television performer with his campaign to “Save the Argylls” and my seconder in 1976. Colin could hardly have been described as a “brutal face” with his cheery manner and complete lack of pompousness and it would also be hard to apply a brutal soubriquet to my seconder in 2011, Lieutenant Colonel Giles Stibbe, recently returned from commanding the Kabul garrison but who is, at first sight, more like a don than a soldier.

If any of this comes as a surprise, perhaps it should not. For many soldiers have also been great “actors”. One only has to think of 20th Century war leaders from Churchill, who started life as a 4th Hussar and remained a soldier at heart all his life, to Montgomery, Alexander and the highly theatrical  Brian Horrocks – to say nothing of the greatest actor of them all, Dicky Mountbatten – to realise that many of our military leaders might have had equally impressive careers treading the boards.

In my own case, I retired from The Life Guards shortly before joining the Club in 1976 and, in a neat piece of symmetry, just before rejoining the Club I was appointed in 2010 by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity to re-invent, write and direct the Royal Tournament which, in its new existence as the British Military Tournament, is our Armed Forces biggest “military theatre” event.

So it seems that the Club’s motto might, saving Mr Shakespeare’s shade, be aptly rephrased as “All the world’s a stage – and there are lots of servicemen on it.”

Christopher Joll is the author of Spoils of War: The Treasures, Trophies and Trivia of the British Empire.