The British Club history and interesting facts. And then some more.
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 ‘River City’ shopping centre 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 led 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 the world.
Siam as was
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 (nowadays called 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, (where, today, Mahaset Road crosses it) 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. A picture of the first Clubhouse can be found in The Alcove private dining room.
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 rented land further up Suriwongse Road toward the modern-day Rama IV Road. The new Clubhouse was opened in 1910 on a square of land accessed from Suriwongse Road by a Soi (lane), which had the Danish owned Siam Electricity Company’s Bangkok Lawn Tennis Club on its east side, another small Soi with a small Khlong (canal) running along its west side leading down to Khlong Silom, waterways still being the main mode of transportation in those days.
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.
On 10th January 1923, the British War Memorial was unveiled at the Ploenchit gate end of the driveway to the new British Legation, on the corner of Ploenchit and Wireless Roads. The service led by the Reverend R.J. Hitchcock and attended by His Britannic Majesty’s Minister Robert Greg with His Serene Highness Colonel Prince Amoradat Kritakara and Major-General Phya Pijaijarnrit representing His Majesty King Vajiravudh of Siam. This monument paid tribute to the 25 men of British descent living in Siam who gave their lives in the Great War. The full Legation opened in 1926, was upgraded to an Embassy in 1947, partially sold off in 2006 and finally sold in 2019. The new Embassy is due to open in AIA Tower in South Sathorn Road in 2020.
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.
A New beginning
After the end of the Second World War, there was some local confusion over the ownership of the premises, which was initially given to the YMCA, fortunately the Club was lucky in that its two land deeds (‘chanotes’) were mortgaged to the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank and thus survived the war: the Clubhouse itself was, however, not so lucky as the departing Japanese Army did excessive damage to the fabric of the property.
It took a number of months, but eventually former member Brigadier Victor Jacques CBE DSO MC & Bar obtained the deeds from the bank and ownership was restored. Victor Jacques was a retired military man from the First World War who was a partner at local law firm Tilleke & Gibbins. At the start of the war in Asia, he re-joined the British Army in India and was attached to the Free Thai Movement. After the liberation of Bangkok, he became British Commander here and then re-joined Tilleke & Gibbins. Upon returning to civilian life, he called together as many past Club members as he could and set about re-establishing it. He also wrote the first post-war Constitution, served as Chairman until 1947 and set the Club on track to its first century. As part of the War reparations paid by the Siam Ministry of the Interior to the Club, the Club imported two billiards tables made by Messrs W. Jelks & Son of Holloway, London for the grand cost of £528 5s 6d, one of which is still in use today.
Part of a community
The Club has always been conscious of its being part of the greater community within Bangkok. Thus in 1948 the Club was the major organiser of a Joint Charity Fair to raise funds for Thai charitable causes; The fair was repeated frequently over the next decade and it became known as the Ploenchit Fair when in 1957 it moved to the British Embassy. The Ploenchit Fair continues to this day but, sadly, no longer in the Embassy Grounds, which have themselves been largely sold off.
In the sixties the Club expanded its offering with four of the Tennis Courts being turned into the present day poolside offering adult and children’s swimming pools, a poolside pavilion and our first squash court. The seventies saw the opening of the dining room, the kitchens and a second squash court. In the eighties, the Silom and Surawong Salas were opened as was a third squash court and the clubhouse internal rooms were redesigned to give birth to the ‘Churchill Bar’ and the ‘Lord’s Dining Room’, with the ‘Wordsworth Lounge’ opening on the first floor offering somewhere quieter than the bar. A Fitness Centre opened in 1990.
A Club for all
The history of the Club is well documented after WWII with the entire minutes archive surviving. These minutes outline the growth of various aspirations within the Club such as the idea of building a swimming pool, of expanding membership beyond persons of Britain descent, and even the (then outrageous) idea of permitting females to hold membership. It can never be said that the old Committees ever rushed things as these ideas took twenty, thirty and forty years respectively to actually come about, forcibly contested on both sides on all issues.
The Post-War years saw a lot of changes in Bangkok, and within the Club. In the sixties as the now lost Dusit Thani Hotel took to the skies as Thailand’s tallest building, the Club developed and expanded its offering with much of the Tennis Court land being turned into the present-day poolside offering both adult and children’s swimming pools. The seventies saw the opening of the dining room and the kitchens, and in the early eighties, the Silom and Suriwongse Salas were opened and the clubhouse internal rooms were redesigned to give birth to the ‘Churchill Bar’ and the ‘Lord’s Dining Room’, with the ‘Wordsworth Lounge’ opening on the first floor offering somewhere quieter than the bar. A Fitness Centre opened in the 1990s.
The Club membership was also changing: The Club was re-founded after the war with only “Gentlemen of British Descent” being allowed membership. In the seventies this was changed to allow four core nationalities of British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian as well as a limited number of other nationalities to be permitted to join as Associate Members. In addition, the eighties saw women being allowed to hold membership in their own right – the days of the British male bastion were gone, forever! Indeed, as a direct consequence of the membership changes, the Club was able to reciprocate with other membership clubs throughout the world and by 2019 the Reciprocal Club Network was exceeding 420 in number across 57 countries.
The major event of the nineties was the Asian financial crisis, which nearly bankrupted the Club as companies drastically reduced their expatriate staff numbers and thus membership rapidly declined. The Club, however, did not close by increasing the number of non-core nationality members allowed, so that now with the Club there are members of 50 different nationalities.
A new century and a century reached
As the Millennium bug failed to bite (or is that byte?), the Club moved into a new century and began looking back at its history as it approached the year of its centenary – 23rd April 2003. Planning for the Club’s centenary started in the late nineties and the majority of the work was done in the final year. The first major task undertaken was the commissioning of a Centenary Book, which was written by local author and Club member John Hoskins, and which covered not only the 100 years of the Club’s history but also took a look at British interests in Siam since the early traders landed here in 1612. The book was honoured by congratulatory letters from the late H.M. King Bhumiphol of Thailand and H.M. Queen Elizabeth II of the Commonwealth Realms (including United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand).
The book was launched in the summer of 2003 at Gala Party on the Club’s front lawn attended the then British Ambassador Lloyd Barnaby Smith, who presided over ‘Hundred Minutes’ of free drink … a very British way of celebrating!
Full Steam Ahead
The first Hundred Years saw a slow pace of change for a world which itself moved slowly – the next hundred years would no doubt progress faster and further.
In 2005 the Club saw the election of a woman, Angela Daniel, as the Club’s chairman – the first woman in 102 years – something the founders would never have envisaged in their just post Victorian world, and in 2007 the first non-British person took the chairmanship in the person of Dr. Stuart Blacksell, an Australian. Since the early post-war days, the Club has always opened its doors to community groups, and in 2005 we made this “official’ by creating a constitutional entity called ‘Associated Groups’ – community organisations that are allowed to use the Club premises on a regular basis – from the Loyal Societies to BAMBI (Bangkok Mothers and Babies International), from the Bangkok Music Society to the Society of Professional Engineers in Thailand – over thirty five groups in all.
In 2006 the Club sought to reinvent its positioning in the expatriate market after recognising increased competition from bars, restaurants and health clubs, and it became marketed as “an International Club for Family and Friends”. Also, in 2006, a Club Development Master Plan was agreed by members to reflect this more familial orientation. Unfortunately, this plan was poorly delivered by contractors and project managers – the first phase saw the ‘Churchill Bar’ move into the ‘Lord’s Dining Room’, and ‘The Verandah’ café took over the old Churchill Bar, but neither was to members’ satisfaction and far exceeded the budgets. The remainder of the Master Plan was abandoned.
2006 was also the year that saw one third of the British Embassy sold off, to form the Central Embassy shopping mall, and the British War Memorial was moved to its second home, directly in front of the British Ambassador’s house in the Embassy grounds.
In 2008 an All-Weather Court was added to the Club’s facilities.
A New Position
In 2006 the Club faced stiff increased competition from bars, restaurants and health clubs and repositioned itself as “an International Club for Family and Friends”. As part of this effort, but amidst much controversy, the locations of the Churchill Bar and the restaurant were swapped in 2007 to give children back-lawn access, the latter rebranded as The Verandah. In 2008 an All-Weather Sports Court was added to the back-lawn.
New Life & New Facilities
As we approached the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, membership was starting to decline once again. Expatriates coming to Thailand were no longer executives on huge salary packages which included a Club membership but were here on one- or two-years contracts, often working in education or on a consultancy basis … the Club needed to change to stay relevant. Thus in 2010 we launched an Annual Membership scheme enabling both those on short term appointments to join the Club and those on lower salaries to “join over six years”. Annual Membership was an amazing success, bringing new life and energy to the Club and to date almost 15% of our Club membership are Annual Members. With this surge of ‘new life’ came the opportunity to re-evaluate where we are in the “market-place” so in celebration of its Ninth Cycle of Existence (108 years) in 2011, the Club relaunched itself as “the social, sports and cultural centre for the English-speaking community in Bangkok”, emphasising what differentiates us from all the competition with our membership, our range of facilities, our associated and community groups, our traditions and our history.
The year 2012 was a magnificent year both in the history of the Commonwealth Realm and that of our Club. First of all, it was H.M. Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee year, and in her honour the Club organised a Diamond Jubilee Fête, opening its gates and grounds to Commonwealth citizens, community groups, and businesses. With over 70 community, educational, charitable and commercial stalls offering a vast range of merchandise, activities and services, there was live music, entertainment, pony rides, arts, crafts, games, food and refreshments for all who attended. The British Ambassador led the toasts to both the Thai and British monarchs respectively, and over 1,000 people enjoyed the afternoon and evening which included UK Diamond Jubilee celebrations live from London on television projected on the Back Lawn. Secondly, it was the London Olympic games which saw our country do proud, and finally and most significantly, the Club, after decades of expatriate male management took the bold step forward of appointing Mrs Premrudee Tanyaluck as the first female, and also the first Thai, General Manager.
Also in 2012, the positive effects of Annual Membership coupled with years of good financial acumen allowed the Club to embark on a new direction of ‘Enhancement Maintenance’, and in that year we opened an upgraded Surawong Sala restaurant & bar, a fully retiled and landscaped swimming pool (designed to celebrate the London Olympics), an upgraded poolside kitchen, an enlarged Fitness Centre and restored the back balcony of the Club to its 1910 splendour. A new enclosed Multiple-Purpose Court and a complete refit of the Main Kitchen and Clubhouse upper rooms was completed in 2013.
Conservative plans in 2014 to renovate the rest of the poolside began to court controversy within the Club and the next couple of years saw little improvement in facilities. After a dramatic AGM in 2016, new blood brought in different ideas. The Wordsworth Lounge and 1910 Balcony Bar were turned into a ‘Sports Bar’, and plans were set forth to invest in a brand-new look for the whole of the Poolside. In January 2017, members approved The Silom Wing …
On 27th October 2018, H.E. Brian Davidson, the British Ambassador to Thailand, opened the Silom Wing: two glass-backed international squash courts; an air-conditioned family room with crèche; a Sculpture Garden café; new Children’s swimming pool, playground and Games room and an Interactive Co-workers Lounge. The first phase of the Poolside Redevelopment was complete.
Also, in 2018 saw the annual ‘Living In Bangkok’ expatriate fair move from its home of two decades, the Bumrungrad International Hospital, to the British Club and our first effort saw nearly 2,000 guests and their families visit the Club. In 2019 it will be bigger and brighter.
2019 saw the announcement that the British Embassy in Wireless Road was to close and relocate into AIA Tower in South Sathorn Road. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, with the support of the British Ambassador, agreed to move the ownership of the British War Memorial to the British Club, and it was moved in July 2019. On 29th August the War Memorial was unveiled at its new location by Admiral Anthony Radakin, CB, ADC, the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, accompanied by the British Ambassador, H.E. Brian Davidson and Colonel Roger Lewis, the British Defence Attaché. The first Remembrance Day Service at its new site is scheduled for 10th November.
The Future …
As the Silom Wing settles down, we plan to embark on a plan to renovate the rest of our Poolside buildings to create a new Sports Bar & Sala, a first floor Fitness Centre and improved poolside facilities.
One cannot say what the future holds, except that the British Club Bangkok will strive to meet the needs of the English-speaking community in Bangkok for the foreseeable future and for as long as it is feasible so to do.