The British ClubBangkok

….. a short history

 

1903-1941

 

 

In the beginning…

The British in Bangkok were members of the United Club, a beautiful, palatial mansion which opened out onto the Chao Phraya River, located where modern day ‘River City’ now stands. Founded in 1886 it was just a short stroll from the British Legation, itself built in 1876, adjacent to the present Portuguese Embassy. History does not record what the ‘dispute’ was, that lead to a serious falling out amongst its members only that on 24th April 1903 senior members of the United Club, who were British businessmen and diplomatic civil servants, formed the most British of entities, a committee, to establish a ‘British Club’ in Bangkok, in the style enjoyed by their peers in the British Empire throughout Asia. 

Siam, as Thailand was then known, was a very different place to now and Bangkok was far, far smaller, consisting only of Rattanakosin Island (where the Grand Palace is located) and a sway of development lining both sides of the Chao Phraya river such that places well known today like the Victory Monument, Sukhumvit, Khlong Toey and Don Mueang were just distant rice fields, accessed only by narrow khlongs (canals). Khrung Thep (the abbreviation of the Thai name for Bangkok) had no bridges over the river; only two railway lines - one to Nakhon Ratchasima, and another to Paknam (Samut Prakan) both single track from a station close to present day Hua Lampong; two tram lines which ran from the Grand Palace to Thanon Tok near Bangkok Port and to Hua Lampong; very few actual roads; and no local banks! It did, however, boast two English language newspapers, the Bangkok Times and the Bangkok Daily Mail. The Siamese currency of the day was known in English as the ‘Tical’ and exchanged at the rate of 13 to £1 Sterling.

 

The first committee and clubhouse

The founding fathers, as it was solely a male preserve, were J.W. Edie and W.E. Adam (of the Borneo Company), the Honourable Robert Abercrombie Forbes-Sempill and H.G. Maud (of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation), Thomas Jones (of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China) and from the British diplomatic service … J.S. Black, R.W. Giblin,

W.A. Graham and W.J.F. Williamson. The Club was set up as a debenture membership and was restricted only to the directors and senior managers of those companies and the Legation, with other minions only allowed in as guests. 

By July of 1903, sufficient funds had been raised to open a ‘clubhouse’. A small wooden house was chosen which was located on Suriwongse Road in the Bangrak amphoe (district) on the ‘edge’ of the city. This road was connected to New Road (Chareon Krung) being the major thoroughfare from the city down to the old Bangkok Port at Bangkholaem. The building had the Danish owned Siam Electricity Company’s Bangkok Lawn Tennis Club on its east side and had a small Khlong (canal) running along it’s west side leading down to Khlong Silom, waterways still being the main mode of transportation in those days.

 

The new clubhouse & land

Membership of the Club grew steadily and by 1908 it stood at around 100. Those members felt the existing premises were too small, thus it was decided to construct a purpose-built clubhouse on what was then the front lawn and the new building, our current clubhouse, was opened in 1910. The old house was demolished and created what is our present front lawn. A picture of the first Clubhouse can be found in the Alcove private dining room.

In 1914 His Majesty King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) graciously donated the land on which the present clubhouse stands. During this decade, the Club continued to prosper and grow and in January 1919 the land area was doubled by the acquisition of the Bangkok Lawn Tennis Club that gave the Club seven tennis courts in front of the clubhouse lawn. This land area (8.75 Rai or 14,000m²) remains roughly the Club’s footprint to this day.

 

The years of growth

The Club’s growth over the next few decades was mirrored by Bangkok’s own growth as many new roads were built, khlongs were filled in, and the tramway was extended down the side of Khlong Silom outside the back gate of the Club. Khlong Toey was now a busy market area, as was Pratunam. Don Mueang became an airfield in 1926 and Bangkok officially became a Changwat (province).  Our land was also graced by the opening in 1922 of the Neilson-Hays Library a short distance from us along Suriwongse Road with whom we now share a common back gate. In 1926 the British Legation also took up new premises along Wireless Road.

The height of Club life was Saturday lunchtime, it being a half-day, when the directors of the various companies all took up their own seats in ‘The Bar’ and woe betide anyone who sat in their seats! A monthly Cinema Club was set up, but food was limited to sandwiches and biscuits, as the Club were still without kitchens. The British Club Bangkok was the social hub of British interests in Siam for nearly forty years.

 

 

The End of the Beginning

Early evening 8th December 1941, Sir Josiah Crosby, the British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Siam, addressed many of the 200+ British living in Bangkok, in the grounds of the Club to announce that the Japanese had invaded Malaya and that Japan had declared war on the British Empire. The next day the British Embassy was surrounded and the Club grounds commandeered by the Japanese Army. Most members were interned although it is recorded that 26 British citizens did escape captivity.

The British Club Bangkok was no more.

 

Keep reading!  Click here for History 1946 - 2003